How did Sam Bee's "Full Frontal" find its brilliant voice? By amplifying the unheard

"You'll notice that men do not interrupt us when we talk," says writer and correspondent Ashley Nicole Black

Published November 17, 2018 11:00AM (EST)

"Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" (Michele K. Short)
"Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" (Michele K. Short)

Walking into the "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" office in midtown Manhattan is what walking into a traditional newsroom was like before entire staffs were dismantled in "pivots to video." Researchers and fact-checkers are among those grinding away in cubicles, ensuring "Full Frontal" continues to practice "evidence-based comedy," as Bee often describes the show’s genre.

I’m greeted by a "FULL FRONTAL" sign, lit up Hollywood-style, immediately inside the door. Paraphernalia from the show’s "Not the White House Correspondents Dinner," the event Bee hosted in 2017 to raise money for the Committee to Protect Journalists and to celebrate a free press, despite perpetual admonishment from the Trump administration, adorns the walls. Broadcast from Washington D.C., it won an Emmy for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special."

Women are everywhere, in every cubicle and office I glance into. I see a "nasty woman" name plaque and a woman wearing a "nasty woman" t-shirt. Women are everywhere, that is, except in the spots to which women have traditionally been relegated, like the receptionist's desk, which on the October day of my visit is staffed by a man.

But the nod to Hillary Clinton and President Trump’s slur isn’t an endorsement of her politics. "I think a lot of people think that we just go, 'Oh, which side are the Democrats on? That’s the side we’re on,' and that’s actually never been a conversation here," Ashley Nicole Black, "Full Frontal" writer and correspondent, told me. "We are primarily interested in what’s happening to children, what’s happening to people of color, what’s happening to LGBT people, what’s happening to the people who have the least and have the least opportunity to get more, and how can we be a voice for them?"

Intersectionality, along with vibrantly-colored blazers and Ted Cruz jokes, has been a constant of "Full Frontal" from day one. Bee wears those blazers like her armor while diving into narratives that consider race, class, gender and other systems of oppression — and punctuated by endlessly inventive Cruz gags. "I’m dependent on Ted Cruz jokes," Bee admitted in a recent episode. "He’s an unstoppable toilet clog."

But the Texas Senator is just an easy target, a bonus laugh. The real crux of "Full Frontal," the multi-Emmy-nominated weekly late-night show that launched in February 2016 on TBS and stars "The Daily Show" alumnus, is daring commentary and belly-aching, unrestrained comedy.

"She’s the most fearless host doing late night right now," Thom Hinkle, EVP of original programming at TBS, told me during a phone interview.

Nearly three years in, "Full Frontal" consistently executes a clear and original vision that has made the show necessary viewing in the ever-changing, topically driven political-comedy TV landscape. If there’s a liberal or mainstream position, Bee and her team aren’t afraid to challenge it, to point out the hypocrisy regardless of who's at the center, to hold all parties accountable, while crafting and delivering innovative jokes that pack a sting.

"I think my greatest accomplishment at the show, actually, was hiring people, hiring an incredible staff of people who think in those terms, all the time," Bee told me at a "Full Frontal" event in September. "We’re always trying to think in intersectional ways and inclusive ways. . . I don’t even think we always succeed, but where we've failed, we vow to do better next time. We count on each other to be correct. We count on each other to pick up the slack."

Inside the sizable office of executive producer Alison Camillo, the late-night veteran graciously plopped into a bean bag chair to get close enough for me to record. Camillo worked at "The Daily Show" for 18 years, before leaving for "Full Frontal" at Bee’s request.

"One of the original ideas for 'Full Frontal' is that we want to take stories that are important, that are being overlooked somehow, and shine a light on them," said Camillo. "I feel like that’s how she’s hired for the show as well. She’s found people that she feels are important, but have been overlooked for some reason in their careers and has brought them all in."

Even the pitching process is free of the usual hierarchy and competition of television writers rooms. Black tells me Bee gives the writers full creative control in the brainstorming process. "She lets us have time to be creative and play before she jibes in," she said, "because she knows that just by nature of being the boss, as soon as you say what you want, people stop exploring some other possibilities."

"That’s what I love about this workplace, because a lot of comedy that I have done in the past, it gets very competitive, and to me, the competition is sort of a symptom of toxicity," Black continued. "Here, we have such a good working rapport with each other, and we all feel really safe and comfortable here, and it’s whoever wrote the best joke. If the intern comes in, and they say something funny and it’s the funniest thing, it’s going on the page."

