On Wednesday’s edition of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” the host sought to make a point about the U.S. immigration policies under President Donald Trump. Bee ended up striding headlong into a debate around what is and is not acceptable for a TV personality to say, one that’s too easily defined by bad faith and one that Bee should have seen coming.
Referring to Ivanka Trump’s inability to effect change on her father’s policies, Bee referred to the First Daughter and White House official as a “feckless c—.” To call it a punchline would be to suggest the audience laughed at the punctuation; instead, they gasped, screamed, and above all applauded. Bee’s point was, as is perpetually the case with her, amply made and underlined in the most easily understood terms. This time, they included a name that exists at the fringes of acceptability. Already, Bee has been decried by the likes of Megyn Kelly, who called the clip “disgusting,” and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who asked TBS parent company Time Warner to take action to “demonstrate that such explicit profanity about female members of this administration will not be condoned on its network.” Bee eventually apologized, an unexpected step for a personality known for boldly making her case, sometimes in graphic terms.
It’s a storm that’s too easy to compare to one from just two days prior, when ABC ended up firing Roseanne Barr after her racist social media remarks about former Obama administration advisor Valerie Jarrett. Bee’s opinion is short of Barr’s vitriol; the long and grave history of dehumanizing black Americans by comparing them to subhuman primates is vastly more objectionable than one woman using crude slang to describe another. And Barr had a long history of truly offensive, wrongheaded, and outlandish statements dispensed freewheelingly on social media, while Bee’s comment occurred as a consciously chosen bit of provocation within the context of a comedy show in which she harnesses her anger as a tool of advocacy.
Many on the left feel a sort of chilling effect, given the White House’s proven ability to get results when operating against comic enemies. They’ve mastered using the language of the other side of the culture war, doing so in something less than good faith in order to forestall or blunt criticism. Kathy Griffin, for instance, saw her career badly damaged after various members of the President’s family and administration came out against what was a badly underthought visual gag. And Michelle Wolf was the subject of intense scrutiny, and much blowback from the press covering Trump, after she seemed to walk up to the line of insulting Sanders’s appearance in a no-holds-barred roast at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
There’s an argument that this makes Bee’s comment sort of brave — that in being willing to dish schoolyard slang against a member of President Trump’s family, she’s doing what the other side doesn’t want her to. In fact, she’s playing right into their hands. Not that the right was terribly inclined to pay attention to Bee’s segments going forward, but she’s provided them a sound-bite-sized reason to dismiss her going forward. The number of times HBO’s Bill Maher was summoned as an example of a “liberal” host who should be cancelled, seemingly at random, during the “Roseanne” debate by Barr fans on the right proves how powerful this is; Maher isn’t really liberal at all, but he’s someone with a long enough series of botched jokes on his résumé that he can be written off whenever convenient. Bee has hurt her case both in broad general terms and in specific ones — Ivanka Trump, who would likely have ignored Bee’s plea anyway, now gets to both ignore it and be the object of a debate about what’s OK to say on TV in a context that flatters her.
Sure, the rules about whether a woman can call another woman a crude term referring to the female anatomy are debatable, and different than if a man had been involved. If Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers had called Trump that term, this would be a different conversation. But, crucially, they didn’t, and not merely because they knew men shouldn’t use that language about women. Uniquely among late-night hosts, Bee is fueled by passion and vitriol. Others break down the news, she chews it up and spits it in viewers’ faces. This is an approach whose utility is questionable: A show that seemed vibrantly necessary during the 2016 election has come to seem a bit like inhaling from an exhaust pipe this deep into the Trump era. She has to let off steam, but it’s a bit toxic to live with.
If comedy can’t unite — and isn’t trying to — it can at least enlighten or amuse. On the latter point, even Bee’s audience didn’t seem to find the comment funny, exactly; on the former, it in fact came to overshadow the entire point of Bee’s segment. How many people today know that Bee called Trump a nasty expletive who don’t even know that it occurred in a segment about immigration policy?
The genius of Wolf’s set at the Correspondents Dinner, ultimately—the reason it benefited her career rather than harming it — was that she never did, exactly, call anyone ugly; those who decried her were left looking like hair-splitters or Puritans when they couldn’t quite clear up what they’d found so wrong. Bee, by contrast, handed her opponents ammunition to criticize her for the rest of her career. The White House may not be operating in good faith. But in making a play for attention by pulling out one of the nastier words in the arsenal, I’m not confident Bee was, either. Comedy can undermine power by being sharp, shrewd, subversive, or brash—there’s room for all sorts of approaches. But simply cursing it out and waiting for the applause, however cathartic, adds no understanding of anything but how easy it is to score points against a liberal comedian. And we’ve already learned that lesson.