Samantha Bee will call you out: Her take on Trump, NBC, and election absurdity

CREDIT: TBS
CREDIT: TBS

Samantha Bee starts her morning reading the New York Times. Which means that, on Wednesday morning, the Full Frontal host had, as she put it, “an interesting wake-up”: Ross Douthat’s column, “Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem.

Douthat accuses Bee and “the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism” of being a wall, not dissimilar from the one Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump swears the Mexicans will pay to build to separate their country from our own, between Hillary and the White House. On a conference call with reporters later that day, Bee described her reaction to the piece, sarcastically, as a relief.

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“It’s so good to know that we’re the problem and not racism!” she said. (Is it possible to hear someone’s eyes roll? If so, imagine that sound now.) “So glad that someone finally figured it out!”

She compared Douthat’s claim to “that idea of, ‘stop pointing out that your uncle is molesting your children, you’re upsetting the family.’” Then she added, “I’ll probably have it framed.”

On screen, Bee is a one-woman hilarity-and-catharsis machine; behind the scenes, her team includes fellow Daily Show alum, showrunner Jo Miller, and a writers room that, unlike the overwhelming majority of comedy and late night writers rooms, is remarkably diverse. Since debuting in February, Bee’s Full Frontal has more than lived up to the promise of its theme song: The boys wanna be her, the girls wanna be her. She is incisive, funny as hell, full of fury, simultaneously exhausted and energized by the astonishing what-the-fuckery that has characterized this seemingly endless election cycle.

She is consistently, blisteringly funny, though she said these campaigns haven’t been funny since way back when 173 people were elbowing their way toward a GOP nomination that, for all the real Republican hopefuls, would never come. “Probably my favorite tragicomic moment was in the primaries, when they didn’t know when to come onstage,” she said. “It was the GOP debate, and they were all swimming around backstage trying to find their way out. I consider that to be the finest in tragicomedy. But it hasn’t been that funny ever since.”

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Full Frontal will air on Wednesday next week, bumping back a couple of days so it can respond to Monday night’s presidential debate, the first of the season. “We begged TBS to let us do the show” after the debate, she said, “Because we want to watch it and we’d love to be able to respond to it,” and TBS was more than game.

Bee’s latest headlines came from her reaction to Trump’s interview with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. The “interview” consisted largely of Fallon tousling Trump’s hair. On Full Frontal, Bee tore into NBC for “tacitly condoning a race-baiting demagogue.”

“Trump can be a total sweetheart with someone who has no reason to be terrified of him,” Bee went on. “I noticed there were no cutaway shots to The Roots. I wonder why.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Bee hadn’t heard from anyone associated with Fallon’s show. The segment was one “I put a tremendous amount of thought into,” Bee said.

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“We love Jimmy. I’m a fan of Jimmy. It’s not really a Jimmy thing,” she said. “For me, it was more of an NBC thing, to be perfectly honest with you. And coming right on the heels of that Matt Lauer interview, we were just done. Just done with these gossamer-light interviews of this person and the normalization of deplorable. We’ve just had it.”

“[Trump] said Mexicans are rapists, and then [NBC] put him on SNL,” she went on. “I’m just tired of it.”

Asked if she felt she was holding Fallon to “too tough a standard,” considering the nature of his program — 98 percent puppets and carnival games, 2 percent Questlove— Bee said, “I don’t think I was holding him to too tough a standard. I actually have more of a qualm with a network that has just provided a platform for [Trump] for so long.”

“Even when The Apprentice was on, he was totally engaged with all that birther nonsense, which to me was the mostly thinly-veiled of thinly-veiled racism,” Bee said. (The Apprentice premiered, like the Obama administration, in January 2008.) Trump’s birtherism “has just grown and grown and grown, until he finally put the issue to bed so beautifully the other day.”

For the millions of Americans who, through circumstance and/or savvier career choices/healthier lifestyles, do not spend every second of the day chugging the 24-hour news cycle straight from the Twitter bottle, appearances like the ones Trump has made on Fallon and SNL have outsize significance.

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“Sometimes, that’s the only impression they get of a candidate and it’s not a reflection of where he stands or who he is,” Bee said. “I think if now is our last chance to see the candidates as they are, I’m tired of having people on shows for great ratings just because you want and need great ratings. I’m tired of the whole process. I think it just needed to be called out. I just feel like they’ve really allowed him to amplify his message in a way that feels so safe and comfortable for so long, and I’m not sure why. And that TV appearance [on Fallon] came on the heels of that Matt Lauer interview, which to me was a disaster, and such a missed opportunity.”

As for media coverage of the candidates more generally, lousy as it has been with false equivalences between, say, controversies over work emails and casual references to the Holocaust, “I think treating the two candidates as equivalent in any way has been incredibly frustrating,” Bee said. “They just can’t be seen through the same lens. They are so completely different… One is so astronomically ahead of the other in terms of experience and knowledge.”

“They’re not really apples and oranges,” she said. “They’re apples and a frisbee.”

Bee hopes that Clinton and Trump will be called upon to “talk about guns in a spirited way” during the debate. Trump “has been out there speaking in very inflammatory language about what he would like to see done with [Clinton’s] Secret Service guns. I think it is a topic that does not get nearly enough attention in the debates.”

Would it be a conversation with a woman in comedy without some commentary on What It Means To Be A Woman In Comedy? Bee, asked what question she would like to take the place of the perennial woman-in-late-night one, said, “I do get asked that question a lot, but nobody ever wants to accept my answer, I guess, which is that I don’t think about it all that much. I feel like everyone wants it to be a deep consideration every day of every moment: My womanness and how it fits into this framework. But I don’t have to think about it because I’m steeped in it. It oozes out of every pore in my body.”

“I don’t think about where I fit into the pantheon of male hosts before me, because I don’t think I fit in,” she said. “I think we’re doing something really different here, and I cherish that… I love it. I don’t like to look to the past. I don’t like to look around me and see what everyone else is doing. I feel like what we’re doing is moving in the direction of the future.”

“Obviously my gender plays into it, because I grew up in this woman’s body and that means something different to me. But we don’t really put the show through the prism of femaleness at all. It just happens. It’s very very natural and organic.”

“Anyway,” she said. “I’m really late-night-adjacent.”