Samantha Bee on Tackling Harvey Weinstein Claims: "It's in Our Wheelhouse"
The 'Full Frontal' host and her producers spoke to THR about head writer Jo Miller's departure and, at a Paleyfest NY Panel, discussed the challenges of doing a weekly show with a news cycle that seems to change hourly.
The staff of Samantha Bee's weekly TBS show Full Frontal heard the criticism last weekend of "liberal" talk shows not covering the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations. And executive producer Miles Kahn said his initial response was to think of another, much more benign, open secret in Hollywood: most late-night shows don't tape on Fridays.
"It happened on Thursday night. No one tapes on Fridays! Give us a minute," Kahn said he found himself thinking amid the criticism, echoing what Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel, who typically don't air new editions of their shows Friday nights, have said about their delayed response to the scandal, which grew over the weekend after the New York Times published its exposé, revealing decades of alleged sexual harassment by the disgraced mogul. Since then, more women have come forward with claims of harassment and, following the Tuesday publication of a subsequent investigation in The New Yorker, allegations of sexual assault. So by the time Full Frontal got ready to tape its weekly episode Wednesday, Bee and Co. knew they would be devoting a significant chunk of this week's show to the allegations against Weinstein.
"[The Weinstein story] began as one thing and you weren't sure where it was going to go and maybe its a few minutes of the show," co-executive producer Alison Camillo said on a PaleyFest New York panel Thursday night. "And then the New Yorker article comes out and it's like, 'OK, now it's a whole act, and a PSA.'"
Bee added, "It really did grow and is still volatile and horrible. It's a horrible mess."
Bee also felt like her show was well-suited to tackle that sort of alleged inappropriate behavior by a powerful man.
"Listen, it's in our wheelhouse," she told moderator Dave Itzkoff when he asked if the show felt an obligation to take on the Weinstein story. "This is the type of stuff that gets us really upset. This is what we're built to respond to. I mean, really. There's outrage and you feel all of these feelings, and we've all had terrible experiences. It's a huge opportunity for us to say something and blurt something out."
"I think that's where the anger comes from, too. Even going around the writers room and talking about what experiences we've had as people, it just makes you angrier and angrier and angrier," Camillo added.
Bee concurred, saying, "It's familiar territory for us and it's fucking irritating! It brings out a lot of fury.… We were all together on last night's show and really coalesced around it. It was a good feeling and the entire staff, like everybody came into the studio, and we just kind of did it all together.… It was a shared experience."
Camillo echoed that sentiment, saying taping Full Frontal's response to the Weinstein allegations, "was cathartic for the whole staff. Your whole lifetime when someone's bullying you, you always want to turn around and take that person down."
Still, Bee's PSA telling men not to masturbate in front of their employees (or really anyone) at work, which has since gone viral, wasn't always part of the Weinstein response.
"One of our writers and correspondents Ashley Nicole Black had written this thing, which was essentially that PSA, and it was kind of at the last minute," Camillo told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the panel. "We saw it [Wednesday] morning, and we'd kind of already had all of our production rolling, but when we read it, it was so funny, we were like, 'This is exactly how we have to do it. This is exactly what we want to do.' We originally had it with graphics and things like that, but it was such pure emotion that we just decided to do it completely straight like a PSA. It was just like joyous for all of us."
Bee added that Black had been pushing for the PSA "for a really long time."
"I didn't know how funny it was going to be until we rehearsed it and then it seemed like such a no-brainer," she told THR. "I mean people need to know, people need to have more humility about their dicks. There's a few things that seem obvious to me and to the people I work with, but perhaps other people have not gotten the message. So we wanted to provide that service. I hope it was an educational experience for a lot of people."
This week, Full Frontal also announced that showrunner Jo Miller, who'd been with the show since its inception, had left the program. But speaking to THR ahead of Thursday night's panel, Bee and Co. downplayed Miller's departure as "just time to make a change" and "a very healthy situation" while praising Miller.
"She's great. She's amazing. Jo's a genius," Bee told THR. "She's going to bounce somewhere in absolutely no time. It's very amicable. Everything was just kind of winding down, and it's just time to make a change. It's a very healthy situation."
