In 2017 it’s hard to think of a more appropriate comedian to host the White House Correspondents Dinner than Full Frontal's Samantha Bee. A lavish, star-studded event, the Correspondents Dinner is often hosted by a comedian not afraid to serve it up to the President – who, as one of the guests, has to sit there and take it. And no-one’s been serving it up to Trump like Bee, who memorably once referred to him on Full Frontal as “a tangerine-tinted trash can fire”.
But with President Trump already having a well-beyond-frosty relationship with the press and a skin so thin it’s non-existent, letting Bee get within a thousand meters of him seems a little unlikely. Which is why she’s just announced that on April 29th – the same day as the Correspondents dinner – she’ll be hosting a rival gala called “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” across town at Washington’s Willard Hotel. Celebrities and journalists will be invited to attend; President Trump will presumably be busy that night.
This divide between the two events underlines one big problem for shows like Full Frontal in the age of Trump: at what point does protest turn into just talking among yourselves? After all, the whole point of having a comedian host the White House Correspondents dinner is that they get to make jokes about the President to the President’s face – doing it in a different room in a different hotel on a different block kind of defeats the purpose.
The current strain of news satire in the US developed out of The Daily Show’s attempts to provide a counter to the direction politics and the media were heading in the months and years after 9/11. While Jon Stewart and his team had been making fun of politics before that, it was the rise and rise of George W. Bush and Fox News that really gave them something to sink their teeth into. But their opposition to Bush developed organically: American news and politics were drifting right and shutting down more centrist voices, so Stewart’s comedy take on issues became an increasingly important outlet for views that otherwise weren’t being heard.
A decade late when Trump began his run for election, comedy voices mocking him and everything he stood for weren’t exactly hard to come by. For every late night show that had him on to playfully tussle his hair, there were two bluntly calling him a right wing nightmare that would lay the country to waste. Samantha Bee and Full Frontal were four square against Trump from day one, telling viewers each and every week that electing him would be a disaster for the United States.
And then he became President anyway.
An online culture has sprung up around shows like Full Frontal and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and even the current, watered-down version of The Daily Show, where the fact these shows tackle important issues is important in and of itself. How many times has a clip from one or the other of them been shared around with a caption like “John Oliver nails it!” or “Samantha Bee totally destroys Republicans!”? That was fine even six months ago. Today, it’s all too obvious that in the real world “nailing it” doesn’t mean very much at all.
But while it’s tempting for some to dismiss these shows because they didn’t somehow prevent the rise of Trump, that was never their job. They might have occasionally had an over-inflated sense of their own importance – did anyone really think calling Trump “Drumf” (according to John Oliver, Trump’s ancestors changed the family name on arrival in America) was going to turn voters around? These shows are comedy first and foremost. And one of the things comedy does best is put a new spin on old facts so that we see them from a different angle.
Full Frontal doesn’t exist to cause political change; it’d be a much less entertaining show if it did. And in 2017, it doesn’t need to tell us what we need to be angry about regarding the current US government – Trump and his allies are doing a very good job of providing us with daily updates on that front. What Full Frontal does best, and what it’ll clearly be continuing to do into the future, is reminding us that the horrible events have a cause (usually Trump), that they can be tackled at that cause (by opposing and mocking Trump), and most importantly of all, pointing out that things don’t have to be this way.
Part of the reason why The Daily Show was so effective a decade ago was because by laughing at the horrible world around it, it let audiences know that what was going on really was as ridiculous and insane as it seemed. Laughing at an awful situation might not change it directly, but it reminds us that these events aren’t the normal way of things and it gives us hope that things can be changed (plus laughing itself is pretty fun just on its own).
Bee has said the idea behind her alternative White House Correspondent’s dinner is “just to do it in the way that we would want it done if we were hosting it”. That’s an example for a better world right there.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee airs Thursdays at 8pm on SBS Viceland. The show can also be streamed on SBS On Demand: