Samantha Bee teases big election coverage, from presidential harassment to a strategic joy offensive

The "Full Frontal" host also chatted with Salon about interviewing Trump's impeachment managers on Wednesday's show

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 12, 2020 7:06PM (EST)

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)

Sensing despair in the face of overwhelming odds is natural. Succumbing to disillusionment when the deck is a stacked against you is understandable. Samantha Bee gets that.

These very reasons are what drive the host of TBS' topical comedy series "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" to counter those very legitimate notions with optimism. And joy. Right now.

She's serious about this.

"We have definitely, after three some-odd years of this administration, figured out very keenly that we need to infuse our coverage with as much joy as possible," Bee told Salon during a Tuesday phone conversation that took place hours before the New Hampshire primary results began to roll in.

"Full Frontal" aired its first-ever episode four years ago this week, months before the 2016 election took place. But Bee has been through this wringer many times before as a correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

"Actually I was counting this morning," she said Tuesday, "and I think this is my fifth round of going to conventions. I've been doing conventions since, let's see, I did 2004 and 2008, 2012, 2016 . . . yeah, this is my fifth round with conventions and election coverage. But I will say . . . it's painful to watch the same kind of patterns play out."

You'll understand, then, why emphasizing the hunt for a few bright guiding stars in this existential midnight is one of Bee's top priorities.

The latest example of Bee's strategic joy offensive comes in Wednesday's "Full Frontal," where Bee speaks with the three women who served among the House's seven-member team of managers for Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate: Florida Rep. Val B. Demings, Texas Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, and California Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

"Full Frontal" tends to be the only series that not only calls attention to the extraordinary efforts of women serving in government but celebrates them. And this segment, styled to resemble an episode of ESPN's "30 for 30," does this by portraying Demings, Garcia, and Lofgren as principled fighters giving it their best shot even though the popular (and correct) presumption was that they were destined to lose regardless of their argument's persuasiveness.

In other hands, their quixotic efforts may have been mined for gallows humor, or the producers could have shaped the conversation to make them look like dupes. Not here – in fact, Bee says she left the conversation infused with hope.

Nevertheless, as you'll read in this interview lightly edited for length and clarity, the talk show host is under no illusions about the uphill battle faced by those who want to preserve our democracy, or the high chance that it could all end in the worst case scenario.

If there's one message she hopes "Full Frontal" viewers carry with them this year, it is this: "Oh my God. Do not sit this one out. If the candidate is not your perfect candidate, do not sit this one out. Hold your nose and vote. That's your civic duty."

As part my preparation to speak with you, I watched a few of your "Rewind" segments dating back to 2016. It must be interesting for you to see how much of history is repeating: A lot of the same issues that plagued the 2016 election still exist now, except now they've been exacerbated by a number of factors. You've been covering politics and a lot of key issues on "Full Frontal" since 2016, and now you have the full four years to look back upon to gauge how we got here. So what has that been like for you, to look back at 2016 from 2020?

I mean, you really hate to see it happen again, certainly. It's painful. It's a painful process.

. . . And I will say this: it does feel dark. There's a darkening. We've lived under this administration for four years, whereas in 2016, you know, the comedy presented itself more. At least there was like a clown car of candidates. It's just not as funny this go round. So we're having to find joy in places where we did not expect to. We're having to make our own joy this time around, whereas I think it presented itself a little more obviously last time.

My heart just sank a little bit, by the way, just to hear you say that.

Oh no!

Though I get it. Remember, I've been living in this under this administration too. But yeah, that's one of the things I wanted to dig into. Besides the repeating details of the 2016 election – the aggressiveness of the Bernie bros, all of the attacks on each other within the same party, all of these things that seem to be kind of coming back around again.

But there's one thing you mention in this week's segment, that there remains hope in the form of Mitt Romney taking a stand against his fellow Republican Senators and voting with the Democrats to find Trump guilty. The House's impeachment managers mentioned that as a reason for hope, but did you share in that view when it first occurred?

When Mitt Romney's spoke out? Well, listen, Mitt Romney has had a lot of opportunity to stand up in the past that he has not taken. I mean, I'm happy that he did it, but I'm not falling over myself with gratitude. I think there were many other opportunities where he could have spoken out and chose not, to and I'm not sure that I completely understand why. You know what gives me hope really is the notion that we have this final shot at switching administrations.

There's an opportunity on our horizon. There is something that we can all look toward, and it's there for us if we choose to take it. If we can choose to coalesce behind someone, if we can, we can have it. We can actually win this election if we can all just get behind the notion of standing behind a person and I feel hopeful that it's possible. I hope that it's possible. I want it to be possible so badly.