Camillo added, "Jo is so incredibly brilliant and we were incredibly lucky to have her there as long as we did, and now I think we're just making a change. The show is just sort of growing, and changing a little bit and right now we feel like we have everyone we need all under the roof, so we're just kind of going to shift things around that way, we're not bringing anybody else in."
Kahn said, "We're absolutely indebted to Jo and the passion and the rage that she brought to us. I can't wait to see what she does next."
Almost two years in, Full Frontal is, like other late-night shows, dealing with a rapidly changing news cycle. And as a weekly show, that sometimes means that days of planning may have to be scrapped the day before or that the program will look wildly different than the writers thought it would before the weekend.
"We kind of go into the weekend with a rough plan for how we see next week's show and in another era, in another life, you weren't always entirely positive that the entire news cycle would be different by Wednesday. It felt like you could definitely probably stick to your plan and be confident that nothing would change unless something dramatic happens," Bee said on the panel. "Now we just go into the weekend and say, 'We'll see on Monday. Everything will be different again on Tuesday.'… Something is generally always going to happen since the president became the president.… You have to stay pretty nimble and also pray that nothing too dramatic happens late Tuesday night into Wednesday."
For instance, the James Comey firing and Trump's transgender ban were both Tuesday night/Wednesday morning stories that forced the Full Frontal staff to dramatically change that week's show.
Supervising producer and associate director Pat King said that with the Comey firing, the Full Frontal team had already locked their script for the next day's show and thought they'd be able to leave early on Tuesday. And Bee, who was at friend Stephen Colbert's Late Show for his Daily Show reunion special that night, shared what happened on the set of the CBS late-night show when the news came in at 5:48 p.m. ET.
"Suddenly everyone went, 'Holy shit! Oh my God,'" Bee said. "That was what happened in the office of every late-night show. Every staffer just went, 'Fuck! I thought I had a plan!'"
Bee later said, "It's not so much that we're chasing the news cycle, it's that the news cycle is chasing us. [We're] being pursued by a global monster."
In terms of how the volume of news each week affects what the Full Frontal team includes in each week's show, Camillo said, "You feel like you have a fire hose pointed at you, and it's just what you feel you can grab out of the air that you feel the most passionate about."
Kahn added, "It's fun to choose not the most obvious fruit, too. In this instance this week, you couldn't not choose Harvey Weinstein, like you had to talk about Harvey Weinstein. The dangling keys are kind of really obvious to go for sometimes and it's nice to think we can go for this little tiny story over here in the corner, like Puerto Rico still being under water. Like, let's not forget about those other stories."
Another late change for Full Frontal occurred with the results of the 2016 presidential election. Bee and Co. explained that they had to "tweak" their Nov. 9 show when it became clear in the early hours of that morning that Hillary Clinton would not win. Those changes included making the joyous cold open a dream sequence, re-cutting a man-on-the-street field piece to take a different approach and killing a planned balloon drop, giving the balloons to Harry Connick Jr.'s show, which tapes down the hall from the Full Frontal studio.
But sometimes the Full Frontal team has more time, like with the "racist Music Man" segment the show did this summer about Trump's voting commission vice chairman Kris Kobach, which was shown to the PaleyFest audience during Thursday night's talk.
"Our senior researcher titled her [Kris Kobach] research document, 'He's a Fucking Racist Music Man,'" King recalled. "And we kept working on it and coming back to 'that Music Man thing's kind of funny' and then all of a sudden, our writers were like, 'What if we did something like that and did a song?'"
Bee said the production, including the orchestration and staging and rehearsal, was about a week and they had to contend with some legal barriers.
"[We] were told, you can make it sound like [The Music Man] but not really sound like that at all," Camillo said.
Bee added, "You can make it music but it can't sound anything like The Music Man."
Bee also shared some insight into Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, whom she had interviewed a couple of times during her many years on The Daily Show, before Conway became part of Trump's team.
"I definitely remember her showing up and saying, 'OK, what do you want me to say? I'll just say whatever,'" Bee said. "She didn't care that much.… I'm not saying it's so different now. It might be the MO."