Samantha Bee on Keeping 'Full Frontal' Weekly and Not Being an Activism Show

The former 'Daily Show' correspondent says the goal of a strong piece is never to annihilate.
Ali Goldstein/TBS
Samantha Bee

[The Hollywood Reporter spoke with an assortment of the biggest names in late-night about changes to the volatile variety talk category at the upcoming Emmys for a magazine story. Some longer Q&As from those interviews are going online.]

Being a late arrival in this year of late-night changeover hasn't been a hindrance for Samantha Bee, whose TBS comedy series Full Frontal went from a February premiere to a multiple TCA Award nominee and Emmy favorite in mere months on the back of righteous election season outrage, savvy field reports and Bee's own persuasive star power. 

In fact, the biggest critical complaint about Full Frontal With Samantha Bee is that in a political climate that seems to demand the healing salve of laughter on a nightly basis, one show per week hasn't felt like nearly enough content from the former Daily Show correspondent. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Bee about why once per week is enough, the show's layered web presence and whether the writers set out to "annihilate" or "destroy" subjects with particularly scathing material.

From your perspective inside the Daily Show operation, what did all of those years of Emmy domination feel like?

For me, I felt joy and happiness every time. I felt excited by it every time. I got a little frisson every single time we got nominated. I didn't always attend the show for timing purposes, but I loved it. It's really fun. It's gratifying. It's nice to be recognized. It's not the reason why you do it. It's not the reason why you are creative, but it's a lovely event.

The joy didn't become old hat after all of those years?

To be clear, our show won, but it's not like I personally won. It was always rewarding and felt great to be a part of a show that was being recognized that way, but it isn't a reason why you do the show. It's a wonderful kind of supplemental, joyful expression of people's thoughts on the show, so that's always totally gratifying. I would never get bored of people liking and enjoying something that I was a part of. It's hard to imagine being so jaded that you couldn't enjoy people just liking and appreciating what you do. If I felt that jaded by something, I probably should just leave the industry.

Your show premiered this year sort of at the tail end of a really busy string of late-night launches and relaunches. Now, as you were getting ready to premiere, obviously that's a ridiculously busy process from your point of view, but were you paying any attention to any of the other new shows that were launching at the same time?

I have to say I really wasn't. I think it's actually very common for people who work in television to not watch a lot of other television, because really you don't have time to watch it. If I'm writing a book, I don't like to read other people's books who are in a similar style to mine. I didn't pay a great deal of attention to it. We knew what we wanted to do and we knew that it would be something different from what everybody else was doing just because we were doing it, so I didn't take too much away from other people's launches. I knew ours would be different.

I've talked to a number of people in your job and yes, everyone agrees that no one has time to watch. Do you even pay attention to clips the morning after when people say, "Oh, this was a good bit," or whatever?

Sometimes, but it kind of has to come at me from multiple people and multiple angles for me to invest the time in sitting down and really clicking on something. It really is so busy, and in a good way. I actually feel glad that I don't really have time to engage too much, but if it comes to me from multiple directions, I usually think, "Okay, this is probably something that I should actually look at." I haven't watched the woman in the Chewbacca mask yet. I'll get to that in 2018.

If I'm being honest, neither have I. There's too much excitement about it.

OK, good. Yeah, there's too much, right? It makes you think, "Oh, I'm not sure. I'm not sure it's for me."

If you're not the guy who discovers it at a certain point you just have to be like, "Okay, I'm glad you're all happy and I'll get the next thing."

You and I are the same. We are the same.

Now, when you have all of these people and shows starting and trying to make their mark, from your point of view, do you think that it sort of encourages creativity because people are out there trying to do the show that's distinctive because it's their show, or do you think it kind of discourages innovation and creativity because people don't want to kind of fall on their faces and fail when they're starting?

I do think that there are more opportunities. I hope that there are more opportunities now for people to have a very strong and clear vision for their product. For me, as a viewer, because I watch a little TV, I really admire the force of a strong showrunner. A really strong and clear voice is what I seek in the shows that I watch. Those are the shows that I'm drawn to. I don't really care what world you set your show in. I really don't, but you need to grab my hand and drag me into that world and if you can do that and convince me that the world exists on some plane of reality, I will totally go with you on that journey. I just need the vision to be strong and clear. I don't think I answered your question at all. I apologize for that. I answered somebody else's question.

You totally answered a question. I'm just not sure if it was my question. I'm wondering about sort of the late-night space because the late-night space for a number of years, it was maybe two shows or three shows and now we're looking at ten, eleven, twelve, and they're starting constantly. Do you figure that when there are this many people trying to make their mark, that's an opportunity to innovate or that's an opportunity not to innovate for fear that you're going to be the person who's going to fall on their face?

