This recurring column was conceived as an explainer of sorts: a way to wade through the sea of headlines in what might as well be the epoch of “Big Brother: White House Edition” — and to come through to the other side with an understanding of how pop culture, power and politics influence one another. Comedian Samantha Bee expertly spins a tale of all three every week on her TV show, “Full Frontal,” so I figured: Why not ask her how she does it?
See, here’s the thing: Bee isn’t joking. Not really. Sure, the late-night host has “comedian” baked into her job description, but the topics she takes on — homelessness, family separation, xenophobia, the recent restrictive abortion laws sweeping the nation — aren’t exactly funny. She describes her work this way: “It’s not a spoonful of sugar, because our comedy is not all that light and sugary.” But it’s definitely medicine she’s shoveling.
Currently, nine states have passed bills this year that limit access to abortions or make the procedure effectively illegal (e.g., Alabama). So how do you take something so crushingly important and turn it into a digestible punchline?
“It can be really difficult,” said Bee in a recent phone interview from her office in New York. It’s disheartening to be a news junkie today, she explained, and it’s her job to “carve a comedic path through it.”
“People are feeling it in the streets, this fatigue, and they’re angry,” she said of the attack on abortion rights. “We just have to process it and make comedy out of it.” Time and time again, laughter makes a statement. Laughing at an issue underscores its ridiculousness and creates a valve to let off steam. In Bee’s case, collective laughter weaves itself into a rallying cry: resist.
Bee dedicated a recent opening segment of her show to antiabortion developments and the legislators who “really, really need to get your facts straight.” The theme was “Sex Ed for Senators,” specifically men like Ohio state Rep. John Becker (R), who, according to Bee, “hates logic as much as he hates women.” In an interview with Cincinnati Public Radio, Becker had discussed a nonexistent medical procedure for an ectopic pregnancy, saying a fertilized egg that implanted outside the uterus can be re-implanted. His ignorance, said Bee on her show, “is going to kill people.” (“I’m not in the habit of commenting on foul-mouthed cable TV so-called ‘comedians,’ ” Becker wrote in an email to me. He stood by his statements.)
It was funny sad. It’s sad when a comedian has to spend 10 minutes explaining the human body to those — cough, men, cough — in power. “The comedy is not necessarily obvious,” said Bee, who coined the term “shame tadpoles” (look it up) on the sex-ed edition of her show. “You’ve got to dig pretty deep, but it’s worthwhile.”
She described the show’s pitching process as “creative jam sessions,” where the staff “tosses around ideas about really dire stuff.” Bee’s writing team is about half women and half men. “Everybody’s on the same page when it comes to the female human body,” she said. There was no question in the writer’s room that a woman’s right to abortion is a human rights issue. No dude raises their hand and says, “yeah but,” in the world Bee created. “This would be a terrible work environment for anyone who couldn’t comprehend why [abortion rights are] a big deal,” Bee noted.
It’s also a big deal that Bee is the only woman hosting a late-night show in all of TV land. But being the only representative from her gender doesn’t weigh too heavily on the comedian’s shoulders. She told me she’d be dedicating hours to abortion rights “regardless” of her gender. “I don’t,” she said, “feel a different responsibility because I’m the last woman standing.”
Helena Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.