Black says none of the stereotypes about late-night hosts or someone of celebrity status apply to Bee. "People are always like, 'Oh, is Sam like one of those bosses that you can’t make eye contact with?" she said. "But I think people forget that that stereotype comes from there having been a lot of male hosts. There’s no experience like that on the show."

In fact, Black describes Bee as "the wokest white lady I’ve ever met." As a woman of color, she says she's often been in the position in the past of checking colleagues on what is or is not appropriate. "There’s the least of that in any workplace I’ve ever been in here, which puts me in a position where I can be more creative," Black says. "I don’t have to feel like I have to be the 'woke police' all the time."

And Black affirmed Bee’s claim that the "Full Frontal" staff is committed to holding each accountable behind the scenes as strongly as they do with those in power on air.

"We put a lot of effort in our working life to make sure that not just on the show are we amplifying marginalized voices, but we also live that way," Black said. "For example, if you sit in on a meeting with us, you’ll notice that men do not interrupt us when we talk. It’s not just a joke that we would tell on the show."

It's this authenticity combined with meticulous fact-checking that offers Bee and her staff a sense of freedom and comfort level when calling out — well, everyone. Nothing gets overlooked, Camillo tells me.

"Even if there’s something that we feel like hasn’t been well-researched, it’s gone," she said. "If there’s a source we don’t trust, it’s out. We want to make sure that everything is factually correct, everything is written as well as it possibly can be, and everything is as funny as it could possibly be."

Camillo points out that's one of the ways "Full Frontal" is different from "The Daily Show," due to the latter’s schedule demands. But that doesn't mean "Full Frontal" isn't fast-paced. I visited the office on the day after a show and the staff was already in full-on prep mode for the next week’s episode. But there's time for stronger curation, revision and thoughtfulness, Camillo says, whereas with "The Daily Show," often segments had to be launched "that are 80 percent of what they could be." With "Full Frontal" the staff feels that's never the case.

There's also more of a collective voice at work —  the writers aren't writing solely for Bee in mind. She doesn't drink, for example, but that doesn't mean drinking jokes don't show up in the script. "It actually feels like a stronger voice to me because it’s shaped by so many different people," Camillo said. In this, Bee is not just challenging the male gaze but rejecting the myth of the writers room meritocracy that for so long privileged the few.

In person, Bee is somewhat soft-spoken. She’s gracious, accommodating; but on screen, her comedy is vivid, unflinching and full-bodied, and often veers into displays of rage. In a society where women and people of color continue to be stereotyped by caricatures, rather than allowed access to the full range of humanity and emotions, that kind of presence alone is significant and powerful.

There's also a level of not caring what critics think, or as Bee told The Cut, the industry has "donkey-punched you so much" so "when you’re over 40 on TV, you’ve got nothing to lose."

"The greatest gift that 40 can give you is that you literally have zero f**ks to give about anything that anybody says about you, or thinks about you," Camillo told me. "You are free, you can say whatever you want. I mean most of the time women are ignored, so you can really scream and nobody’s even really listening."

* * *

I wanted to know about "Full Frontal’s" growing pains, so I kept asking people if it felt like it took time for the show to find its voice, like when Trevor Noah took over the reins of "The Daily Show." But everyone I spoke to had such a crisp memory of how the show’s strength and vision came together from the very beginning. After rewatching "Full Frontal’s" earliest episodes from February 2016, it’s easy to understand why.

In episode 2, which aired on Feb. 15, 2016, after the sudden death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, once Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made it clear that he would block President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland, Bee lamented the absurdity of that move. After all, one of the only codified roles of a president is to nominate justices, she argued — that, along with "bombing the shit out of the Middle East."

In the same episode, Bee also reflected on a moment in one of the Republican presidential debates, when then-candidate Donald Trump praised Planned Parenthood for its work with women’s health (yes, so much has changed) and said that the U.S. should have never invaded Iraq, as there had been no weapons of mass destruction.

The camera panned to Bee clutching her podium for dear life. "Oh. My. God," she cried out, "I agree with Donald Trump! I’m ruined. They’re going to take my comedy show away."

In that same episode, Bee also called out Bernie Sanders’ class-only assessment of America — "Money doesn’t actually fix racism, Bernie," — and ripped into Hillary Clinton for her disingenuous "top-shelf pandering" to black people. In the final act, Bee traveled to Jordan to understand how the refugee process actually works for Syrians fleeing violence, as opposed to what Fox News or the GOP claimed. She also helped a group of refugees prepare for a possible life in the U.S. (Bee taught them how to say "Can I have your HBOGO login?")

