Samantha Bee’s ‘Full Frontal’ Breaks Late Night’s Rules and Shakes Up the Format

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Samantha Bee is only just getting started.

Since its launch in February, Bee’s “Full Frontal,” the talk-and-satire series that is equal turns gut-splitting and outrageous, has already become an acclaimed part of TV’s late-night landscape (even though the Time Warner-owned cable outlet airs it at 10:30 p.m. on Mondays). Bee has sparked attention for getting the usually genial TBS to embrace wicked amounts of profanity, and for railing against “fraudulent rage prophets” and the “tasting menu of ’roid rage” personified by the nation’s more conservative elements. In general, she’s known for kicking down the door to America’s minds by delivering a heady mix of information in between all those belly laughs. It’s that razor-sharp voice that earned her a nomination for outstanding writing for a variety series (the award went to HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” at the Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 11).

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Bee’s commitment to the show’s success has her working nonstop: Consider her recent election special, her development of a “Sam Squad” of on-air correspondents, and her team’s increasing social-media efforts. They even sparked a bit of a controversy when the show’s Twitter account took aim at TBS for posting a video comparing Hillary Clinton’s laugh to a hyena’s. “It was more like poking your brother in the back seat of the car than it was anything antagonistic,” Bee says of that “Delete Your Account” tweet. “These things take on a life all their own, but that video was terrible. I’m absolutely not walking it back.”

In Samantha Bee’s hypercompetitive business, it’s hard to let anything go. With an election looming, she’ll be under pressure to make hay from a political cycle that has captivated millions. But she also wants to expand her focus beyond the Trump/Clinton melodrama, exploring topics that may have gotten less attention because of our political obsession. The show has ambitious plans for more of its signature field pieces, in which Bee and her crew have gone wall-climbing with Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, or sought out a security expert running schoolchildren through drills to keep them from getting shot in class. The network is encouraging her to expand beyond politics into popular culture and other areas, says Brett Weitz, TBS’ executive vice president of programming. “She has the bandwidth and a really great handle on where the show should be post-election,” he says.

“I waitered for so long that I literally have PTSD from it, and now, when I feel people being unfair to one another, it takes me right back to that place.”
samantha bee

No wonder Bee is ready to let loose at a moment’s notice. Between reading the draft of a script at a recent rehearsal and heading into a rewrite meeting, she is asked to tape a few promos for one of the company’s German cable outlets, TNT Comedy. “Hallo, Deutschland,” she chirps in a fake German accent. “Heil TNT!” The moment is shocking, brazen – and laugh-out-loud funny.  The crowd in the room cracks up.

Her one-liner, of course, will never make it to TV. “That,” she confides later, “was just for us.”

Indeed, Bee and her team take a lot of pride in staying true to their own interests to find fresh, funny material. It’s hard to imagine fun-loving Jimmy Fallon cursing on NBC’s “Tonight Show” while informing his audience about the horrifying effects of a national backlog of rape-kit evidence, or roguish Jimmy Kimmel on ABC letting loose with a graphic showing an elephant being sexually penetrated by a cross. But Bee has done it all. In months to come, her voice — one of only two in the format that belongs to a woman (Chelsea Handler does a late-night type series for streaming-video titan Netflix), and the only one with a TV-MA rating (save John Oliver) — could rise further above the din, particularly if Clinton is elected.

“We do a show to please ourselves,” says Bee, 46, whose profile rose while working for more than a decade as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” “This gives us an opportunity to say the things we want in the exact way we want to say them.” In the process, her viewers get a few laughs, but also can exorcise their frustrations with modern politics and culture. When Bee watches TV, she says, “I like a firm hand to take me somewhere. I think that’s what we do with the show — provide a firm hand. You might not like where it takes you, and that’s OK, too.” She hopes viewers “walk away with comedy first, and then the catharsis after. ”

To the new generation of wee-hours TV rivals, the answer is “Yes.” Jon Stewart’s decision to leave “The Daily Show” last year has left many feeling a void: Who will pick apart the news of the day in a way that makes us both think and laugh? Many among TV’s current cadre of hosts aspire to fill the job. Seth Meyers has found new footing on NBC’s “Late Night” by banning Donald Trump from his show; CBS hopes part of Stephen Colbert’s renewed appeal on the “Late Show” will come through being timely and topical. But Bee — even though she’s on only once a week, like HBO’s Oliver — is credited with helping viewers explore everything from state elections to gun control — and making them smile as she does. Reactions range from “Did she really just say that?” to “Yes — someone finally said that!”

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Bee’s pointed, outspoken approach might be off-putting to some, but many are embracing it. Her first show attracted 914,000 viewers overall, according to Nielsen. Her Aug. 1 broadcast won more than 1.3 million. “Bee’s style is explicit, offering colorful insults and sexual metaphors, co-opting a form of rhetoric long reserved for ‘dudes being dudes with other dudes,’” says Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied late-night shows for more than 15 years. “She’s for real, and her viewers know it.”

There was no better demonstration of Bee’s authenticity than when she offered viewers her thoughts on the June nightclub shooting in Orlando. “Now, after a massacre, the standard operating procedure is that you stand on stage and deliver some well-meaning words about how we will get through this together, how love wins, how love conquers hate, and that is great,” Bee said. “That is beautiful. But you know what? Fuck it. I am too angry for that.” In a monologue that lasted more than seven minutes, she examined why assault weapons are easily obtained by criminals, savaged the response of government officials to the tragedy, and prayed for the National Rifle Assn. to be hit with a plague of boils. During rehearsals, Bee became very emotional, says Weitz. “What you saw was somebody reacting to a breakdown.”

