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Samantha Bee becomes latest comic forced to play defense

Posted at 9:37 AM, Jun 06, 2018

Samantha Bee is expected to kick off her TBS show Wednesday night addressing the controversy over her use of a vulgarity to describe Ivanka Trump. In the process, she becomes merely the latest purveyor of political humor to get singed by their own red-hot rhetoric since the start of the Trump presidency.

Bee's acerbic commentary on "Full Frontal" has made her a late-night star, and one of the most-quoted anti-Trump voices on television. But as fellow comics Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher and Michelle Wolf have discovered, there is also a contingent eager to pounce on any perceived misstep or instance of "crossing the line," as Bee acknowledged she did in an apology statement, over comedic material that they think goes too far.

Jon Stewart, who hosted "The Daily Show" back when Colbert and Bee were correspondents there, recently suggested that's no accident. During a question-and-answer session in San Francisco over the weekend, Stewart said conservatives consciously push a narrative in which they are the "real victims," adding, "It's a game, it's a strategy, and it's working."

Stewart also noted that watching a comedian "eviscerate" a public figure is essentially a hollow victory and a cheap web headline -- cathartic for those who share such views, but ultimately an impotent expression of their frustration.

"We mistake cultural power for power," Stewart said.

Nevertheless, with Republicans in control of most of the levers of government at both the federal and state level, comedians have become high-profile targets in the culture wars, who have been frequently forced to either apologize for, or clarify, their remarks.

Colbert took the latter route a year ago when he made a crass joke about President Trump and Vladimir Putin, saying in regard to the president, "I believe he can take care of himself," while allowing, "I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be."

Wolfstood her ground after being criticized for mocking press secretary Sarah Sanders at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Kimmeleventually apologized for a joke that made fun of First Lady Melania Trump's accent, but only after an extended Twitter tit-for-tat with Fox News' Sean Hannity, during which the ABC host accused him of hypocrisy.

Bill Maher also apologized last year for an off-hand joke that used the "N-word" as a punchline during an interview with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

Some more strident voices -- including those emanating from the Trump administration -- have grown more aggressive about using such incidents to charge liberal media outlets of employing a double standard, going so far as to call for Bee and Colbert to be fired.

Notably, comics have usually weathered those fleeting storms. Yet even critics that generally admire the aforementioned hosts have argued -- with some justification -- that many of these brouhahas amount to self-inflicted damage, needlessly generating headaches for their corporate bosses that simultaneously muddies, and risks obscuring, their larger points.

Muddying the waters, Stewart argued, represents a strategic win for conservatives. What should be crystal clear to these comics by now is that while their fans eat up such jokes -- the tarter, the better -- they aren't the only ones watching.