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Samantha Bee’s head writer on life after the election: “we’re at a point where laughing is a subversive act”

Full Frontal's Jo Miller on what comedy can do after Donald Trump’s presidential win.

Tribeca Tune In: Full Frontal With Samanta Bee
Full Frontal head writer Jo Miller and host Samantha Bee aren’t going anywhere.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Making people laugh about politics is a time-honored comedy tradition that’s been around just about as long as both politics and comedy have existed. But what do you do when politics get so chaotic, so vicious, so seemingly warped beyond recognition?

How, in other words, do you crack jokes in the dawn of a Trump presidency?

In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, late-night comedy hosts like The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert tried gamely to find humor in the situation, but mostly ended up flailing and depressed.

On Late Night, Seth Meyers took a moment to reflect, somberly, on what President Trump could mean.

But on TBS, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee took a slightly different tack: She remained just as angry as she’d been in the months before Election Day — and didn’t shy away from expressing her ire.

“[Electing Donald Trump] was the democratic equivalent of installing an above-ground pool,” Bee said, clad in the sparkly blazer she thought would be a celebration of Hillary Clinton’s win. “Even if we’re lucky and it doesn’t seep into our foundations, the neighbors will never look at us the same way again.”

So how do comedy shows go from absorbing the initial shock of Trump’s win to making jokes about it? And where does Full Frontal — which, like so many others, expected to soon exist under President (Hillary) Clinton — go from here?

I talked with head writer and showrunner Jo Miller the week after the election to talk about the Full Frontal staff’s election night emotions, the way forward, and how laughing under President Trump can be its own form of activism.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Framke

What was the reaction in the Full Frontal writers’ room as the election results were coming in?

Jo Miller

We had someone sending us data on the election, a political operative who had said, “don’t be surprised if Florida is called right around 8 pm.” Basing this on all the polling data. Then, when 8 pm came and it was nowhere near being called, that was kind of the moment when I knew this was gonna be bad.

There was denial going on in the office for a while after that. But by the time the New York Times had flipped the probability to most likely Trump, I pulled people into the room.

The writers didn’t have an opportunity to process their own feelings or experience. They had to go to their desks and write. They gave me scripts around 2 or 3 in the morning, and I just stayed at the desk putting them together.

We were all just in a trance of sleeplessness, really, along with what everyone else was feeling. This sounds silly, but we just felt such a duty to our audience who was going to be tuning in the next night, to give them something they could use.

It was a rough week. And on Monday morning [November 14], I realized that our piece on Hillary Rodham Clinton was a week ago. That was just a week! It felt like six months! We live in a different world now.

Caroline Framke

From “Let Hillary be Hillary” to “keep Steve Bannon out of the White House.”

Jo Miller

Oh my god, man. We had done this whole piece on the alt-right, and we were a little worried we were kind of giving them more importance than they deserved. Can you believe that [now]?

Caroline Framke

That feeling has come up a lot this year with the idea of responsibility in comedy; what can you treat as a joke, versus what should you take more seriously? Has that conversation been happening at Full Frontal this year?

Jo Miller

We’re dealing with heavy stuff and we don’t want to treat it like a joke. People are going to be hurt. Families are going to be torn apart. We don’t want to treat that as a punchline.

At the same time, we’re at a point where laughing is a subversive act now. So when we can call Trump’s possible EPA guy “hot lips” or “surprisingly kissable” just because his photo has red lips, it’s a release. Being able to laugh like that is really necessary.

I was emailing our friend Bassem Youssef — you know, “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” — because I wanted to talk to him about what it’s like to be a satirist in an autocratic state. His comedy over there was very brave laughter. It certainly was in a worse, more repressive regime than we have in the moment, but he responded with exuberant laughter and joy. You could see that he was going to keep doing it for as long as it was possible, and was just going to keep poking at this self-seriousness of the regime.

I think that’s important. Trump has never laughed that I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t seem to understand what a joke is, has no sense of humor about himself. That was one of the most chilling things about him to me through the whole thing. So mocking someone that self-important, and the people he’s surrounding himself with, is necessary and subversive and satisfying.

