Power to the punchline: Samantha Bee and Robin Thede

This essay appeared previously on WBUR’s Cognoscenti with several great links.

A few years back, the marquee late-night TV talk shows played a game of musical chairs, which ended with all five hosting seats taken, by a man, by men. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” the latest entry in this elite club, also put a male member behind the desk.

There was grumbling and widespread shoulder shrugging; the boys have hogged the microphone since the beginning of time.

In her new book, “Women and Power,” classics professor Mary Beard describes a scene from Homer’s “Odyssey” in which Odysseus’s wife, the long-suffering Penelope, leaves her room and goes to the great hall where men have gathered to hear a poet singing. When she asks the bard for a happier song, her son, Telemachus, sends her packing. “Go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff. Speech will be the business of men and me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

Beard says that in the ancient world women weren’t simply prohibited from speaking their minds: public speech defined masculinity as a gender. The prospect of a woman addressing a group of men was as unnatural and unsettling as the image of a man nursing a baby.

Times have changed. Mary Beard is not only a professor at Cambridge University; she’s also a BCC television personality.

And there are actually two nighttime comedy talk shows hosted by women. Samantha Bee goes “Full Frontal” on TBS and Robin Thede gallops through “The Rundown” on BET. (God bless Basic Cable.) Chin up, shoulders back, Bee and Thede do the hosting thing on their feet — no desks, no chairs. In a way, it’s just smart optics, a striking contrast to the boys. Or maybe they’re just too pissed-off to sit down.

Thede and Bee begin their respective shows with bright TV smiles that have nothing in common with the familiar Miss America “Please like me” simper. There is, in fact, a demonic gleam in their eyes; an implicit warning of a roller coaster ride fueled by a wit and fury that hell hath not heard the likes of before. Women have always been funny, but these two also own the stage and the rage. Imagine Penelope telling her son to mind his own business and get his ass upstairs before she tells the guys that he still wets the bed.

When I was a teenager, my father — my beloved, left-liberal dad — picked a fight with me by saying (only half in jest) that women lacked a sense of humor. He attributed this infirmity to biology: Women needed to concentrate all our forces on preserving the human race. I said maybe it was just that women and men don’t laugh at the same things, for example, take “The Three Stooges.” Please.

That conversation took place in the last century when there were few female comics on the air. Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley and Joan Rivers were tough cookies who poked fun at sex roles, often with a sharpened stick. They were palatable because they played exaggerated versions of themselves — the ugly clown, the ancient clown, the oversexed clown. But they were part of an advance team that included, among others, Elaine May and Carol Burnett, so that eventually comedian Elaine Boosler could stand up and say, “I’m a human being disguised as a woman.”

Funny women preceded serious women into the journalistic spotlight. There was no all-girl news team until 2004, when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-anchored Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and set a new standard for smart and silly. Then, it was only a matter of seven years before PBS launched the powerhouse team of Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill (may she rest in peace).

Female comics haven’t been unicorns for decades, but Samantha Bee and Robin Thede are something new. As producers of their own shows they are feeling their oats and not mincing words. They skewer the preposterous daily news with as much wit and fervor as the desk set; however, unlike their seated colleagues, Thede and Bee are also laser-focused on women’s issues.

Samantha Bee deserved a Peabody Award for reporting about rape kits going untested for years and even being destroyed before the statute of limitation is reached. And she made it funny. (She also did a great follow-up about one state’s legislative victory over that example of governmental malpractice.)

After 98 percent of black women voters secured Doug Jones’s win in the Alabama race for the senate, Robin Thede held a “You’re welcome, America,” dance party, and had black women of all ages and body types grooving to the news. Thede also took the Democratic Party to the woodshed for forgetting about black people between elections, and then named several black women running for office and challenged folks to get out and vote.

The squeamish may balk at Samantha Bee’s balls-out language. She apologizes for nothing. White viewers may scratch their heads at Robin Thede’s black popular culture references. She provides no translations, although during a recent interview with Seth Myers, she turned to his studio audience, eyebrows arched, and patiently explained that BET stands for Black Entertainment Television.

 Those Greeks were right to be afraid of women’s voices. According to Beard, “Classical writers insisted that the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert … the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state.”

I keep telling you, sisterhood is powerful.


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