Samantha Bee didn't always want her own late-night show, but she wasn't about to turn down the opportunity once it arose.
At a recent press event for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, which debuts February 8 on TBS, Bee recalled through a broad smile the day when TBS asked whether she might like to host her own satirical series. "I wrapped my head around it really fast," Bee said. "It didn't take me long to absolutely say yes, and yes please, and of course. It feels natural. It feels right."
Which brings us to Bee holding court from the comfort of her own stage. With the Full Frontal logo behind her, Bee passionately answered a steady stream of questions about what makes her new late-night show any different from her alma mater The Daily Show, how she's built her own series from scratch, and why/if it matters that she'll be the only female host in late night. (For the record: She believes it does.)
Midway through the session, however, Bee adjusted her blazer and took a beat. "At the moment," she said, "we’re really just trying to make an episode that will … exist."
It's not that she doesn't have high hopes for Full Frontal — quite the opposite, actually. But there is, whether it's fair or not, a metric ton of pressure on Bee and her staff to make Full Frontal last beyond its 13-episode order.
It's been almost a year since Bee announced her departure from The Daily Show — where she'd been a correspondent for more than a decade — to host her own show on TBS. In the meantime, there's been endless speculation and conversation about what it means for a woman to helm a political-leaning late-night show, whether it's too little, too late, and whether Bee is the right woman for the job.
It's safe to say there's a lot riding on Full Frontal's success. But the show is going full tilt by shaking up the traditional late-night structure, in terms of both how an episode looks and who's behind the scenes. Bee and her creative team actively worked to hire a diverse staff, and they're even looking to start a mentorship program for promising new writers. They're focusing on field reporting — one upcoming segment was filmed in Jordan — and, yes, Women's Issues.
Above all, Bee is doing everything she can to avoid regret. "Look, we may only have one kick at this can, we don’t know," she said. "But while we’re here, we might as well try to do something, you know?"
Full Frontal wants to carve out its own space in a crowded late-night landscape — and, yes, it knows Samantha Bee is a woman
Bee and the Full Frontal team made the conscious decision to not only acknowledge that everyone would be focusing on the host's gender, but embrace it.
It all started in September, when Vanity Fair ran a photo spread and feature story on TV's current crop of late-night hosts — and, despite incorporating newcomers like James Corden and Trevor Noah, failed to include Bee. The optics weren't great:
Until Bee herself got ahold of the image and released her own version:
Bee's photoshop was tongue-in-cheek, but there was also some real, righteous fury behind it. "It really just came from a place of exhaustion and feeling ignored," Bee told the Daily Beast. "It was just like a big fuck-you. Oh, fuck off. Really? Again?"
From there, Full Frontal was off to the races. The show released teases, like one in which Bee surveyed the all-male faces of her competition and told a waiter, "I think I'm done with sausage." Meanwhile, the show set up a hotline (1-844-4-TROLLZ) so that people would have a place to leave the misogynistic messages that were sure to follow. Billboards and ads depicted Bee alongside a stark tagline: "WATCH OR YOU'RE SEXIST."
"We did try to face [the gender question] head on," Bee told the reporters who'd gathered to hear her explain the new show. "I think it’s a valid point to make. I don’t at all shy away from the question of being a woman in this space. ... I did think we needed to address it in our tagline, and we certainly did."
Bee freely admitted to the press that she'll inevitably tackle different topics than her male cohorts, or at the very least will examine them in a way that male hosts intrinsically can't. "I was never prevented from exploring my point of view, but ultimately The Daily Show was filtered through someone else’s worldview," Bee said. "Mine is just inherently different. I’m steeped in, you know … my woman-ness, frankly."
Take the Zika virus, for example. "It’s a huge crisis that has really land[ed] squarely in the lap of women," Bee said. "When the government of a country puts the responsibility for spreading a disease and stopping that disease in the laps of pregnant women, and women who one day aspire to be pregnant…" she paused. "If we did choose to take that subject on, I think we would drill down in a way no other show would."
While building a show from the ground up, Full Frontal rewrote traditional hiring practices
When Bee's fellow Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert was transitioning from The Colbert Report to CBS's Late Show, he came under scrutiny for the wildly skewed makeup of his writers' room. The charge was that while Colbert has insisted he supports women, he nonetheless only hired two to write on his late-night show, along with 17 men.