"It really came out of the gate so strong and clear," Camillo said. "I think it’s just a voice that needed to be heard for a really long time."

Allana Harkin, producer, correspondent, as well as Bee's longtime friend, told me: "From day one, she was very clear about who she is and what she wanted to talk about. I think that that’s why our show is successful, because it comes from a very authentic place and she’s not a child. She’s been doing this for a while."

She has. Before Bee became the longest-serving regular "Daily Show" correspondent, she was performing as a member of the all-female sketch comedy troupe The Atomic Fireballs in Toronto, "basically for beer tickets," said Harkin, who was also a member of the group.

In 2003, Bee auditioned for "The Daily Show" and spent the next 12 years there, building a reputation for her brilliant field pieces and her work ethic.

"If there was one correspondent you knew that had done the homework before she went out on a field shoot, it was Sam," Camillo said. "She was 100 percent reading what she needed to read because this is interesting to her. This is her passion."

"Sam always had a great point of view and she always saw even the most complicated story in the simplest, clearest, funniest terms, with just a great take for that story," said Stu Miller, a "Daily Show" producer who worked alongside Bee for 12 years. He recalled a field piece they worked on together during the Occupy Wall Street movement where Bee uncovered a two-tier system among protestors occupying Zuccotti Park in New York City.

It exposed hierarchy and elitism and made fun of mostly white guys — what would become staples of "Full Frontal" years later. "A lot of the bedrock things that you think about when you think of Sam," Miller said, "[have] always been there, it’s just been sharpening."

On set one day for "The Detour," a scripted show created by Bee and her husband Jason Jones for TBS, Hinkle asked Bee if she had any interest in anchoring her own show. She said yes.

"I had known her a long time. Always knew she was brilliant, always knew she was hilarious," Hinkle said. "I knew that she had a point of view that wasn’t represented in television — that still isn’t represented on television. Right now, she is the only female in this format and so I knew she had a story to tell and I knew she would tell it in a funny way."

He added: "And then we stole her from Comedy Central."

For a moment though, it seemed like the late-night landscape was changing to include more women leading shows like Bee's. Just a couple months ago, there was Robin Thede's "The Rundown" on BET. There was Michelle Wolf's "The Break" on Netflix, as well as Sarah Silverman's "I Love You, America" on Hulu, and "Full Frontal." But this summer, it was announced that both Wolf's and Thede's shows were canceled after just one season on air. Bee remains the only woman with a politically driven late-night show on cable.

"I think that’s really unfortunate. I was really surprised," Bee told me in September of the cancellations. "We do need to give shows a chance to survive."

Black points out that there’s "a real siloing of women in comedy," where "I feel like we’re in a space where women are knocking those doors down, which is great, but the acceptance of a woman’s voice as one of authority is something we’re still working on."

"There’s a lot that is completely left out of the conversation and it’s not being compared on its merits of what’s funny," she added.

* * *

"Full Frontal" isn’t just a survival story, it’s also a success. TBS has renewed Bee’s show through 2020; and in 2017 it averaged over 1.2 million viewers, according to Ad Week. While the show’s perspective is inherently feminist, Bee covers an array of topics, from elections and gun violence to foreign policy and the #MeToo movement. But that doesn’t mean the show’s style is scattershot or indiscriminate in how it pursues its points and its laughs.

"There are stories that are really easy to go after. Really easy stories where you can be like, 'look at this crazy person.' But she doesn’t want to give those people a voice," Harkin said.

In one episode in August, Bee hosted a segment called "Fascists to Watch 2018," but made clear: "Normally, I wouldn't even say the name of a super-racist nut job like this on TV, except that he won the fucking primary!" she said of Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for senate in Virginia. (He was defeated, but not all of those affiliated with white supremacy were.)

"There’s an integrity around the storytelling that I feel only gets better and better every year," Harkin said.

One of the hallmarks of "Full Frontal," now in its third season, is the staff’s ability to anticipate which stories will become important and bring them into the mainstream conversation before anyone else.

Like in October 2016, when Bee traveled to Moscow to interview professional hackers. Wearing masks, they detailed their social media tactics of posing as American voters, spreading disinformation and inciting anger in an attempt to ultimately sway opinions. Two months later, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had secretly determined that Russia hackers had meddled in the presidential election to benefit Trump. In his final days in office, Obama would go on to issue an executive order levying sanctions against Russian individuals and state agencies.

