Full Frontal With Samantha Bee has been running circles around her late-night peers from her first episode. Those peers are all men, and Samantha Bee and her writers, an unusually diverse group by writers’ room standards, have been joyfully hammering away at the patriarchy since the show first aired a little over a year ago. It’s not all periods and abortion rights, though, with plenty of segments tackling less-gendered issues like gun control and the “alt-right.” If Bee is lauded for breaking new ground simply because she’s a woman heading up a satirical late-night show, that obscures the reality: She’s damn good at what she does. Most episodes have at least one segment that leave me yelling “Fuck yeah!” at the TV, and the clips frequently light up the social media feeds of progressives who are fed up with major media outlets effectively playing dead, unable to figure out how to cover the utterly unprecedented behavior of the current administration. Samantha Bee knows how to do it, and it usually involves a combination of hurtling inventive insults at President Trump and getting liberals worked up over things that have often been seen as women’s issues.
In tonight’s heavily promoted Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bee and her writers paid tribute to the press that often frustrates her viewers (though she got in plenty of jabs at CNN), making for an uneven episode that, while largely enjoyable, was full of softer-hitting pieces that made progressives feel good (mostly) instead of getting them constructively angry. In the regular Full Frontal season, Bee has done outstanding work on longer Trump-adjacent bits, like interviewing Russian internet trolls or Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef. The incisiveness and depth she brings to those segments were somewhat lacking tonight—nothing quite like, say, an interview in her underground bunker at Soul Cycle, or talking to a room full Syrian refugees.
The terrific cold open, helmed by Allison Janney taking no nonsense at a White House press conference, was a glimpse of what is and what might have been. Compare C.J. Cregg to Sean Spicer, but also, god, how has the Trump Administration allowed “rancid women-haters” and assorted far-right “journalists” into the press corps? (The answer is a particularly disheveled racist masquerading as a shadow president, but still.) Janney’s Sorkin-esque monologue set the tone for the episode: There would be jokes, but also a genuine appreciation for the free press (while we still have it). Peaches, wearing some kind of Björkian leotard, and her all-woman band introduced Bee with Full Frontal theme song “Boys Wanna Be Her,” a song that works a little better as a theme than in full.
Janney/CJ promised a full hour of Bee talking about vaginas, but instead we got an hour-long mix of pre-produced segments, Trump insult humor, and a running joke of Bee hosting White House Correspondents’ Dinners over the last 151 years. (Line of the evening: “Woodrow Wilson, whatta cunt.”) It could have gotten old (and it did, a little bit, at the extended Clinton bit—after all, how many more blowjob/sexual harassment jokes are there to make?), but leave it to Samantha Bee to work in a jab at a long-dead president’s failure to so much as acknowledge the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. Granted, maybe this wouldn’t have hit quite as hard if we didn’t live in a country, and with a president, that regularly chooses to look the other way at other human rights’ atrocities (like those involving black people, trans people, and Syrian refugees, to name a few).
With the Committee To Protect Journalists as the event’s beneficiary and guests of honor, Full Frontal took on an unusually uplifting tone in places, with segments shouting out smaller newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times (it’s not mentioned in the segment, but the Tampa Bay Times funds the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact website); The Weather Channel, and not just for its penis-shaped cold fronts; the poor bastards running Slate’s Trumpcast; and Teen Vogue, unlikely leader of the teen resistance. By the end of the evening, comedian Amy Hoggart was imploring the audience to just buy a fucking newspaper already. Not the gleeful patriarchy-smashing episode one often gets from Full Frontal, though one can hardly argue with ”buy a fucking newspaper subscription already.”
One of the evening’s biggest disappointments came in the surprising form of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. Bee teased a special guest—calling back to last September, when half of cable television allowed themselves to be played by candidate Donald Trump, who promised “a major statement” about his loud-mouthed support of birtherism, but instead just opened a hotel. When Ferrell sauntered out, cigarette in hand, it played a more like a redemption tour for Dubya (“How do you like me now?”), perhaps not the best sentiment for Bee to be peddling 100 days into the most damaging presidency of modern history. It’s always a pleasure to see Ferrell’s Dubya impression—except when it undermines the good work Bee and her team have done to expose Trump for the plague of murderous locusts that he is.
With the interstitial presidential roasts coming full circle—the roasts of both Woodrow Wilson and future president Mike Pence were introduced by “Mrs. Jason Jones,” the latter involving a terrifying costume that evoked some brainwashed sister-wife living in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale—George Takei gave Bee an alternate-reality film reel (sure, why not), and we got a bittersweet look at what might have been. Yes, a Hillary Clinton presidency might have been boring and full of complicated policies, but, as comedian Retta pointed out in an earlier segment, Trump’s gonna kill us all.
- Nice touch with Bee parodying Bill O’Reilly’s infamous, epic “Play us off? What does that mean? Fuck it, we’ll do it live” rant from Inside Edition.
- There were lots of other great details, too—Bee wore suffragette white, and there was a good meta joke with Jake Tapper calling her “the pride of Toronto” after she’d congratulated him on a previous show for throwing shade at “pride of Janesville” Paul Ryan.
- Allison Janney confirming that, yes, women are all witches and we can decimate you with our eyes: Where can I sign up?
- I’m on the board of The Society Of Editors, and Ashley Nicole Black’s ”Let’s hear it for the goddamn copy editors!” had me fist-pumping the air. Silently, of course.
- My other favorite quote: “Trump is the Fyre Festival of presidents.”
- The year is 2017. There were two (two!) Birth Of A Nation jokes in one hour. The worst part is… they worked.
- Celebrity cameos are often annoyingly predictable, but the mid-episode comedian montage was great, particularly Kumail Nanjiani joking about Trump not denouncing hate crimes, and Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito making fun of Trump for taping his tie.
- The alternate-reality ending was really a mixed bag, wasn’t it? The bit about the lines to the ladies’ restroom being long because Hillary’s entire staff was there got me a little sniffly, but the “I almost wish Trump had been president” line dried up my sinuses immediately.
- Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner raised nearly $200,000 for the Committee To Protect Journalists. Well done.