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I don't miss Jon Stewart now: Samantha Bee's hard-hitting political comedy just keeps getting better

Her sharp take on "pro-life" history's unambiguous connection to violent outcomes shows how good late-night can be


Scott Timberg
May 24, 2016 8:43PM (UTC)

As viewers continue to voice disappointment about Trevor Noah’s not-terribly political stance on “The Daily Show,” and as unsteady ratings for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” could be leading CBS to take the show in a more conventional direction, political commentary on late-night television is at a strange point. Will Seth Meyers become a great voice on political issues? Can Larry Wilmore keep his ratings from sliding?

The shows that air four and five times a week are an open question. But John Oliver and Samantha Bee have both been hitting hard. And last night’s episode of “Full Frontal” was one of its best yet. Bee has become so strong at both explaining political developments as well as jeering them that some nights, I don’t even miss Jon Stewart.

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The centerpiece of last night’s episode was about the coalescing of the religious right around abortion in the 1970s. This sequence wasn’t just an opportunity to make fun of people who go to church, but an effort with a lot of research behind it.

The key bit of old footage showed Randall Ballmer, a respected professor of religion and Episcopal priest who now teaches at Dartmouth, saying that the abortion issue came out of a political conference call by conservative leaders. “Several people suggested possible issues,” he said, “and finally a voice on the end of one of the lines said, ‘How about abortion?’ ” (Bee compared it to ordering a pizza.)

“Full Frontal” also tracked down an avant-garde filmmaker whose youthful indiscretions involved making what looks like Bergman film for the pro-life movement. (These need to be seen to be believed.) One is called ”Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”, showing eerie figures in mime-like whiteface. Another shows a baby in a cage. And there is a bunch of cartoons that are even stranger than those.

The filmmaker, Frank Schaeffer, who now considers it a big mistake, says that his movies bombed: “Abortion was that thing Catholics worried about,” he recalls. “Most evangelical leaders didn’t want anything to do with it. They wanted to just preach Jesus, they thought politics was dirty, they didn’t want anything to do with it. We had to talk them into it.”

Also interesting: One of the movers behind the effort was Jack Kemp, usually considered a moderate or “bleeding heart conservative." His supporters now mostly talk about his commitments to racial justice and empowerment zones.

Bee closes the segment recounting how this cynical attempt to stir up votes has led to serious violence -- the arsons, bombings, acid attacks, and murders that abortion opponents have unleashed. “Pro life stuff,” he says before signing off for the break.

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Last night’s opening bit was also hilarious, but shows a serious risk for “Full Frontal”: She looks at the debacle of the Nevada Democratic Convention and especially the bad behavior of frustrated so-called Bernie Bros. It’s genuinely appalling. Especially the voicemail messages Sanders supporters left on the state’s Democratic chairwoman’s phone: If you are wondering if sexism among Sanders supporters is for real, please watch this clip.

But it also makes me wonder, as funny as Bee is, and as on-target as “Full Frontal” can be, does she really want to be taking sides so unambiguously? Being a liberal/ progressive satire show makes sense given the huge number of people on that side of the aisle, and because it allows you to argue from a set of principles.

But does Bee – who has praised Hillary Clinton in the past -- really want to be so explicit about supporting a candidate? As someone who’s neutral in the Democratic race, I’d like to see her be as tough on her as she is on Sanders over the next few weeks.

Bee has turned out to be one of the most welcome political voices on American television. Here’s hoping she stays funny and maintains some independence. Oh, and that her staff digs up more of those weird films from the ‘70s – they’re incredibly odd.

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Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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