In an hour-long special that aired in March of this year, the "Full Frontal" team went to Puerto Rico to discover how the country used community organizing to rebuild after  Hurricane Maria and to document just how negligent the U.S. government had been in the aftermath of the disaster. In August, independent researchers from George Washington University estimated that 2,975 died in Puerto Rico in the six months following Hurricane Maria, more than 46 times higher than what had been the official death toll.

And five months before the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi turned the media’s attention to Saudi Arabia’s regime and the war in Yemen, Bee dedicated an entire segment to the U.S.'s involvement and complicity.

In a succinct explanation of the war, Bee said: "Who’s fighting? The Houthi rebels, who are financially supported by Iran, and the current Yemeni government, who is financially backed by Saudi Arabia, effectively turning Yemen into a battleground for Iran and Saudi Arabia to measure their dicks, using our yard sticks!"

Then, of course, there was the time when Bee herself became the news. Early in the Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant families at the border, Bee begged Ivanka Trump — who at the time was busy tweeting loving photos of one of her own kids, as migrant children were being ripped from the arms of their parents and incarcerated — to speak up about the abhorrent policy. She also called her a "feckless c**t."

The backlash was swift. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Bee's comments "vile and vicious"; Trump said she should be fired. He, along with conservative commentators attempted to cast Bee's insult in the same light as Roseanne Barr's racist slur against Valerie Jarrett from the month before. Megyn Kelly, before she lost her job at NBC for defending blackface, described Bee’s word choice as "disgusting."

When Bee returned to her show, she offered an apology that didn't bend to the pressure from the White House and still felt authentic to the "Full Frontal" mission.

"It is a word I have used on the show many times, hoping to reclaim it," Bee said on air. "This time, I used it as an insult, I crossed the line. I regret it and I do apologize for that. The problem is many women have heard that word at the worst moments of their lives."

"I don't want to inflict more pain on them," she continued. "I want this show to be challenging and I want it to be honest, but I never intended for it to hurt anyone — except Ted Cruz. Many men were also offended by my use of the word. I do not care about that."

Most importantly, Bee acknowledged how the word choice had distracted from the migrant children and allowed the Trump administration an out from criticism, letting them point the finger at Bee and her vulgarity, while dodging accountability for the horrors they wrought at the border. The plight of migrant children would become front and center international news in the days and weeks to come.

"That was not a fun time. That was a poor choice of word, but in terms of the messaging, her messaging is always really spot on and backed up by facts," Hinkle said. "And so we’ve never been scared of what she had to say or who she was going after."

Harkin said that the c-word backlash was "a little bit surprising."

"That was a bit of a wake-up call, but not in a bad way," she said. "It’s like, 'OK, this is happening, that’s great.' Sally Field just tweeted at us. I love Sally Field."

"We showed total support," Hinkle added. "We knew the show wasn’t going anywhere and we knew that they would rebound and I think they did rebound pretty quickly."

Bee told me in the aftermath to the controversy, "It’s become clear to me now that this show has more of a voice. I feel like we are heard now ever so slightly more than we were when we started."

It was a mental shift for her to own this newfound influence, but one that's been "psychologically empowering," she said.

The next month, "Full Frontal" received seven Emmy nominations, including "Outstanding Variety Talk Series," "Outstanding Writing," and "Outstanding Directing." In September, "Full Frontal" introduced a brand new set and launched a midterms trivia app.

"It’s a commitment that we are saying we’re getting bigger. We’re here for longer," Harkin said. "We are investing in not only the show, but in the national conversation."

* * *

"Why does Samantha hate Ted Cruz the most?" I asked Harkin. It's hard to find a single episode that doesn’t include at least one Cruz burn.

Harkin offers a lot of answers, but perhaps the most succinct — besides her belief that Cruz's everyday life provides ample material for comedy shows —  is that Ted Cruz is a man, "who will do anything, say anything and take money from the NRA. The president can make fun of his father, his wife and he’ll still be like, 'That’s okay guys. That’s okay, I’m doing it for the country,'" Harkin said, imitating Cruz's nasally timbre. "You’re like,  No, who are you? What is under your skin? Are you something covered with skin?"

In the months leading up to the midterm elections, there had been a running joke around the office about what "Full Frontal" would look like if Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke won his Senate campaign and they didn’t have Cruz in office to make fun of anymore.