I saw it as an opportunity to innovate to some extent. I saw it as an opportunity to do things differently, but we didn't create the show because we want it to be different from other shows. We created the show we created because we wanted to do 'that' show. We were very lucky in this, we were so lucky in this respect that TBS trusted our vision on the show fully. They were totally committed to hearing what our natural, native voices were and letting those flourish. I do feel like that is something that networks or that "TV makers" are doing more and more. I do see that. I mean, I just binge-watched Lady Dynamite the other day. I mean, my God! It's so special. It's just a jewel box of a show. I'm so amazed by it. I was alone in a hotel room and I binged the whole entire series all at once and I marveled at it and I do feel like those opportunities...I don't know. Would they have existed five years ago? I'm not entirely sure.

It takes a pretty good, visionary maker of television products, to go, "Go make what is whimsical to you. Go make something. We'll go on that trip with you." I love it, that I can put on my laptop and watch something like that. Incredible.

From the outside, we've all assumed that this election cycle has been comedy gold, but I'm wondering how great the challenge has been to keep coming up with fresh ways to laugh about an increasingly absurd and possibly terrifying set of circumstances.

I don't have any fear that those opportunities aren't just going to continually present themselves. I'm actually not worried about that at all. I don't have any fear. We only have our one show a week. We don't approach our one show as having to fill time at this point. We go in, we make such a big, fat show and then we have to trim it. We have so much more content that we could put out, and we trim it to what we like the best. I actually have no fear. I have no hesitation in saying that the crazy will continue. I'm absolutely confident about that.

It really does feel like the show is kind of bursting at the seams already. You've had a number of reports you've had to spread out over multiple episodes. You've had some of your best interviews where you've been like, "Okay, for the rest of this interview, go visit the website." How are you feeling about the half-hour and once-a-week at this point? You were so determined to do it in this way at the beginning. Is it feeling like enough time at this point?

I remain fully committed to that set-up. We love having too much content. That feels like an opportunity for us. Definitely, we miss jokes. It happens, but it's always a better feeling to narrow down to the absolute crux of your point and you can lead people digitally in other places. We always intended that our digital content would support the show and be just as important as the show. That has been our approach from the beginning, so it's not painful for us to take people digitally where we couldn't go on the show, where we didn't have time. I'd much rather work with editing material down than having to fill space or having to feel like, "Oh, what are we going to do this week? Well, we can just do this thing." We're so excited about the content, so this is a good place to be.

Talk about sort of the importance of "samanthabee.com" and how that was part of the pitch from the beginning, because it does seem like viral content is becoming more and more important in the late-night space and all of that. How did you pitch the website as being the companion to the show and its value to the network as well?

I will say we didn't really have to pitch that. That's just the way TV works now. Everybody's looking for something to exist online. They're looking for digital content. That's just a reality. For us, I think we knew inherently that we would want to have complementary pieces that would support our stuff on the show. In our last episode [episode 13 at the time of this interview], we played that film that we used [Whatever Happened to the Human Race]. There's no way that we could show the film on our show in any greater detail than we did. We just lucked into an interview with [director Frank Schaeffer] because he had been watching our show and he was intrigued by it, so we just spontaneously were able to travel to his home and speak with him, and he was so open to that.

It supports the piece. It was so interesting to us as a group, but we wouldn't put an extended version of that on our show or anything like that. It didn't really fit, but it fits perfectly digitally, and people can watch it as their interests take them there. We're not that conscious of metrics and all of the kind of language that goes into being viral and stuff like that. We just put stuff there that interests us, that we like. That's all. We leave that stuff up to other people, and we just are still making stuff that we like.

Now, you say you lucked into the interview, but that's obviously being disingenuous. How are you feeling about the growing reporting apparatus that you guys have?

No, we did! We actually did luck into it, because he contacted us after our episodes about "The Religious Right" aired and he was like, "Hey, did you know I made that movie?" He contacted us because he saw the episode, so it wasn't actually disingenuous. It was factual. He touched base with us and we just thought, "Oh my God, we're so lucky! All right, we'll go to Massachusetts! Hi!" And he was so great. It's a great interview.

Am I giving your reporting apparatus too much credit, or are you guys feeling like you're actually putting together something?

Yeah, we're not that smart. Thank you, though. I appreciate that.

Along those lines, one of the challenges of the 30 minutes and only once a week is that it has made it hard for you to sort of establish very quickly reporters, correspondents, commentators, recurring figures within the show. How important is that as a priority for the second half of the season?

