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FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE PRESENTS: PANDEMIC VIDEO DIARIES
The digital team at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee was nearly ready to roll out a new behind-the-scenes segment documenting how the late night show gets made when the world shut down in March 2020. “We were about to shoot Sam for this beautiful, highly produced show, and then, we all went home and never came back,” says supervising producer Elisa Kreisinger. The lockdown forced them to pivot, and ultimately the Emmy-nominated Pandemic Video Diaries (which earned a nom for outstanding shortform nonfiction or reality series) came from a place of candor. “We needed a way to process how we were feeling and laugh at ourselves because there was not much else to do at the time,” says Kreisinger. “We thought, well, let’s document this absurd time.”
The format of the show emerged organically once Kreisinger and her team — like every other person — took to videoconferencing to check in on colleagues. “In the beginning, we had all these grand plans [for the show], but once we got down to brass tacks, we threw out all that pretty footage and just went to Zoom stuff,” she says. The end result is a segment showing the kind of emotional rawness that is usually hard to depict on TV that’s intended as social commentary. “With this, we were able to turn the lens on ourselves and look inward and ask hard questions of ourselves,” says Kreisinger. “We take the moment to be human with each other in this really vulnerable, hard moment and make it funny.”
Finding the humor in this situation was, along with whittling down hours of interview footage, the greatest challenge for the team of eight. “COVID isn’t funny, and what was happening with Trump wasn’t funny. But we had to put a show on every week,” says Kreisinger. “Luckily, the people who work on the show are some of the funniest people in late night. It really helps to be surrounded by really articulate people, because they can make any harrowing experience into a comedic one.”
While Kreisinger suspects that Pandemic Video Diaries is over for now as the conversation around the virus shifts from coping under lockdown to navigating vaccination rates and variants, she is immensely grateful for the hours spent talking to her colleagues about this once-in-a-lifetime moment. “We could’ve made an hourlong documentary on each staff person and how they were negotiating work and trying to make the news funny,” says Kreisinger. “Every staff member had such an interesting story to tell. I’m glad we documented it.”
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS: CORRECTIONS
When Meyers first found himself shooting his late night show remotely, the feedback from viewers wasn’t purely encouraging. “From the very beginning, people were writing Twitter and YouTube comments like ‘You need to get a better camera,’ and ‘You don’t know lighting,’ ” recalls Meyers. “Instead of rejecting that cruelty, I sort of embraced it.” Gathering comments from viewers who took to the internet to point out the mistakes he was making on his show, Meyers created an online segment called “Corrections,” which since its inception has grown from a three-minute aside to a weekly 15-minute show that has been nominated for outstanding shortform series.
“It was born out of whimsy, and yet it has become one of my favorite things to do,” says Meyers. “At its seed, we’re very aware that it’s a stupid idea, yet a lot of good comedy comes from stupid ideas taken incredibly seriously.” Shooting down speculation that he has interns scouring the web for material, Meyers admits this is a solo endeavor from start to finish that he, in part, does to entertain his crew. “It’s really fun for me to try to surprise them,” he says. “And it’s very empowering to read your own YouTube comments for the purposes of trying to make jokes about it. You have to tough through some pretty negative stuff, but I found I’ve come out stronger on the other side.”
The heightened interaction between viewers and host came at a time when Meyers says he needed it the most. “During this pandemic, I deeply, emotionally needed an audience more than any time before in my showbiz life, because otherwise I just would have felt so alone,” he says. “I feel like my audience is my friends more than I did before — and this is very much a bit among friends.” While Corrections is inherently an inside joke, those in on that joke have amounted to hundreds of thousands of fans around the world. “It’s nice to be able to share this weird thing with them,” says Meyers. “It’s like doing a weekly open mic set about the show for the people who pay enough attention to get the inside jokes.” Audiences have expressed boundless enthusiasm for Passive Aggressive Seth, but there is one person who doesn’t find this version of Seth the “best.” “I promise you that my wife would take issue with that,” Meyers says with a laugh. “But I’m very happy that anyone cares for Corrections outside of me. Any person who says that makes me deeply happy.”
STEPHEN COLBERT PRESENTS: TOONING OUT THE NEWS
Watching parodic segments where former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio or Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson are verbally pummeled by animated cable news hosts, viewers of the Emmy-nominated Stephen Colbert Presents: Tooning Out the News were so taken aback by the exchanges that some confusedly questioned the show’s “authenticity” on Twitter. “Stephen sent out a tweet saying, ‘I hear people think this is essentially faked’ and us saying, ‘No, it’s real. This is actually happening,’ ” says executive producer R.J. Fried with a laugh. That said, no one is perhaps more surprised with what the show has gotten away with than Fried.
At a time when political tumult gripped America, a turmoil that was exacerbated by a lockdown because of the global pandemic, launching an animated cable news spoof seemed not just technically impossible but creatively tenuous. “The world wasn’t really much in a mood to laugh,” recalls Fried. “I think we feel very fortunate that animation has a way of allowing dark humor to wash over you. There’s something about that little removal that allows the audience to laugh a little more. In some ways we feel like this cartoon is equipped to handle what is a very tough world, in a way that people can consume.”
Through these shameless animated pundits, Fried, who hails from cable news and is the co-creator of Showtime’s Our Cartoon President, wanted to shine a light on the uncomfortably close relationships between guests and hosts on news shows. “Cable news is largely willing to trade friendly coverage for access, and because of that a lot of problems are perpetuated, because you are just too nice to people who are doing wrong,” he says. “Our show tries our best to correct that and satirize that.” In doing so — posing questions that are real but in many cases leading, to put the interviewee a bit off guard — this group sometimes feel like they get away with murder. “I guess we just like to get in trouble and are OK with not being invited to parties,” quips Fried, who credits their success to his co-workers’ courage.
“We write pretty hard jokes to say in front of someone. The bravery of the writers and performers really amazes me,” says Fried. “With 95 percent of our guests, it’s a good conversation, but once in a while we put them in these situations where they have to embrace the discomfort. Luckily, they’re in character, which helps, but it does take a bravery that is pretty rare in the news world.”
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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