But as I wrote last September, Colbert was far from alone. While late-night TV's gender balance is slowly shifting behind the scenes — Jimmy Kimmel and Larry Wilmore even have women head writers — for the most part, the genre is exactly the sausage fest Bee is so sick of. Late-night writers tend to have one of the more consistent jobs in television, as late-night shows are often renewed for a couple of years at a time (in contrast to most scripted shows, which can get renewed or canceled on extremely short notice). It's understandable that people wouldn't want to leave a stable job, but the relative lack of turnover makes it even harder for new talent to break in.
To that end, Bee and Full Frontal showrunner Jo Miller have set some initiatives into motion that could reverberate far beyond their show. When asked about their hiring process, both spoke passionately — and at length — about how they opened up applications beyond the usual (white, male) comedy circles, and how they hope to make it easier for more than the usual suspects to break into Full Frontal and the world of television in general.
As Miller told me when we talked after the press event, as waiters served "Shaken Up Late Night" vodka cocktails: "If we change people’s senses that writers rooms are hostile, beardy plaid male places [in which] women and people of color aren’t welcome, that’s like, the minimum we can do. "
With four writer slots to fill — and 230 applicants — Miller and Bee had their work cut out for them. But at the press event, Bee visibly lit up when she was asked about Full Frontal's approach to hiring a less homogeneous staff, describing a thorough operation including a "blind submission process" that strips applications of any identifying details, the better to keep bias out of it.
Added Miller, "There are many people who want a more diverse room and don’t know what to do, and there are other people who just haven’t thought about it and figure it’ll just happen naturally — and it doesn’t."
And so they set about trying to find new talent, making an effort to go beyond existing comedy communities to ask friends and peers if they knew any writers — especially women and people of color — who might not have realized that they could do television.
"It’s not just opening your application process," Bee said. "It’s calling everybody you know and going, 'Who do you know that’s not in the world of late night who you think would be well-suited to this, [and] interested in this, but they’re too shy to ask?’"
Bee also pointed to Miller's willingness to help new writers structure their scripts correctly as a particularly novel way to help broaden their search. This was key, because an amateurish format can sink a script that is otherwise excellent.
"Jo put together a packet that gave everybody the fundamentals of just how the script should look," Bee explained. "Regardless of your level of experience, you could [still] turn in a script that was polished-looking, that could be seen on the merits of the writing."
Miller also contacted Nell Scovell, a former Late Show writer who's currently an executive producer on The Muppets; Scovell had experience working with a blind submission process, as she'd helped that other weekly series hosted by a Daily Show alum, HBO and John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, find new talent when that show was staffing up in 2014.
"I was so impressed with the submission packet request that Jo put together," Scovell told me in an email. "Sometimes the show packets can be really confusing. They’ll say, 'Include 2-3 pages of jokes.' Well, are those single-spaced pages? Double-spaced? How many jokes per page? By not being explicit, shows give an advantage to writers who already know someone on staff ... which are all overwhelmingly male."
For all their efforts to find new talent, though, Miller and Bee both think they can do better.
Splitsider reports that in the end, Full Frontal's writers' room breaks down to five men and four women (including Bee and Miller); two, Jason Reich and Miles Kahn, came from The Daily Show. Joe Grossman came from The Late Show With David Letterman. Others have experience at Upright Citizens Brigade and CollegeHumor, but a couple will count Full Frontal as their first real writing credits.
Writers aren't the be-all, end-all of hiring, of course; Bee told the press that she's proud of their "diverse workplace in general," and that they accept pitches from everyone. And while the breakdown of the Full Frontal writers' room is more even gender-wise than most other late-night shows, Miller later emphasized to me that Full Frontal's outreach could still be more comprehensive.
In particular, Miller even called their outreach to people of color "a failure," albeit one she's determined to further address. "If we find that we’re trying to get women and people of color to apply and no one’s applying, let’s find out why," she told me after Bee's Q&A. "Is it because of a pipeline problem, that people don’t have the skills? Let’s see what we can do about that."
Miller and Bee are hoping to start an internal mentorship program once Full Frontal is more settled. They even hope to change the way other showrunners approach hiring, if only by being honest about their own experiences and shortcomings with the hiring process. "Showrunners need to share that information — what’s worked and what hasn’t worked — otherwise we’re each reinventing the wheel each time," Miller told me. That way, "we’ll change writers' rooms much more quickly than if we’re just working on our own."
It sounds like common sense, but as my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote when visiting Trevor Noah's Daily Show last year, television is resistant to change. And there's no guarantee that Full Frontal, airing on a network that struggles to find significant eyeballs even for a more established host like Conan O'Brien, will break out.