At the same time, we’re going to have to educate ourselves on things we probably never thought we would have to be experts on.

We’re really going to have to learn about our institutions, and how much they depend on everyone being willing to play by the same rules, on the social contract that there are lines we don’t cross, and that we behave like civilized people, and we respect the rule of law.

But if you’re dealing with people who kick the table over and say, “fuck your rules, we’re going to do whatever we want,” are the institutions strong? Or was it the social contract that was strong?

We’re going to have to learn about shit like that so we can tell our audience! I’m going to spend Thanksgiving reading history books, learning about how the first 100 days of an autocracy go. So, we have a lot of homework to do.

Caroline Framke

The result’s definitely made for a whole new kind of preparation.

Jo Miller

Yeah. We’re going to be on a learning journey with our audience this time.

It’s always been our job to kind of sort out the news and help people process the information and put their own feelings into words. But now we are actually going to have to sort out information, and there are a lot of questions. People keep asking, “what do we do?” I don’t know! I’m trying to figure that out.

Where do we tell people to put their energy? What does it look like to be the resistance? I think Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo is setting a good example by saying that New York will not persecute immigrants, that we welcome them. Even the LAPD! [laughs] The LAPD is saying that we have an administration that’s too racist for the LAPD. Where do we live?!

But I think this is where everybody in America figures out how you do your job —whatever your job is — as a good citizen, as a patriot, as someone who’s going to resist normalizing what shouldn’t be normalized. We’ll be doing that, teachers will be doing that, cops are doing that, governors, and people who work in government. Everybody is now forced to figure out what that looks like.

Caroline Framke

There are other late night hosts like Stewart and John Oliver who will say, “we’re not journalists, we’re comedians.”

Jo Miller

Oh, Oliver’s totally a journalist. Of course he is, he and his researchers and team are doing fantastic journalism.

Caroline Framke

His words, not mine!

Jo Miller

Well, I wouldn’t say that we are members of the fourth estate, but we are going to have to do a lot more of what we’ve been doing a little of, like calling people to find out the story. We wanted to know what was going on with military sexual assault, so we got Kirsten Gillibrand to tell us. We’re going to have to do a lot more of those phone calls.

The free press is going to be the first casualty. It already is. They’re going to have a lot of trouble doing their jobs. We’ve got Peter Thiel setting the model for how you put a media org out of business; you sue them out of existence. There are going to be print operations that will self-censor, because they can’t afford to get sued out of existence. You’re going to have an all-out war on CNN, you can already see that brewing.

Caroline Framke

It is feeling like Full Frontal’s piece on Russian state media from before the election was unfortunately prescient.

Jo Miller

Yeah, I was wondering how much of our news we’re going to have to get from foreign sources that can’t be frozen out and sued and threatened. I wonder. They still won’t have access. Nobody’s going to have access — except Sean Hannity.

But it’ll be really interesting to see how people resist at the state level, in towns. [Full Frontal has] given people a lot of anger, and I think we’re also going to need hope and encouraging examples. We’re going to go look for those now.

Caroline Framke

One thing that did strike me about Full Frontal’s post-election show in particular was that where a lot of other late-night shows went introspective and sad, that didn’t happen on your show in the same way. There was still anger there.

Jo Miller

Well, we got measurable data on how much America hates — or at least doesn’t care about — people of color and women. But we were not as surprised by that, let’s say, as some other people might have been. [laughs]

Caroline Framke

That was part of your first post-election show, too, with Sam saying she has the most diverse staff in late night, and they’re not thrilled right now — but they’re not shocked.

Jo Miller

We’re not shocked. We really aren’t. We’re disappointed, but we’re not shocked. And okay, now we know where we are. We’re not going away — and we’re not scared.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee airs on TBS at 10:30 pm on Mondays, returning on December 5. You can watch clips of previous episodes on the show’s YouTube channel. The show will them move on Wednesday nights in 2017, starting at 10:30 pm on January 17.