In 2016, Samantha Bee’s first-season TBS series Full Frontal had episodes on either side of Election Day, and, going off of the majority of polls suggesting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would win, the show’s staff prepared an episode for Nov. 9 celebrating the end of a divisive presidential contest and the election of the country’s first female president. When it became clear that Donald Trump had won, late Tuesday night, though, they were forced to scramble to repurpose their day-after episode.
“We had our hopes up really high and all of the polls were looking really good for Hillary,” executive producer Alison Camillo tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We made a show based on that because it was just sort of naive optimism about what was going to happen.”
Once the reality of a Trump win, “started settling in,” Camillo says they “had to go back through every single thing for the show we had yesterday and re-spin it with a Trump win. So we stayed up all night long.”
“It was really emotionally draining,” she adds.
This time, the Full Frontal team is ready for multiple, different outcomes for their regularly scheduled weekly show on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 10:30 p.m.
“We’ve made essentially three different plotlines — one plotline if [Joe] Biden wins, one plotline if Trump wins and one plotline if we don’t know who the winner is the day after the election — just to cover our bases and make sure that we have a nice, tight show no matter what happens,” Camillo says.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Camillo, Bee and Co. will be getting more sleep this year.
“Once the returns start coming in, I’ll probably be up until midnight, 1, 2 a.m., just to see how things are going,” Camillo explains. “I think depending on how it’s going is how late I’ll stay up and that’s also when the writers start writing. We’re planning to have all of our scripts in my 3 or 4 a.m. so graphics can start … and all of the little minutia to make the show. And then we have to tape Sam for act one because we don’t know what happens until it happens so I’ll be getting up super duper early on Wednesday to go to our new studio and shoot our act one and then our last act, sort of in response to what happened on Election Day. So I’m planning on getting almost no sleep from Tuesday through Wednesday morning.”
Full Frontal‘s approach to this year’s election is in keeping with its “Expect the Worst” theme for its 2020 campaign coverage.
“Everyone on our staff, at least, has a lot of PTSD from the last election, so we’ve been trying to do defensive pessimism,” Camillo says. “We don’t want to get our hopes up, just in case everything goes awry and we’re stuck in this for another four years so we’re taking the route of defensive pessimism, where we’re just going to lower the bar and just expect the worst and deal with whatever comes. We started saying that and it was making everyone feel better because we feel like as long as we’re mentally prepared we won’t have that same driving-off-a-cliff level of shock that we had after 2016.”
That approach dovetails with the show’s “real-life horror movie” voting campaign, “I Know What You Did Last Election.”
Beyond the presidential race, Camillo says the writers are keeping an eye on down-ballot contests in Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and “local-level races that seem to be places that have never gone blue or rarely gone blue that might go blue this time.”
“Those really are just as important as the presidential election because it sort of gives you an idea of where the country’s head is at,” she explains.
Full Frontal recently returned to the studio after filming shows from the backyard of Bee’s home in upstate New York amid the coronavirus pandemic. The show shared its old studio, which complicated plans to safely resume filming indoors.
But as of last week, the show has been filming from a new studio that, Camillo explains, “no one else is sharing with us for us to own entirely as our show.”
“We’re doing everything by remote cameras and a remote crew so there’s only a few — like less than five — people in that whole building when we actually tape the show,” she explains. “We have a remote control room and our director’s remote and our TV’s remote and all of that, so we’ve just been figuring out for the past month technically how to make that work. … It was so great to be back and to hear the voices of all of these people that I’ve missed for so long … yet another chapter has started in our pandemic lives.”
Going into Nov. 3, Camillo’s most optimistic scenario is “a huge Biden landslide.”
And she remains hopeful even in her most pessimistic scenario. “As far as the other end of the spectrum, my mind goes to a million places,” she says. “Obviously I would be super bummed out if Trump wins again because there’s never been a president more racist or divisive and I feel like it will continue to fracture the country if we have to do another four years with him, so I’m praying we don’t go down this path. But obviously I love this country and will be here through thick and thin no matter what. So if we have to pick up the pieces on Nov. 4, that’s what we’ll do.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Bee about her hopes and plans for this year’s post-election show as well as the possibility of a drawn-out legal fight over the results of the election, what the series could look like under a Biden administration and other stories her team hopes to explore once the presidential race has been called.
Obviously a lot has changed since 2016 but people are making comparisons and that was the first election for Full Frontal. How did the surprise outcome of 2016 and how that election night and day played out affect how you’re preparing your coverage for Nov. 4?