You know, Iowa was not great. We'll see what happens today. I have to feel hope in that because you can't do this job otherwise. You have to live in the world with hope. You just have to. So that is, it's more, it's more a prayer of that a hope, I guess . . . oh no! I don't want this interview to take a dark turn. I swear to God we can do this. I swear to God, I passionately believe that this is possible.

But we do have to acknowledge and speak about the fact that when a nominee becomes the nominee, we have to stand behind that person, whoever it may be. God bless us all.

Yeah, that sounds so simple and yet it does not seem to be happening.

I know! It is so simple! Why does it seem impossible? It is the simplest thing in the world to vote for the person who is the candidate. In the field of dreams, there are people that I would choose over other people for sure, but I promise you I will vote for that nominee, whoever it is. I promise you.

You know, sometimes you have to just like vote for the least worst option. Oh no! I think Margaret Atwood's writing a poem about that right now. I think she actually is. Which really says a lot. Margaret Atwood's going to tell us how to do it.

Oh God.

Yeah. But we should all listen to her.

Let's talk about your interview with the house's impeachment managers.

Yes! I spoke with them last Friday.

That must have been really interesting to talk to them at that time since the acquittal was still very fresh. But the final segment is only a few minutes long, so I know there are details that you had to leave out. So I'm curious to know if there were any particular impressions that you got from them that you might not have been able to bring across in the segment that you can share here?

Well, I'm not sure if it will make it into the piece, but what really was surprising to me is that they really were surprised that only Mitt Romney stood up. Because they knew, and I think that they were right, they knew that they had convinced a lot of the senators. They had really made their case well. They had really proven their case and they thought they had swayed a lot of people. And in fact it didn't really matter whether they were swayed or not. They were just voting a certain way.

It surprised me that it surprised them, because I felt like a lot of us felt as we were watching the proceedings, that [the Republican-dominated Senate's vote to acquit Trump] was a foregone conclusion.

But you know, they have to build a case while believing that they can win it. That's how that works. You have to – they have to have hope. They have to have that eternal optimism that it's winnable in order to make the case and to fight with vigor. And that really surprised me.

But it was good for me to hear it, because it helped me to understand that our approach has to be similar. It has to.

Because as much as it's a practice, and we have to train ourselves to feel optimism again, hopefully we do. Because it puts vigor, it puts the fight in you to feel like it's possible. There has to be a glimmer of possibility to make it worth fighting for. And that was helpful to me, actually. I didn't go into the interview expecting to come out on the other side and feeling any kind of hope, actually.

So it was helpful for me to observe that style of thinking. Because I'm really just an eternal pessimist. I mean, my gosh, when you've covered five elections, you literally have to be. I don't want it to be a repeat. I mean, I don't know. Were you in New York when George W. Bush won the election the second time?

No, I was in Seattle. But trust me, it was also depressing on this side of the country.

It was depressing everywhere! I mean across the country: silence. Quiet on the streets. There will be, I mean it's – We cannot . . . I am not ready to go there.

I get it. Actually, I advocate for glass half full pessimism, because it's difficult to go there. But at the same time it seems like everybody's bracing themselves for that possibility. And that must be tough from your perspective, because you have to actually come up with a comedy show around all this.

Yeah, we're just trying to find an approach that is like, I guess we're trying to be joyful warriors in a way. You have to. Oh my gosh, we have to.

I've written about late night many times over the years, and one issue I've kept an eye on is the fact that only a few years ago, there were three female hosts on the air. There was you and Robin Thede and Sarah Silverman. [Reporter's note: Actually there were four, counting Michelle Wolf's short-lived Netflix series.]

I know!

And then the networks slowly winnowed that number down and now it's just you [and late, late night host Lilly Singh]. That makes it so important that you're doing this particular segment because while I'm not saying that you know, the various Jimmys and Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah couldn't do a segment like this, focusing on the women who are impeachment managers, you're the only one who is.

So as much as I don't want to ask some clumsy version of the inevitable woman question, there are certain issues in this election cycle which I'm pretty sure you're going to be the only host willing to dig into them as we move forward into this election year.

Well, we cover reproductive justice in a way that is completely unique in the late night space. It's not that we carve that terrain out for ourselves in a way we're not conscious about . . . But it is something that we can for sure speak about, and it's not getting spoken about really at all in the current chaos around finding a nominee. It's so rarely spoken of on the debate stage. There are things that are important to us that we just see through different lens.

