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Samantha Bee Doesn’t Think the Election Is Funny Anymore

The 'Full Frontal' host's presidential debate special is making comedy lemonade out of a particularly sour election.

Screenshot via YouTube

During a recent conference call, I asked Samantha Bee what has been the most comic moment of the election thus far. The Full Frontal host recalled a scene of slapstick confusion, back in the Republican primaries, when the candidates couldn't figure out how to take the stage when their names were called. Ben Carson loitered behind a curtain for five minutes not knowing what to do, and Trump had to be coaxed out three times. "It hasn't been funny since," Bee sighed wearily.


Funny or not, it's Bee's hard-earned job to turn this lemon of an election into comedy lemonade, and she's racking up the ratings making funny out of not-so-funny material. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has been competitive with premium cable shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and won a Television Critics Association Awards last month, ousting stalwart shows like CBS Sunday Morning and Real Time with Bill Maher. Like her mentor at the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, she's blended civic outrage while still reveling in the grotesque insanity of it all. Her Wednesday night debate special captured the agony and occasional ecstasy of covering the presidential gladiator contact sport.

The most frustrating part of coverage in this election, Bee continued, is the fact that the media "treats the two candidates as equivalent in any way. They aren't apples and oranges; they are apples and a Frisbee."

Bee's hardball attitude toward mainstream media's attempts at election non-bias has made headlines. Most recently, she garnered the wrath of conservative pundit Ross Douthat over her criticism of fellow late-night host Jimmy Fallon's glad-handing of Trump, during the candidate's Tonight Show appearance earlier this month. That same day, Bee told reporters that she was really taking NBC to task for continually providing a platform for the candidate—from The Apprentice, when he was embroiled in birther conspiracy theories, to hosting SNL shortly after he'd called Mexicans rapists, and finally the disastrous Matt Lauer interview. "I'm tired of enabling them to make it look like this is just a guy who likes to have fun," she said. "We'd just had it."


What comes through on Bee's show and even in her call-out of Fallon and NBC is that she takes the potential devastation of a Trump presidency very seriously. With her trademark knit-together-eyebrows and biting commentary, she can laugh through gritted teeth. But as we inch toward November, outcomes are far from certain, and increasingly farther from funny.

Monday's debate presented a unique moment in the way most Americans consume media—one in which we all had to emerge from our respective ideological hiding holes and consume the same 99 minutes of live television, rather than the usual wind tunnel of our choosing that reinforces our worst fears. And even though Bee operates within what many critics call the "echo chamber" of liberalism, that's not something she's happy about. "I feel sad actually, that you can exist in your own tiny bubble," she said. "Your entire worldview can be customizable and that's a pretty dangerous place to be."

And yet with ratings for the debate setting viewership records, the latest poll numbers between the Apple and the Frisbee are hardly a gaping chasm.

What is a hilarious yet scared shitless late night host to do?

In Wednesday night's debate special, Bee and her Full Frontal team pulled out a dizzying balance of gravitas and cutting humor. Opening with an image of Lady Liberty with a gun to her head, Bee proceeded to refer to the debate as "the 90-minute lull between police shootings of black men." One of the most nationally embarrassing media moments was a supercut Full Frontal assembled of cable news pundits speculating how Hillary could win the debate with a smattering of useful tips: "She can't shout." "She can't cough." "She can't condescend." Or as Bee so succinctly distilled their admonishments: "Save us from fascism, but don't be a bitch about it." And she came with the zingers: "Hillary mopped the floor with Donald Trump like she's an undocumented Honduran housekeeper at Mar-a-Lago."

In an effort toward bridging that highly curated news wind tunnel Bee decried earlier, she sent her field correspondents out to report from bars on the opposite coasts of Manhattan, or as the announcer's voiceover bellowed, "We wanted to know what both Americans were thinking during the debate." The brilliant Ashley Nicole Brown patrolled the historic Stonewall Inn in the West Village and Allana Harkin embedded at the Tonic sports bar in Midtown with the pleated-front khaki Republican contingency. Harkin asked a pallid man in a Make America Great Again cap what he thought Hillary would wear, and he predicted, "A pantsuit, a bulletproof vest, and a catheter," due to her failing health. When Brown asked a Hillary supporter what would be in a Donald Trump cocktail he offered, "Piss." Concern with candidates' urinary tracts unites a divided country.

The show's watershed moment was connecting two supporters from either camp on a split screen to postmortem what they saw. Naturally, each saw wildly distinct victories. The Trump supporter cheered, "He schooled her, no argument!" and the Stonewall patron pressed his crosstown interlocutor to cite a single policy issue his candidate put forth. The exchange unraveled into mutual bewilderment and mockery. But it was a dialogue—in the dictionary definition of two humans speaking to each other, however briefly. In this election cycle, perhaps no more than any before, just a moment of exchange seems to be the tallest order and the most charged. Bee will always give us a laugh, even in the grimmest of times.

Or, as Bee put it, "I don't see comedy as being apolitical. What I do is something different." Forcing us to confront our political adversaries face to face might be her best contribution yet.

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