Over the last hundred-odd years, we’ve seen lots of “first women.” First woman elected to Congress (Jeannette Rankin), first American woman in space (Sally Ride), first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow). But through all these decades of social upheaval and lady-badassery, one particular public forum has remained stubbornly male: late-night TV. The first woman to host her own show was Joan Rivers, whose “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” ran for a short time in the late 1980s. But her breakthrough didn’t exactly open the floodgates for female comedians. Thirty years later, the late-night scene of 2015 could charitably be described as a real sausage fest.
The late night scene of 2016, however, is a (slightly) different story. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” which premiered on TBS in February, is the only currently airing late-night show hosted by a woman. Trailblazing aside, it’s hysterically funny. For a half-hour every Monday, Sam Bee, the longest-serving “Daily Show” correspondent of all time (12 years!), delivers biting riffs and commentary on all kinds of political issues. She talks about abortion restrictions, gun rights and primary voting. She makes fun of Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 campaign strategy, and brainstorms new and inventive ways to describe Sen. Ted Cruz (“stage-four cancer of the personality” and “always looks like he’s covered in a glistening layer of slime”). From a creative standpoint, “Full Frontal” is a great success. From a business standpoint, it looks just as good — TBS has already renewed the show through the end of 2016.
For all the buzz about Bee joining the late-night boys’ club, “Full Frontal” doesn’t resemble the traditional talk show. For one thing, there’s no desk. There are also no guests — just Bee, standing in front of a green screen, making jokes about Sens. Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders and whether or not a Safeway grocery bag can be used as a diaper. So far, her taped interview segments have been phenomenal, ranging from sit-down meetings with Syrian refugees to an investigation of abortion laws in Texas. Taking inspiration from her days as a correspondent, Bee sticks to what she does best: revealing the idiocy and injustice that resides at every level of American life.
The closest companion to “Full Frontal” is probably “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” HBO’s foray into topical comedy. Like Oliver’s, the material Bee presents often falls halfway between journalism and humor, making salient political and moral arguments between jokes and asides. Oliver takes 15-minute-deep dives into topics like credit reports and corruption in FIFA. Bee typically focuses more on domestic policy, crafting intricate takedowns of politicians and other public figures. In one segment, she discusses the enormous backlog of rape kits in the United States, eviscerating public officials who delay the process and let offenders walk free. “Full Frontal” and “Last Week Tonight” have made an art of distilling complex issues into YouTube clips. Investigative journalism is alive and well.
It will probably take a few more female-led shows before the her-story excitement of “Full Frontal” wears off. In 1986, when Joan Rivers debuted, the comedy scene was almost entirely male-dominated. Now, it’s not hard to imagine a young girl watching Sam Bee and feeling like she can do whatever the hell she wants. Yes, she’ll say. I can be a successful comedian. And yes, she’ll say. Ted Cruz does look like he’s covered in a glistening layer of slime.