Timing is Everything

Star struck in New Jersey. Montclair Film Festival, December 2017.

We have reached such a pass in the modern world that political truths can only be spoken by comedians. The attacks by the political right on fact-oriented journalism, and on the reality-based community more generally, have created a situation in which political truths can only be spoken with kidding (not kidding) appended to them.

This is a condition in which the critical left has existed for decades. For progressives and garden-variety liberals the situation is more distressing. The idea that the strenuous contestation of ideas in the public sphere might no longer be the coin of the realm, or that serious ideas seriously discussed by serious people would no longer hold sway, is a bitter pill indeed.

For said liberals, the storms of the Trump era have been made more bearable by the political comedy of Samantha Bee. The former Daily Show comedian has distinguished herself in a crowded field of political comedy comprising both well-established figures like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and up-and-comers such as Trevor Noah and Francesca Fiorentini. Since debuting in 2016, Full Frontal with Samatha Bee has become a staple of TBS’s evening lineup, powered by Bee’s combination of incisive political commentary and pleasantly foul-mouthed sarcasm.

Yet she now finds herself in crisis, with rightwing hacks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on down seizing on her description of first daughter Ivanka Trump as “feckless cunt” as having crossed some sort of line. Although Bee has apologised, TBS is facing demands that her show be cancelled. These are being generated with particular vigour by the political right still smarting from ABC’s decision to cancel the second season of Roseanne after its eponymous star emitted a series of racist tweets (and then tried to blame them on Ambien).

The question of whether Bee’s conduct was somehow inappropriate (or whether her comments were apposite) are now being snowed under in a wave of faux outrage from the right. There is, perhaps irony here that Ms. Bee, whose comedic instincts are generally of the highest water, is now suffering from spectacularly bad timing.

Pace the paeans of Professor Habermas and others to the historical robustness of the public sphere, politics has always involved a great degree of spectacle. The transformation of politics in the course of the reign of Mr. Trump and his associates into a series of fetishised images is experienced by the many as a jarring shift, although it has been underway for quite some time.

In any case, it is more of a reversion to type, an expression of the enduring political and cultural norms of the 20th century rather than a new era aborning. There is an important sense in which, for the liberal intelligentsia, the current hour is that of Jon Stewart rather than of Trump.

When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show from the understated Tucker Carlson in 1999, it was a modestly successful show on the modestly successful Comedy Network. Stewart transformed the show into a no holds barred form for political comedy, mostly of a moderately progressive persuasion. His tenure there launched or expanded the careers of Colbert, Steve Carell,  Asif Mandvi, and Rob Riggle, as well as Bee herself and a number of others.

Although Stewart and his colleagues skewered both sides of the aisle, so to speak, it was clear that the approach was at least modestly left of centre. Stewart acknowledged this. In an exchange with bow-tied right-wing media persona Tucker Carlson, Stewart rebutted the claim that the show’s humour was slanted by point out that it was on the Comedy Channel and that the show after it featured “sock puppets making crank calls”.

By the time of Stewart’s departure, the ambit of left of centre comedy had broadened dramatically, with Colbert, Oliver, and Bee all having their own shows. The stakes had also been raised. Although Colbert’s humour was often somewhat muted (his appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner being a notable exception), Oliver and Bee went after their targets with blistering and often profane irony.

Along the way, it became clear that political comedy had changed. Gone were the days of urban and slightly campy figures such as Mark Russell, with his avuncular wit and his vaudevillian piano accompaniments. The new crop of political comedians were and expression of left of centre rage in an era when the systematic assertion of control of American politics at local and state levels was becoming a reality.

The right could never manage to get traction in this field. The humour of right-wing comedians (who are mostly too obscure to merit a name check) mostly came off as the sneering of the white and powerful toward the downtrodden. That turned out to be a face that even few conservatives could love.

The rise of the political comics synergised with Donald Trump’s post-truth approach to politics. With the president and his associates and hangers-on not flinching at the uttering of easily de-bunk-able falsehoods in every public forum, it has fallen to comedians to fill the vacuum of serious political contestation. Bee, Oliver, and the rest are now in the position of speaking in jest truths that cannot be uttered by serious people. Sadly, much as these shows are entertaining, their reach is mostly limited to people who already believe what they have to say, rising beyond only in moments when their utterances cause particular consternation.

And thus it is with Bee’s recent comments with regard to Ivanka Trump. Somehow, a woman calling another woman in public life a cunt crosses a line, but it is very difficult to see exactly where that line would be. The president bragged on a live mic about grabbing women by the pussy, and about leering his way through the dressing rooms at beauty pageants he ran. He treated the boy scouts to a louche narrative more appropriate to a golf clubhouse bar than a scouting jamboree. He intimated that people from Latin America tend to be rapists, and (on a time) sexualised his own daughter. What then are the standards of propriety Ms. Bee has so grossly violated?

The right-wing outrage machine is busily forging equivalences between Ms. Bee’s assessment of Ivanka Trump’s elective failings, and Roseanne Barr’s overtly racist natterings. Indeed, one can hardly imagine Ms. Bee drawing this sort of ire if it hadn’t been for ABC deciding to put its (collective) mouth where its money is and cut ties with Barr.

Unlike Bee, whose political commentaries are generally well researched, Barr had a long history of public crankiness, running from Pizzagate to Pedogate. ABC was apparently willing to overlook this, hoping that the revival of a much-loved sitcom would benefit from a bit of Barr’s out of the box persona. Sadly, Barr was not just out of the box, she was far away, running at full pelt toward the lunatic fringe.

What Bee said was perhaps ill-advised. But it was an opinion about a person in public life, one whose own father had done much to efface the normal standards of what can be unblushingly uttered. And, of course, she then apologised without managing to blame prescription sleep aids or her coworkers.

Still, the freshness of the right’s wounds from Roseanne (guilty only of saying what most of them believe to be the case in any event) have led to a revving up of demands for Bee’s ouster. And it may yet happen. Much as ABC’s decision about Barr had more to do with money than any outrage they may have felt, TBS may also feel that the positives of Bee tenure may now outweigh the negatives.

Two things work to her advantage here. One is that Full Frontal is oriented toward a narrower audience than Roseanne. The latter was meant for general consumption and featured one out lesbian (Sara Gilbert) in the cast and another (Wanda Sykes) on the creative team. The breadth of the show’s reach suggested that Barr’s comments would have a dampening effect on important demographics that the show and its advertisers were trying to reach.

The fact that Sykes had made it clear that she was leaving because of the comments didn’t help either. Full Frontal, by contrast, serves an audience base that pretty uniformly dislikes the president and is at least moderately sympathetic to Bee’s comments. TBS has rather less to lose by trying to weather the storm.

A second factor is that, because the White House is visibly leading the charge to impugn Bee’s comments, the whole thing takes on a somewhat different cast. If TBS were to pull the show at this point, the optic would be that they were bowing to pressure from the show’s political opponents, rather than to their own good sense or some sort of more or less justified objection to the comments themselves.

Between the show’s partisan focus and the fears of an encroaching police state, there may just be a path forward for Bee and her coworkers.

Photograph courtesy of the Montclair Film Festival. Published under a Creative Commons license.