Well, we were so burned. We had planned a show and built a show for this historic moment of a woman president and it was very celebratory and we were able to preshoot not a lot of content, but you have a plan for it. We filmed people all day voting and had put together this beautiful field piece. It just had a completely different tone. We had a celebratory cold open [that we had to revise] for the morning after. We had to really reshoot everything that we had planned that day, the day of the show. And it was really difficult to do. We were really emotional and exhausted. It was very difficult. We didn’t plan for the possibility that Donald Trump would win and we just weren’t ready for it. But this time around we are ready. We are planning for everything. We have a plan for every outcome. We have a plan if Trump wins again. We have a plan if it’s a Biden blowout. We have a plan if we all wake up in the morning, as if anyone’s getting any sleep, and we’re all bewildered. We have a plan for bewilderment. The way that we shoot the show now is so different from the normal way that we would have shot in 2016 in the sense that we really have to tape everything with a generous amount of time for the edit, so we will be shooting that show probably at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday so we need to be as prepared as possible going into the day.
So are you seeing 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning as the cutoff, because there’s a possibility that they could call the winner on Wednesday night?
If that happens, then we would still have a show. Our show will still have relevance. It’ll be totally fine. I worked at The Daily Show for a long time and, we did an “election outcome” show where Jon [Stewart] would read the returns. That’s not for me. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be breaking news about it. I’ll leave that to others.
What about the possibility of this being a drawn-out legal fight in the days and weeks after the election, are you all preparing for that?
That I think will unfold. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s very hard for us to see past Nov. 3. But we have shows the week after, so we’ll get right back into it. We’ll deal with that when we get there. And we’re really obviously hoping for a decisive Biden victory so that we can actually talk about other stuff. That will be our greatest joy.
Do you have a vision of what Full Frontal would look like under a Biden administration?
It’s funny because back in 2016 when we thought Hillary was going to win, we had this big plan for just broadening the range of stories that we get to tell on the show. So I’m just back at that place and seeing the future and thinking just imagine the possibilities. The world is a little closed to us so it’s hard to see travel in our immediate future but the moment that that opens up, we’ll go some place and tell some interesting stories. … I think we’re all really, really excited to do a show under a Biden administration. There’s going to be lots of stuff to talk about. I’m not worried in the least about that.
In terms of other stories, are there any issues ahead of the election that you feel like aren’t getting enough attention that you hope that your show can clue people into?
I feel like the minute the election’s over we’re already canvassing [for] outside content. We have a plan to talk about the crisis of evictions … those are going to be devastating and really very antithetical to comedy. But we’ll do it anyway and we’ll make it funny.
In terms of you personally, in 2016 you voted for the first time in a U.S. election, what is your voting plan this year?
My plan is I’m voting tomorrow, Thursday [Oct. 29]. I’m going to in-person early vote. I just personally need the physical gesture of voting. I’m excited to do that. I just need to be there and hold the ballot in my hand and fill in my little space on the ballot and just physically see it get counted. That’s where I’m out. And then I’m going to slap that sticker on my chest so proudly. I might have it laminated. I might actually frame it. It’s so important to vote.
In terms of election night, what’s your plan? Are you going to watch the returns? Are you going to go to bed early?
I think we’ll be probably up all night or most of the night and in a state of extreme anxiety, like much of the country. We will be planning the next day of the show certainly and pulling all of the elements together, and there will be very little sleep if any at all. We’ll see how it goes, but we’re ready.
What’s your most optimistic scenario for what happens on Election Day and your most pessimistic scenario?
Well my most optimistic scenario is that first-time voters and people who sat it out in 2016 come out in droves in a decisive Biden victory. And these ridiculous notions of voter fraud are put away. That’s my most fervent hope. Of course I’m very worried that he won’t accept the results of the election, regardless of what they are. It makes it more difficult for him to do that if it’s a landslide. I’m really hoping for a statement and a landslide and a gesture that says definitively get out of the White House, get out now, go away forever. What I’m expecting, I don’t know. I don’t even hazard a guess anymore. I’m just hoping for what I’m hoping for and everything else is possible. There’s definitely nothing that is impossible.
Do you have a most pessimistic scenario or are you not letting yourself to go there?
I go there in my mind. I mean I go to a place — there could be violence, disarray, social unrest. … I’m not sure what we’re going to do if he doesn’t accept the results of the election. There’s a couple of months there where we just have to sit and stew. And I really hope we don’t have to do that.
There have been so many absurd and horrible things this year. Was there something specific that happened, in terms of the presidential campaigns, that gave you hope or you remember as finding uplifting amid all of this?
I remember a feeling of happiness when Biden selected Kamala [Harris] to be his running mate. I thought she was a great choice. I like her very much. I’ve met her a few times and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. I allowed optimism to gently peek through the keyhole when Kamala was selected. That was a really happy moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.