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Samantha Bee is critical for late night TV, but not why you think she is

Ellen Gray, TV Critic

Updated: Saturday, February 6, 2016, 12:00 AM

Samantha Bee.

Just when I'd stopped caring that all the best late-night TV gigs were going to men, along comes Samantha Bee to remind me why it matters.

Jon Stewart, former host of "The Daily Show" (center), with (from left) Wyatt Cenac, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Al Madrigal, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, and Jessica Williams. MARTIN CROOK / Comedy Central
"Full Frontal with Samantha Bee": The weekly half-hour premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday on TBS. ERIC RAY DAVIDSON / TBS
Photo Gallery: Samantha Bee is critical for late night TV, but not why you think she is

And it's not because we need to see women chatting up celebrities or cajoling them into stunts that mask the host's lack of interview chops, or to showcase their musical ones.

I don't expect to see that on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the weekly half-hour that premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday on TBS (the first episode will also be simulcast on TNT, TruTV, HLN, and Adult Swim), if only because Bee's not planning to have guests.

"What we want to do is take stories that we don't think receive enough attention and stab them with the hot poker of comedy," she told reporters last month after rolling a clip of a field piece exploring the Veterans Administration's apparent unreadiness to deal with women injured in combat - or with women soldiers, period.

One thing she discovered, Bee said, is that "there are no words [in the VA computers] for women's body parts, such as vaginas and cervixes - not unlike in the world of late-night television."

(A clip from that piece, in which Bee interviews a woman whose prosthetic foot, made for a man, had to be shaved of its toes and sides to make it the right size, already has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.)

But with no one coming on to promote a TV show, movie, or album, and with a time slot - 10:30 p.m. Mondays, right before Conan - that seems perfect for people who might have things to do on Tuesday mornings, can the former Daily Show correspondent even call herself a late-night host?

It doesn't matter. It's more interesting that Bee is diving deeper into what I'm starting to think of as investigative comedy, a genre that's less about reacting to mainstream news and more about using jokes to draw attention to stories that get overlooked in a Kardashian-driven news cycle.

That's what another Daily Show veteran, John Oliver, does on his Peabody-winning HBO show, Last Week Tonight, which returns next Sunday, and what Adam McKay did in his Oscar-nominated The Big Short, whose comedy-heavy approach to the 2008 financial crisis finally helped me understand credit-default swaps.

Bee's presence in that arena is important, yes, because she's a woman. And if there's anything I've learned in journalism, it's that beyond the fires and the shootings and the elections, the stories that get covered are the ones that matter to the people who do the deciding. Diversity - of gender, race, age, you name it - really does matter.

Just as having a foot that fits matters.

"Women's issues . . . are extremely important to me. It's not going to be the only thing that we talk about on the show, but . . . definitely it's a passion that we will end up delving into," said Bee, whose preparations for Full Frontal involved a trip to Jordan, where she looked into (and maybe tweaked a little) the cultural-orientation classes Syrian refugees take to prepare them to be resettled in the U.S.

Bee and Oliver, who share studio space in the same building as CBS News - where their offices are each one floor away from those of 60 Minutes - insist, as their former Daily Show boss Jon Stewart always did, that what they're doing is comedy, not journalism.

Oliver, whose weekly show employs four researchers, two hired from the New York Times Magazine and two from the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, notes that the stories he mines for comedy, on subjects sometimes as unlikely as net neutrality or civil forfeiture, aren't going unreported elsewhere.

"There is reporting out there. It just takes a bit of truffling out," he said last week during a breakfast with reporters. And while the jokes come last ("You can write jokes quickly, but you can't structure stories quickly"), he does think comedy can help make sense of complex stories.

"I don't at all feel like I'm a reporter," said Bee, "but I enjoy pretending like I can do it. There were definitely times [on The Daily Show] when . . . I would have gone more deeply into a subject than others wanted to."

Now that she's calling the shots, we'll see what she digs up.

graye@phillynews.com
215-854-5950

Ellen Gray, TV Critic

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