Since the start of the seemingly never-ending 2016 presidential campaign, and especially after Trump took office (oh shit, can we go back to that never-ending campaign?), the structure and role of late night television have seen a huge shift. In such a divisive and high-stakes election, late night (as well as all forms of entertainment) had no choice but to become political. As they chose a side (cough, the left), most hosts saw a surge in their ratings.
On average a couple million people tune in daily to watch their favorite late night show. Even in the age of cord-cutting and “stream anytime,” late night remains appointment TV for many. For others, they may watch Seth Meyer’s “A Closer Look” or John Oliver’s main segment the next day to stay informed and have a laugh.
Since there’s no escaping the news, late night has been able to provide much-needed comic relief, causing hosts such as Stephen Colbert to see the effect of what’s being called the “Trump Bump.”
For such a long-standing and large platform, late night has been surprisingly slow to catch up with the times. White men, mostly named James/Jimmy, dominate the slot with only recently, black men, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah, entering the mix. Not until last February did a woman finally join the ranks, Samantha Bee on TBS (one of the few to ever be included in the coveted lineup).
This is not the first time we’ve seen female comedians get political (eg. Tina Fey on Weekend Update) or have a biting late night show (Chelsea Handler on E!). Joan Rivers even held the title of Late Show host on Fox in 1986. Stacked against Johnny Carson who was already beloved by fans and advertisers, her reign was short lived. But this moment in time, with the political landscape, liberal outrage and resurgence in the feminist movement, women are beginning to carve out their dynamic space in the late night arena.
The full power of this election on late night, and female comedians, in particular, can be directly seen in Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s ratings. After Trump was elected, Full Frontal’s ratings went up 98 percent (far more than any of her male counterparts) to 4.3 million people per episode, on average (across TV and platforms).
Bee also hosted the extremely successful Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this past Saturday, which was a celebration of journalism and the free press. The event, originally supposed to take place at a smaller venue, moved to the DAR Constitution Hall because of the overwhelming demand for tickets. The night, which included Bee’s quick-witted comedy, special guests, such as Will Ferrell reprising his role as George W. Bush, and taped segments, including one that imagined an alternate world where Hillary Clinton won the presidency, garnered immense attention and praise.
This is the time to foster this momentum to cement women’s place in this late night lineup that has proven a constant through the years and reaches the United States at large (compared to great shows with women leads like Broad City, but whose reach is mostly limited to big cities). Reaching beyond the liberal bubble would ideally create dialogue across the aisle, resulting in greater change.
Samantha Bee has proven a powerful and successful force to lead this charge.
Her show is unique and especially poignant for several reasons. She is further left than any of the other hosts. Although most of the other shows are liberal, she by far goes the furthest in expressing her opinion. Her refusal to hold back leads to an authentic and cathartic half-hour.
And she’s mad. Oh boy, is she mad (there is no hair-tossing to be seen here). And thank God. It’s not that you have to agree with every million-miles-a-minute joke she makes at the expense of the Trump administration, but her anger is welcome because there’s plenty to be angry about. She asks her audience to not only be mad but to be active. She fuels them to vote in local elections and call their representatives (we have major room for improvement).
Similar to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, her show airs weekly and doesn’t include celebrity interviews. This gives her and her writers more time to delve into a couple specific topics, and, without bringing on celebrities, she gets to cut the promotional fluff and stick to politics. Her jokes are scathing and substantive providing in-depth looks to her young audience (18-34 years old) on some of the most important stories of the week.
But one of the most significant things she does is make “women’s issues” inseparable from “general politics,” a trend that needs to be continued by the women that build up this new space. Making them one in the same puts us all on the same team and the fight in all of our hands.
Other shows, outside of late night, are also recognizing the power of female comics. Saturday Night Live, which is having its most-watched season in 24 years and has the attention of the President, is the clearest example. Kate McKinnon has had a breakout year, portraying Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions. Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Sean Spicer was an instant sensation leading to an outcry for more women to play members of Trump’s staff.
Another Daily Show alum, Jessica Williams, has also used the uncertainty of the time to her advantage. In her final taped piece for The Daily Show, she interviewed Bernie Sanders’ supporters who had decided to vote for Trump, finding humor in their hypocrisy. She received high praise and millions of views for this segment.
Williams has since then been developing a new half-hour comedy with Comedy Central that focuses on a politically minded young woman.
Women in late night have been long overdue. But now the role seems even more pertinent to elevate women in TV, politics and beyond. In a time of frustration, uncertainty, and a need for humor, women’s voices are being looked to. In a medium that has such a wide reach, Samantha Bee and female comedians are stepping up to be heard.
Written by Jill Barkman
Featured Image by The Daily Beast