The Late Night Format Was Broken. So Samantha Bee Burned It to the Ground

Full Frontal star on diversity in media, in-show branding and more

While hypocrisy is Bee’s main target, no one is spared her acid-tinged wit.
Photographed by HollenderX2 for Adweek at Hudson Yards Loft; Styling: Erin Dougherty; Hair/Makeup: Eva Scrivio

With a match in her hand and a mischievous smirk on her face, Samantha Bee is getting her inner pyromaniac on. She’s in the middle of a photo shoot in a loft not far from the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, and it’s a fitting visual, given that, since launching Full Frontal on TBS three seasons ago, Bee has pretty much burned down the nearly all-male, mostly white late-night format.

For a half-hour each week, the woman who Sen. Elizabeth Warren said “is more than a comedian—she’s an instigator and an advocate” fires off brilliant insults and observations touching on everything from sexism to social injustice. Her debut show featured a segment on female veterans. In another, she lambasted Kansas state Sen. Mitch Holmes, the man behind a women-only dress code at the state capitol, in a segment she dubbed “Elected Paperweight of the Month.”

Dispensing with the usual fawning celebrity interviews, instead Bee, a Toronto native who cut her teeth on The Daily Show, has taken her “comedic investigations” on the road, highlighting Syrian refugees, Russian trolls and child labor on Kentucky tobacco farms. In March, Full Frontal aired an hour-long special, The Great American Puerto Rico, putting a spotlight on the hurricane-ravaged island. Turning political lemons into lemonade, Bee has also transformed her potty-mouthed rants into action: Her Nasty Woman T-shirts raised $1 million for Planned Parenthood. In Puerto Rico, Bee set up a T-shirt manufacturing facility to raise money for the Hispanic Federation. “It felt very patriotic to me,” she says.

While hypocrisy is Bee’s main target, no one is spared her acid-tinged wit. During last year’s upfronts, she introduced the president of TBS, Kevin Reilly, saying here was someone who has “truly defied the odds: a white male, Ivy League graduate who rose to the top and now runs a TV network.”

A ratings hit, according to Nielsen, the show averaged over 1.2 million total viewers last year. Full Frontal has garnered eight Emmy nominations (and a win for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special in 2017) and was just renewed through 2020.

Here Bee shares her thoughts on changing late-night TV, gender and diversity in media, branding opportunities and creating the show that she wanted to watch.

Adweek: Before you came to the U.S. you were working for an ad agency, is that right?
Samantha Bee:
Yes. I worked in the print shop part of the agency, so I wasn’t a copywriter or anything—and I was terrible. I’m so glad that I don’t work there anymore.

Did working in advertising inform your worldview?
It taught me what I don’t know for sure. It’s a good life lesson in a sense that you shouldn’t try to be president, if you don’t know what you don’t know. There are certain jobs that we’re probably not qualified to do.

When you auditioned for The Daily Show, the story goes, they were having trouble finding a woman that they thought was funny.
Well, I think that they were having trouble finding a woman that they thought was right for the show. They definitely were looking for something really specific, which if I can translate for myself, someone who was funny but also seemed seasoned, someone who could credibly look like a grizzled reporter and I was that person. My experience in comedy made me grizzled.

How so?
I was in a female sketch comedy troupe, the Atomic Fireballs. It was very do-it-yourself. It laid a lot of groundwork for what I do now. When you do comedy, sketch comedy, you don’t do it for money. You truly do it for love. And also, it’s plucky. You have a can-do attitude and you’re writing for yourself and you’re creating and learning every time.

Full Frontal launched with the tagline “Watch or you’re sexist,” setting a kind of confrontational tone. Was that your intention?
Well, I just find that funny, actually. I mean it would surprise people to know that I don’t think that I sat down and went, “I’m going to be really confrontational.” I definitely felt like OK, if we’re going to do a show, we should always go full bore all the time; just kick the door in and never look back. Because you never know how many shows you’re going to have, so if you don’t do them to the best of your ability every single time, what are you doing? Get out of television and do something else.

How did you come up with the Full Frontal “Samantha Bee” persona? And how different is she from everyday Samantha Bee?
I don’t even consider it a character. It’s just Samantha Bee adjacent. It’s just all of the feelings that I always feel crystallized into one 21-minute moment per week. I don’t think that you could live your life in that heightened state all the time.

The show has been called “a tragicomic feminist primal scream in the Trump era.” Do you agree with that characterization?
I accept that description of myself. I mean listen, this isn’t the administration that we thought we were getting, not that the show would be supremely different. We would still be doing the same types of stories somewhat; it’s not like all the problems of the world were going to suddenly evaporate if we had a different president. But I definitely feel like we would be on a more stable footing, which would be nice. You might imagine in a Hillary Clinton world that you could take your foot off the pedal for one second and not key yourself into the news.

You’ve described what you do as “evidence-based comedy.” What do you mean by that?
We try to base the show on knowledge. We hired a lot of really great journalists. Every segment is very well researched. We care a lot about getting it right every time.  If you don’t have a real foundation of truth, it’s hard to make these jokes.

After your segment on the rape kit backlog, Georgia passed a bill requiring DNA testing. Did you expect that kind of tangible impact?
No. But also, I don’t claim it as our victory at all. There were people working on that for a really long time and we kind of came in at the end and gave it a little boost of attention. I couldn’t say that we really moved the needle and I don’t want to take that onboard, but anytime we can, we shine our light on something that feels like it’s super important.

Everything about Full Frontal breaks the late-night mold. Was that the plan?
Well, TBS was very generous. They really did provide us with a blank slate. I only want to do the type of show that I would want to watch, so I have to really just cut away a lot of the old tropes of late-night comedy. I knew I didn’t want to do a guest segment. It was always the part that I was the least interested in as a viewer. I knew that it would be a terrible idea for me to sit behind a desk because my face is really expressive. If I was trapped behind a desk and sitting down, the energy of the show would be really wrong. It felt scary to just have a big open space with nothing separating me from the audience. But I really only wanted to make a show that I would like, and so that’s what I did.

This story first appeared in the May 7, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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