As part of a field piece for "Full Frontal’s" post-midterms show, Harkin attended the Cruz watch party in Texas, and she’s still recovering.

"Long live Ted Cruz jokes," Harkin told me, rather bleakly, after Cruz sailed to victory in Texas last week. "It’s 100 percent the only upside to his re-election."

But there are other inside jokes, too. The staff at "Full Frontal" eat a ton of cake, many people emphasized, and they all say some variation of "I love Grandma" or "Grandma Loves You," after they mistakenly received a cake declaring such a doting message. Bee prefers Lady M cakes, those dainty things composed of dozens of flavored, paper-thin crêpes alternating with cream to form a delectable slice. (OK, now I’m drooling.) Self-care is also a running consideration at "Full Frontal," a necessity for dealing with the merciless news cycle.

But while comedy can serve as a release valve for the unrelenting stress of today’s brutal political environment, the show doesn’t want its viewers to think that tuning in once a week is enough.

"I think we do provide a certain amount of catharsis, but it’s a balance to do that and also to leave people in a state where they don’t feel like watching the show or paying attention was doing the work," Black said. "The work is what you do with the information that you get from paying attention."

That sense of urgency to contribute animates Bee and her team. Sales of much of the merchandise on Bee’s website benefits organizations like the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, NEXT for Autism and the Hispanic Federation. And this fall "Full Frontal" launched "This is Not a Game: the Game" app to incentivize midterm voting.

Bee conceived the game after finding out that almost half of her audience wasn't registered to vote. Since its launch, 126,000 players signed up for voter registration info and voting reminders. The message of the trivia game, regardless of your political affiliation, is that politicians work for us.

"A part of their job is that they’re held accountable every time they come up for a vote and so it’s our job to make sure we know a little bit about it," Bee told me before the midterms. "We do have the power. People take it for granted forever. I understand why on some level; I mean you can’t anymore. The stakes are too high."

Over the last two and a half years, "Full Frontal" has only become tighter, and its field pieces more concise. But what's endured is a radical practice of comedic storytelling that not only goes far beyond Bee’s late-night colleagues, but centers on brutal honesty that has often presented as a more ethical response to the current administration than the press. There's no time spent on making false equivalencies about "both sides." Bee's commentary is pegged to her sense of morality and justice only.

Bee and her team truly believed that "Full Frontal" would coexist alongside the first woman president, but with each horrific new proposal or tweet from Trump, they have pushed back harder, laying bare the motives and machinations of those in power, grounded by a commitment to a more equitable world — a commitment practiced on and off TV.

So the inauguration of the "First Lady of Late Night" did not accompany a Clinton presidency, but Bee will continue to satirize U.S. politics as a record 117 women head to Washington to take national office — women who are Muslim, Native American, African-American and Latinx; also LGBT, and progressive, and brilliant.

On the day after the midterm elections, in the show’s 100th episode, Bee concedes that "anyone who was hoping for a resounding, renunciation of racism by the American people is going to be disappointed. But if you were honestly hoping for that, I suggest you read literally any book about the American people, including the first one," she said, a graphic of the Constitution appearing on screen.

The midterms and the range of first-time candidates who ran and won embraced a long-held grassroots principle that the ongoing fight for a multiracial, fully-realized democracy is impossible if those most marginalized are not leading this work. It’s a lesson not yet endorsed in the late-night landscape, where comedy has become increasingly more political under Trump, and yet, for the most part, not less white or male.

"Everybody needs to figure out that there are as many points of view as there are people, and there are so many stories to tell," Bee told me.

In the meantime, "Full Frontal" continues to make space and amplify progressive ideas and values, not just as joke fodder but to be taken seriously as a framework for political comedy. From trans rights, to pregnancy discrimination, to universal health care, to male sexual abuse, to the Youth Climate March, to misogyny and medical history — the issues and nuance "Full Frontal" brings to TV reflects the diversity of lived experiences and perspectives from its collaborators.

Sam Bee and her team can’t change the industry on their own, and they aren’t — ask Hasan Minhaj, whose groundbreaking and rule-defying Netflix show "Patriot Act" is getting rave reviews. But we can count on "Full Frontal" to continue to provide the collective rage in a time when it’s both needed and called for, as Bee and her team tell searing truths about America’s past and present.

Plus Cruz jokes. There will always be room for Ted Cruz jokes. 

By Rachel Leah

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