I think that's a priority for us moving forward, for sure. For one thing, it's important for me as a performer to bring up other performers. I just think it's essential. It's helpful to people. It broadens the point of the show, yet again. It gives people opportunities. It's always great to have new, fresh voices. I do a lot of film pieces. It will help me immensely kind of managing my workload. Look, we're speaking because I'm in Detroit right now shooting a film piece in Dearborn. It's something that I love doing so much. I love it, but it is extremely time-consuming and there's lots of travel.

I think we'll have more opportunities in the future to spread that out a little bit. I think it helps the show. I think it's essential. Right now we are in the middle of a very electrifying election season, but once that's over -- again, not like I think we'll have any lack of things to talk about -- but it would behoove us to bring new voices in when we're past the election season. That's just a good idea on a million different levels, and I'm excited about it, completely.

Going back to election cycle, what has the process been like from your point of view of topicality and the dangers of knowing that if something happens on a Tuesday or Wednesday, there will have been an entire week of jokes in the ether about that thing happening and how you guys then choose to approach being behind, almost? 

Well, that process is evolving for sure, but it gives us an opportunity for a little bit more analysis. Before we launched the show, we thought that that would be a liability, and we worried a lot about that. There's so many other shows doing topical content, and we worried about missing the mark and airing on a Monday, at the beginning of a week full of events, for sure, we thought a lot about it. But once we got into a groove, we actually realized that it's an asset, because it gives you the moment to sit back, take it all in, see the shape of the story, see what the narrative is and come at things from a different angle or figure out our particular take on it.

If I may say so, it's a little bit luxurious; a little bit like a nice, warm bubble bath. You get to sit in something for a while and it happens. I can't really give you any specific examples of this because everything moves very quickly. There are times when something emerges and you think it's going to be great and you think you might do something on it and then it sort of either dies down or it's over-covered or it turns out to be nothing, so it gives us the opportunity to avoid that. Not too many hot takes on our show. That's a good thing.

But hot takes are the coin of the realm almost, to some degree. The first person to say the funny insult for Donald Trump or the funny insult for what happens when Carly Fiorina falls down. Is that something you steer away from if that's not what you want to be doing?

We have our Twitter handle. We have our social media. If we want to do something, we can do it quickly, in the moment, for sure. Our hands are not tied completely, and we don't feel like we suffer from it at all. We feel like the way that we're approaching stories is generally different from everybody else's, and it hasn't been difficult to do, because when a story emerges and it doesn't mean anything to us or we don't feel passionately about it, it gives us two or three days with a story to go, "Is this for us? I don't know." And if it isn't for us, we feel it in our loins more than anything else, honestly. We're operating at such a gut level, but there's no lamenting whatsoever. This is just the right way for us to do it.

This is kind of a last big-picture question. It's kind of been this way since Stewart and since before that a vicious monologue then goes viral and the news stories all read, "Jon Stewart Decimates...", "Samantha Bee Destroyed...", John Oliver annihilates...", and from your point of view, I guess I'm wondering: Do people in your job have this sort of power, do you think, and do you want to have that kind of power?

No, I don't care. Honestly, I have to say that I don't really read any of those things anyway. I don't read them, so they don't affect me at all. If that's how people analyze the show, it doesn't bother me, but it's not what we're going for. That's not the goal. The goal is to tell the story the way that we want to tell it, and then as it disseminates, it's really out of our hands, but the goal is not to achieve some amazing headline somewhere. The goal is to tell the story.

Is the goal sometimes to decimate? Is the goal sometimes to annihilate? Is it to destroy sometimes?

We don't think of it that way. It's not like we're saying, "Morning meeting, guys. Who are we going to annihilate today?" When we feel passionately about a story, like we felt so passionately about the rape kit story, we definitely singled out a woman, that's no question, but it didn't come from our desire to quote unquote "annihilate" her. It just came from our disbelief that she was doing the things that she was doing. We still attacked the story from our own personal point of view and just put it out there and then left it on the floor.

Makes sense. There's just this sort of tendency sometimes to read in the media, "Would Donald Trump still be winning if Jon Stewart had been there at the beginning? Would he have prevented this somehow magically?"

There's no way. I don't believe that at all. I just don't. I don't put that much thought in things. People have their pre-formed opinions. I have to say, If we woke up every day and went, "Today, we're going to change the world!", it would be the unfunniest show that was the most unfun to work on. It's a satire show. It's not an activism show. I think those lines get muddy sometimes, but for us, we're strictly doing the satire part. That's what we think we're doing. That's what we intend to do.

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