Samantha Bee Instantly Shook Up Late Night With Her Show—and She’s Just Getting Started

Full Frontal host on leap of faith with TBS

One of TBS and TNT president Kevin Reilly's earliest big bets has already paid off handsomely: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the former Daily Show correspondent's new weekly series (which is considered a late-night show even though it airs Mondays at 10:30), has given TBS more buzz and critical acclaim than it's had in years. Mixing astute, biting political humor with clever field pieces, the show established Bee as a singular late-night voice minutes into its Feb. 8 debut. With an average weekly audience of 3.7 million across linear and digital platforms, Full Frontal was recently picked up for 26 additional episodes, extending its 2016 order to 39 episodes. (Two days later, TBS renewed The Detour, the new comedy she executive produces with her husband Jason Jones, who also stars; they executive produce Full Frontal together.) Bee talked about taking a leap of faith with TBS, why she won't do Full Frontal nightly and what makes her a terrible negotiator. 

Adweek: Congratulations on Full Frontal's renewal. Are you feeling more relief or pressure now that you have 26 additional episodes this year?
Samantha Bee: It's absolutely a relief, first and foremost—we have to feed our families—and joy because it's really hard work. But we actually enjoy putting the show together. Primarily relief, followed by joy, followed by terror.

Your reviews have been rapturous, which is not a common thing in late night or anywhere else in TV. Often, even if they love you the first week, they'll start to turn on you.
It's funny. The first show was stressful, but the real stress came when we had to do a second show. There can be a feeling like, you prepared for a whole year to do this one show, so that one's going to be very good, but what have you got next? Figuring out what the show would actually look like in the long term was the really challenging part.

A common reaction to Full Frontal has been, "Why can't this show be on more than once a week?"
It's not going to happen, but that's so great that people would want that. For practical purposes, there would be certain things that I wouldn't be able to do if we were on every night. I would never be able to shoot stuff in the field enough, and I love that. That's the part of my job that's been really challenging, but is delightful to me. So we couldn't actually make a show that we like to make if we were on every night. Oooh … I just got shivers. Oh, God!

Has this crazy presidential election been the best launch gift you could have received?
I can't thank the celestial lords and ladies enough for the gift of this election season. It's been incredible. It has given us an opportunity to find our stride in such a carnival atmosphere. And it's so cathartic for us, too. It's just fun for us to be able to have a full immersion in something so ridiculous.

You've been asked frequently about what your show would be like as the only woman in late night. Do you feel the pressure is off a bit, now that people have seen it?
Definitely. I feel so much more relaxed about that. Before the show launched, everybody wanted to know what would make our show different. And we couldn't really articulate why. We were so vague about it: Just trust us … There's going to be something different about it and that difference is me. As soon as the show launched, I think we did answer that question. It does feel very different. But it took a couple of episodes to prove that very vague statement that we kept making about it. So that part of the pressure is off. Now we're just doing our own thing.

What was the appeal of working with Turner?
We knew that they were in a period of transition, and we knew that if we worked with Turner that we would be part of the ground floor of a rebuild. And we wanted that; that was exciting to us. You know, AMC wasn't the AMC as we know it now before Mad Men came along. There always has to be something that punches through, and we were excited to be a part of that.

You were negotiating for Full Frontal when Jon Stewart announced he was stepping down from The Daily Show, yet you didn't use that news to leverage a better deal. Why not? 
I'm not really business-minded in that way. I'm not the kind of person who goes to a store and likes to negotiate a better price for myself. I like to be straight with people. I'm very grounded. I knew what I wanted to do: build something from nothing. I knew it, on a very DNA level, that it was the right choice for me. Wheeling and dealing and playing silly games … I don't really have time for that in the psychological makeup of my brain. I'd rather pick a path and chase that path down to completion.

Product integrations have become a big part of late night. Could you make them work on your show?
It remains to be seen. It's definitely come up already, but we have such a specific style of show that whatever we would do would have to make sense for us logically. It would really stick out in a weird way if we couldn't make it seamless to our needs. Whatever brand would have to have an immense sense of humor about itself, for sure.

What are you most excited to explore with your additional 26-episode order?
I'm excited to be able to go to the convention. Our operation is still quite lean because we are just starting out. We're just building our machine. I'm excited for those wheels to be in motion and also to develop new talent. The more we develop new talent, which is definitely on the docket, the better it will be for us in terms of point of view. The more we broaden our point of view, the better it will be for all of us.

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.