Since the departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show last August, the oft-repeated question has been who would step into his shoes and assume the role of America’s late-night conscience. The incredible evolution of Stewart from journeyman stand-up comedian to his generation’s Walter Cronkite was one Stewart himself mocked because he hosted, as he put it, “the fake news.” Nonetheless, his straightforward breakdowns of political hypocrisy and media obfuscation were a valuable service in an increasingly polarized cable-news world, and his retirement left a vacuum waiting to be filled—perhaps by none other than his former colleague Samantha Bee.
Bee’s TBS show Full Frontal only airs once a week (Mondays at 10:30 p.m.), but unlike her peer John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO, she’s used her platform to quickly and adeptly react to current events with blunt language (Oliver will often zero in on less widely reported topics). Her seven-minute opening monologue addressing the mass shooting in Orlando has already spread across the internet since it aired Monday night—and its power comes from its stark candor. “Is it okay if, instead of making jokes, I just scream for seven minutes until we cut to commercial?” Bee asks. It’s not just okay—it’s exactly what her audience wants.
In this new age of late-night TV, ratings matter less than having an online industry of viral content ready to react to every episode of your show. Dozens of websites got used to simply linking to Stewart’s segments on YouTube as a way to drive easy traffic, and the practice has also become commonplace for Oliver and Late Night’s Seth Meyers (less so for Stewart’s direct successor Trevor Noah, who has struggled to find his voice at The Daily Show). Since its acclaimed launch in February, Full Frontal has merited that kind of online attention, and TBS quickly extended its 13-episode order through the end of 2016. It still only airs weekly, a distinction Bee prefers because it lets her and her writers hone the message of every episode.
The daily grind that Stewart faced at The Daily Show (which aired four times a week) may have contributed to his overall tone, which was far more arch and cynical, only rarely breaking to advocate for causes Stewart thought were particularly underserved (like the plight of 9/11 veterans). Bee is much more direct, and her segment on Orlando forcefully brushed aside the language of “thoughts and prayers” that many politicians lean on in times of crisis, advocating for more direct action.
“Love does not win unless we start loving each other enough to fix our fucking problems,” she said, before laying out clear statistics about America’s lax gun control and its relationship to mass shootings. Bee explored the success of assault-weapons bans in countries like Australia, which enacted them after a series of mass shootings in the ’80s and ’90s, and has seen no mass shootings since. She railed against the wishy-washy speechifying of Florida Governor Rick Scott; she groaned at a particular line from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who said, “This could have happened anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, today was Orlando’s turn.”
“Orlando’s turn? Mass shootings are so normalized now that we’re taking turns?” Bee cries in response. “This wasn’t even Orlando’s first high-profile gun murder of the weekend. Stop thinking, and do something to improve our society!”
In a recent interview with Vulture, Louis C.K. named Bee as the comedian he’s most excited to watch on television, saying that while lots of hosts are “talking about the same shit,” she’s “hitting a chord like nobody else,” an observation he credited to her polemical style, her ability to be fearlessly and unapologetically angry. “All of these guys, even Jon Stewart, who’s a fucking genius, he would get upset but he always stayed cool. Guys like to be a little above it ... Even after ranting, they suddenly calm down and smile,” C.K. said. “But Samantha doesn’t do that.”
Indeed, Bee doesn’t do that—and that’s why her straightforward approach seems refreshing in such polarized political times. Comedians like Stewart helped redraw the lines between comedy and advocacy, and not only is Bee taking up his mantle, but she’s also doing something new with it. In a crowded media world, viewers appreciate directness, even from their entertainers. Bee’s voice stands out precisely because she’s not trying to appeal to broad common denominators. She knows her audience, and she knows how to appeal to them: by speaking loud and clear.