Election 2016

Samantha Bee Is Jon Stewart’s Real Heir: Finally, the 2016 Campaign Has the Satirist We So Desperately Need

Noah's "Daily Show" is generally toothless, Colbert's playing to the masses on CBS. Samantha Bee is taking down the right.

Photo Credit: screen capture/YouTube

Ever since Stephen Colbert retired his pundit persona and went over to host “The Late Show” on CBS and Jon Stewart passed his job as host of “The Daily Show” to Trevor Noah, we have all wondered who would step up to fill the void.

Stewart and Colbert were arguably the two most important political comedians in our nation’s history. They played a crucial role in helping the U.S. public navigate the post-9/11 meltdown when bluster and hype took over for reason and logic.  They offered sharp satire in the face of stupidity and evil.

So we all had reason to worry when they left us as we entered into the current presidential race—a race that continues to astonish and continues to demand the satirical insights of irony, wit, parody and puns. That was at least until Samantha Bee entered the fray.  Her new TBS show “Full Frontal” promises to offer the exact sort of political comedy this electoral race demands.

Sure, Colbert has not abandoned his role as a political satirist, offering weekly interventions that are both funny and sharp.  And sure we still have “The Daily Show,” but with Trevor Noah at the helm, the best segments have come from the show’s correspondents. And then there’s John Oliver, whose “Last Week Tonight” continues to offer fresh and insightful political comedy.

The finest TV satire thus far this electoral season has come from Larry Wilmore on “The Nightly Show” and Lee Camp on “Redacted Tonight.” They each balance their comedy with well-founded frustration at the political circus and the media spectacle that feeds off of it.

While Wilmore brings much-needed attention to identity politics and Camp underscores the ties between capitalist greed and the U.S. political oligarchy, it is Bee who is offering the edgy, angry, smart satire that is the perfect foil to this election. Bee’s comedy trades in a sharp use of language and a refusal to let the prevailing mainstream narratives hold sway.

Her irony is like a dagger that jabs right into the exact spot we need it most. On her first show she began: “People, I have to be honest with you. We wrote like two hours of jokes about Democrats but we had to throw them all out because then the Republicans laid out a banquet of all-you-can-eat crazy.” The thing is, that sort of statement has been said by plenty of folks –comedians and otherwise.  But Bee’s delivery had the right ironic, snarky tone to jolt an audience that had likely become numbed to our political reality.

Much will be made of the fact that Bee broke into the boys club as the first female comedian to host a late-night comedy show. And her success as a female comedian is significant. But the reason Bee’s show is so important is because of her mode of humor, not her gender.

Her show has a healthy dose of feminist comedy, but arguably she doesn’t have to be a woman to offer that. Camp recently did a smart segment on sexism, for instance. Bee’s feminist interventions are important because they are the perfect balance of angry, ironic and smart.  Focusing less on the hypocrisy and “bullshit” that was often the target of Stewart, Bee zeroes in on how hypocrisy is used to cover up injustice. And she takes the characteristic WTF of Stewart’s comedy to a whole new level.

With “Full Frontal” Bee plays with the double meaning of the term—swapping the vulnerability and sexual objectification of full frontal nudity with a full frontal assault. Given the stakes in this election campaign and the real possibility that we could have a commander in chief with absolutely no experience in either government or the military, Bee’s satire-as-attack is exactly what we need to expose the stakes in this electoral war.

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclennen65.

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