But even if the series doesn't take off — or just takes its time in doing so — its commitment to and enthusiasm for exploring new options is refreshing. In an industry that makes progress in fits and starts, the only way to make substantial change is to aim straight for the roots — the stagnant rot of systemic bias.
Playing to Bee's strengths, Full Frontal will focus on field pieces rather than force itself into existing late-night traditions
There are already so many late-night shows on the air that creating something new or singular is only getting more difficult. But Full Frontal is taking four crucial steps to distance itself from the glut of guys in suits talking to the camera while their house band chuckles off to the side.
The first thing you might notice is that Bee doesn't have a desk. "As a viewer, I’m sort of sick of seeing someone sit behind a desk," Bee told assembled press with a shrug. "I find if I’m really stationary, sometimes all the comedy goes into my face, and then it’s a really weird performance of me just, like, pulling crazy faces."
The lack of a desk leads us to Full Frontal's second key difference: Bee won't be doing guest interviews on set. "We’re not just seeking to have guests on to talk about their movies," she said with an exaggerated grimace. "I can’t really do that convincingly."
So instead — and here's Full Frontal's third divergence from tradition — Bee is concentrating on field segments, or the pre-recorded, reported pieces she focused on at The Daily Show. "I did find over the 12 years I was at The Daily Show that the field pieces were really important to me," she said. "I just love doing them."
This is why Bee is relieved to be doing Full Frontal weekly instead of echoing The Daily Show's four-days-a-week schedule — the fourth difference, and one that follows in the footsteps of Last Week Tonight. "There’s really no way to do a show four days a week and do the thing that inspired me to do this kind of work in the first place," she said. And as far Bee is concerned, if a weekly show gives her more time to live her life outside a studio after 12 years churning out daily content, all the better.
While the Full Frontal staff has only been together since November or so, Bee is already excited about the direction the show is headed. "We asked people to bring stories that mean something to them, you know what I mean?" she told me during a follow-up chat. "Stories that speak to you on a very gut level are the stories that are the most interesting."
Some of the topics Full Frontal has already shot field pieces for include the objectification of women at New York Comic Con, Texan TRAP laws (or "targeted regulation of abortion providers"), and inadequate care for female veterans from bureaucracies that keep forgetting they're there. All of them will be presented, as is Bee's wont, through a decidedly feminist lens.
Bee spoke highly of the TRAP law segment in particular, saying it's not necessarily one she could have done on The Daily Show — or at least not the way she would have wanted: "It would’ve had to go through more filters. … [On Full Frontal] it will be very visceral, and we'll allow it to be so. In a different way."
The Jordan trip, meanwhile, began as a strictly logical decision. Executive producer Kahn told me the team wanted to log an international trip before Full Frontal premiered, just in case the show's initial 13 episodes are all TBS ends up wanting. It's like Bee said: while you've got a chance to do something, you might as well do something worthwhile.
But traveling to Jordan, and meeting with Syrian refugees in person, quickly made the trip about more than just the fact that they could do it. "We needed to show that [Syrian refugees] are human beings," Kahn said. "It’s that thing where like, people don’t want to save a million people, but they want to save one baby." He went on to describe how floored the team was by the refugees' generosity when Full Frontal visited a camp, and that even though it "took a while to sort of develop how to make that funny," they were determined to humanize the refugees beyond a "nameless, faceless crowd of people."
Full Frontal will do a fair amount of basic debunking surrounding the refugee crisis. The press got to preview the first of two Jordan segments, which included a very funny video game explainer of just how hard it would be for a terrorist to make it into the United States via the country's extremely stringent refugee screening process. But Kahn told me afterwards that the piece started coming together once they decided to make the segment less about the politics and more about the real, personal stakes involved. "Once we started digging into what the opposition has been saying about Syrian refugees, that became kind of a bouncing board: 'Here’s what they’re saying, here’s the reality.'"
And unlike most other late-night shows, when Full Frontal says "here's the reality," the host will actually be reporting from the "here."
If all goes according to plan, Full Frontal will look as if the comedic field pieces of The Daily Show collided with the wide-ranging topics of Last Week Tonight. It'll be tough for the show to set itself apart from an already packed TV schedule — and to shake up the norms of late night. Perhaps the best thing Full Frontal can do, then, is keep proving that it's not like all those other shows, but something all its own.
Full Frontal premieres February 8 at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.