As we are watching, you know, the story of Elizabeth Warren or the story of Amy Klobuchar kind of getting papered over in a way, when they're actually doing very well. It strikes us in a very different way. It's pretty organic that we cover things in ways that the other shows don't cover them.

And we also have a differently formatted show, in a way. We don't have guests on, so we have more space to do these things. We just have kind of more space to go to Washington and talk to the three women impeachment managers. It's very natural to us. We don't have to be as self-conscious about it as you might think. These are the stories that bubble up for us, that come up for us in a very natural way.

One of the things that I think "Full Frontal" does very well is serve as a contextualizing force for a lot of the news coverage. Obviously, you're still producing a comedy show, but at the same time you're having conversations with figures like [Minnesota congresswoman] Ilhan Omar versus parsing the headlines.

And in an election year, we're sure to get stories about various late night talk shows and topical comedy shows featuring interviews candidates and analysis of their role as kingmakers. And I feel like that role has changed now. But particularly with your show, as you say, you don't have guests, but the interviews I think can be equally as powerful.

So I'm wondering about the choices you'll be making in this election year. Is there a particular "Full Frontal" agenda in terms of covering candidate or issues from week to week?

There's an immense amount of planning that goes into these things.

I will say that like, none of the political candidates will speak to us. None of them. I mean, like, none. Zero. We've asked them all they've declined or like passed on us or whatever. Well, Elizabeth Warren has been on the show, but she's the only one. But we've made appeals to them, and I hope that they change their minds, because there are a million things that I would love to talk to them all about.

But for some reason they're very reticent to come on this show, and I'm not sure why. They have been pretty scrupulous about avoiding us. So it bothered me at first. But now I actually think it's a good and decent place to be. Because having a little distance from someone, like not throwing the whole show behind someone maybe is a better place to be kind of analytically.

And then we can talk to the people who are really making change happen in a groundbreaking way, on a day to day basis.

Like, I'm going to interview Stacey Abrams on Thursday and we have so much to talk about. She's such a good friend to the show, and the work that she is doing is incredible. So we're able to kind of cover all the work of the candidates, but in an adjacent way to the actual candidates themselves. So I've made my peace with it, but the frontrunners have avoided us completely. I don't know. I think I should challenge them to come on the show because really it's getting ridiculous.

Maybe the fear has something to do with looking a little like they're skewing too far left. There's a lot of effort among the candidates to appear centrist, and I wonder if that's what's maybe hitting your show a bit.

Maybe. I don't really know. I think we reach a very passionate audience. Our audience is incredibly engaged and interested and we have questions for them that I think no one else would ask. Maybe that's the problem.

A couple of years ago I spoke with [former "Full Frontal" head writer] Jo Miller and ["Late Night with Seth Meyers" head writer] Alex Baze and [then-"Daily Show" executive producer] Steve Bodow about the state of late night after the 2016 election – what the general feeling was, and how they planned to keep going and keep people laughing in the midst of all this despair.

And you mentioned this a bit already, but what do you feel like are the biggest changes, since late 2016 and early 2017, in terms of making sure the energy of the show --

Keeps going?

Yes. Just in terms of how the energy may have changed between then and now. Has there been a change?

 . . . We have definitely, after three some odd years of this administration, figured out very keenly that we need to infuse our coverage with as much joy as possible. Like, and that's not to say that we're not tackling tough issues We are.

But we need to – it's a Stephen Colbert thing, actually. I'm going to steal from him for one second, because he talks about filling up your joy bucket. And so we are endeavoring to do that because in order to take care of ourselves, we have to do that too.

So what do you feel is the best, most important thing that you're doing to fill up, as you say, your joy bucket to keep going and not be consumed by the darkening?

We're doing the same coverage that we've always done, but you know, like last week we had a piece about haggling for health care. I think providing people with tools that can make their lives better, that's something that feeds us. We're raising money for Fair Fight. We're making ridiculous commercials for Michael Bloomberg. We're doing, you know, little things for show.

We have an animation in this upcoming show. And we have a really fun wrapper on this impeachment managers story that has been very joyful to do even as we're trying to learn from them and trying to, you know, trying to feed off of their positive attitudes toward the impeachment hearing.

So that's how we're doing it. And we have big plans for our election coverage. Like, we'll go out in the wild on Super Tuesday and try to do something very splashy at the conventions, and try to really be a pain in the ass for this administration. It will be my greatest joy for the next year to conduct a supreme amount of presidential harassment.

"Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on TBS. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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