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.

Video: John Tejada; Editor: Josh Rios

You also only broadcast one night a week.
One hundred percent. Totally on purpose. TBS was great about that. I’m sure that they would love it if the show was on four nights, five nights, whatever. I just don’t want to do it because I want to live my life. I have kids. I like my life. It’s hard enough to do it once a week … exactly the right way.

Your topics are not typical late-night fare, but you do more than just focus humorous attention on them. You often raise a call to action, like fundraising.
It became apparent early on with the show that you have a big platform. I still have to make the kind of show that I would want to watch, and if you do segments about all of these issues that you care about, you have to also think about how you can use this tool for good, whether it’s just bringing attention to something, or whether it’s trying to help through some other effort. We don’t do it all the time. We’re pretty selective. Mostly our big call to action is to vote, which obviously is a big one. But fundraising calls to action, when we do them, they’re usually really thought out and successful on some level. I mean it’s not a telethon, so you do have to be a bit judicious about it.

What issues are you interested in tackling next?
We have a big board of all the things that we’re interested in for the future. It’s a very diverse set of stories. There’s a pitch going around that’s about badass librarians. We love librarians. They’re at the frontlines of education, so I’m very interested to do that. I want to talk to some spicy librarians for sure.

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Do you feel the weight of being one of the only women on late night?
I try not to think about the gravity of that. I think that would be very paralyzing if I carried that weight every day. I think it’s something I’ll reflect on later in life when I look back on these years. I’ll think, “Oh, wow—it is very special.” And I know that it is, but I separate myself from that a little bit because I still have to make a show and make people laugh or make myself laugh. But the landscape is definitely changing. It surprised me that not more women were given shows sooner.

Why do you think that is?
Honestly, I cannot answer that question. I know a few people who were asked and simply didn’t want to do it. It’s a different type of animal if it’s not your world; it can feel false. But I do think that it behooves the networks to give the reins back to the creators. There was a long period of time when I feel like television was very crowd-sourced by the executive point of view and a certain type of lens, a certain type of advertiser. Most of the projects that I lean toward are creator driven, and so it takes a certain type of network to let that unfold.

These are interesting times for women, given #MeToo and Time’s Up. Do you see these as moments or movements?
I don’t think it’s just a moment. I do think it’s a movement. I think it’s been a long time coming. It’s a lifestyle change. Those take a long time to roll out, and it couldn’t be more needed for sure.

Have we reached an inflection point?
Well, you want to imagine that as we’re having these conversations that behind the scenes people are hiring women and making their workforce a little more equal or at least being thoughtful about it, hiring more women, putting more women in executive positions. It’s essential. So, it can’t just be about talking about it. There’s an action item, too. It made our office, I think, a better place. You can’t just have a stated goal and then behind the scenes have it just be all white dudes. That’s not going to do anything. Again, it’s kind of what I was thinking, it is a lifestyle change. It’s not going to change overnight—you have to change the conversation and then people start thinking about it. You have to keep bringing it up. You have to hire blind. You have to do things a little bit differently in practice.

I’ve read that your staff was 50 percent women and 30 percent nonwhite.
I don’t know if that’s up to date, but we have definitely baked diversity into the culture for sure.

Do you have blind hiring? What do you do?
For some positions. Otherwise, we just always have an eye to needing great women. It’s very much a part of networking, too. It’s like, who do you know? And just thinking about it and putting it into the practice of hiring.

This doesn’t sound too difficult, yet diversity remains a real problem in the industry.
It’s not difficult. I don’t know how to say that anymore clearly. It’s not difficult; you just have to do it. You have to make a commitment to it and do it.

Outside of your show are you involved in any kinds of initiatives that promote women and diversity?
Outside of the show there’s nothing left of me. There’s no time as I’m raising my three kids. I mean, I think that absolutely my future, apart from the show, will be very active, but for now it’s literally all I could do—I’m spoken for every minute of the day.

You mentioned your kids. Do you find questions about juggling parenthood and hosting a late-night show offensive?
I’m not at all offended by them. My husband [Jason Jones], who has a TV show, too [The Detour, TBS], he never gets asked and he’s the one that’s offended because he is a very motivated and active dad. We actually could not do what we do without each other. There’s a really fluid parenting relationship there. I think sometimes people are disappointed that I want to talk about my kids, but actually nothing is possible without my kids. I don’t care about anything more than I care about my kids. I’m trying to make a good life for them that’s balanced. I’m present in their lives all the time, so that’s why I don’t have any spare time. When I work, I work super hard. When I’m with my kids, I’m with my kids super hard, so there’s nothing else.

What are your thoughts on branding opportunities?
We look for ways to incorporate brands into the show because it really can help us. It’s actually amazing how direct the impact of that is. We did a digital integration for Buick. And it was very seamless. I think that it has to be—whatever we do—it has to be organic to the show. TBS has been great about not forcing us to do things that aren’t right for us. When it came to Buick, we just kept pitching stuff. We were like, “OK, if we do this, will you give 10 cars to Distributing Dignity so they can distribute tampons to homeless women?” I mean, it’s funny that I’m even laughing as I’m pitching Buick on the idea of distributing tampons to homeless women. Ultimately, what we did was we unloaded boxes of bras from the back of the car.

What’s your red line?
Basically, our standards are very high. But we welcome anyone who wants to do integrations because I think that it can be another way to use the platform of the show, help the show grow because it is a business. But any time we’re thinking about growing the business you should also be thinking of the flip side of that, which is how to leverage that for something good. Otherwise it’s just a business, and that’s boring for me. That’s not how I see myself.

Given the topics you cover, have you scared away any advertisers or brands or perhaps attracted new ones into the fold?
I’m almost certain that it has scared away some brands. And I actually really can understand why. We can’t change our content to suit brands. I’d rather not be on television than do that. We cannot have a brand dictate the content of our show. No thanks. I would exit TV. Bye. I’m too old for that bullshit. But I do think that there are brands out there who are brave enough to advertise on our show and are forward-thinking. There really are. I have to believe that.

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

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