The segment was so raw that AT&T, a staunch “Full Frontal” sponsor, moved the commercial it normally ran in the show’s first break to later in the half hour, to avoid being near the polarizing material. “There are times when some of what she has to say will be more controversial, and other times it’s not. It is a balance,” says Valerie Vargas, vice president of advertising for social and emerging media at AT&T Entertainment Group.

Over-the-Top Laughs
“Full Frontal” has a strong army of fans, followers, and streamers.
72.3m YouTube clips video views
33% Non-live viewing (DVR, VOD, and TBS and cable-provider apps and websites)
418k Twitter followers
344k Facebook fans

But the staff wasn’t concerned with how the audience — or advertisers — might react, says Bee, who recounted that her husband, Jason Jones, reminded her during a rewrite session of some of the things she had said to him upon first hearing about the incident. “I spoke from my heart, and that’s how it occurred on camera. We were so angry,” she says. “It was personal. I think it had to be.”

Most late-night hosts avoid political hot buttons, but Bee is anything but traditional. “Full Frontal” has no band, no gimmicky introductions, no celebrity guests eager to spotlight clips from a new project. Instead, the show introduces viewers to people and places they might not otherwise see. For her first show, Bee traveled to Jordan to visit Syrian refugee camps to lend more dimension to Muslim immigrants who might come to America. The segment’s title: “The People We’re Incoherently Yelling About.” She spent weeks trying to get her hands on a costume of “Eddie the Eagle,” the gun-safety mascot of the NRA, but found buying guns a much easier task. And she introduced viewers to Dan Flynn, a Republican legislator from Texas who co-wrote a bill that made it harder for women to get abortions. “You don’t seem to know anything specifically about abortion at all,” she told him.

How does Bee get people to appear on the show? “I’m sure he didn’t like it, because we just don’t agree on that particular issue — I mean, at all — but I felt like he was represented very accurately,” she says of Flynn. “I think people really do want to be heard from more than they care that a joke might be made at their expense.” As Flynn made his case during the segment, however, it was clear he had little hope of prevailing. Bee warned him his efforts could lead more women to seek abortions in back alleys, and he asked her where she got her information. Her answer: “Reality.”

Making a Beeline for Controversy: “We just see the world through a different kind of filter,” says Samantha Bee (right) with stage manager Laura Mack.

Bee says she comes by her opinions honestly. Her mother taught her early in life that some people aren’t treated fairly, and kept her daughter from eating grapes because she felt the workers who harvested them faced unfair conditions. Bee, who grew up in Canada, recalls as a child arguing with her grandmother over the appeal of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. “She thought Ron and Nancy were just classy,” Bee remembers. “I didn’t think his foreign policy was worth anything.”

Working for years in Toronto-area seafood joints and pancake houses while she tried to decide what to do with her life gave her even more of a sense of fair play. “I waitered for so long that I literally have PTSD from it, and now, when I feel people being unfair to one another — when I feel people negating other people — it takes me right back to that place of having people be so awful to me because I was serving them food,” she says. “When I see Donald Trump, I think of all the dinners I served at the lobster house.”

Relief came in the form of working as part of a four-woman comedy group called the Atomic Fireballs. Bee and three cohorts would produce and book their own shows — not an easy or lucrative task, recalls Allana Harkin, a member of the group who now works as a consulting producer on “Full Frontal.” The basis of many of the sketches would be everyday things that set the members off, like a bad massage or waiting on the phone for service. “Being pissed off at things — you use that and translate it into comedy,” Harkin says. “Sam just continues to do that. She wakes up in the morning and will say, ‘I cannot believe what I just read. It’s just the most ridiculous thing ever.’” The work with the Atomic Fireballs led Bee to an audition that landed her on “The Daily Show” — much to her surprise.

“Full Frontal” is also something of a shock. Before Stewart announced he was leaving “The Daily Show,” Bee was already preparing her own departure from the program, but she never considered hosting a show of her own. She’s glad she was not asked to helm the Comedy Central program. “This is my much vastly preferred method of doing a show,” she says. “It’s hard to pick up somebody else’s bags and go anywhere with them.” She and Jones had long been developing concepts for TV series, and they seemed to have snagged interest from TBS in a comedy, “The Detour.” This would finally offer them a chance to do something of their own. When network executives suggested her own late-night gig, she says, “it was a little bit mind-blowing.”

“I’ve always been the underdog, the quiet one, the one who properly stands in line and waits their turn, even when some jerk butts in front. well, I’m done with all that now.”
samantha bee

Not for TBS. Executives wanted a female presence on a network that these days is best known for Conan O’Brien and reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.” A show led by a woman might help the network broaden its appeal, Weitz felt, particularly one with Bee’s point of view. “It may be uncomfortable at times, and it may be unsettling, but it’s what you need,” he says. “It’s not angry; it’s fed up.”

In an era when fewer people are watching TV live, says Weitz, the network can use “Full Frontal” to flout convention. “The idea of late night has become more about the design and content of a show, as opposed to the metric of 11 to midnight, or 11 to 1,” he says. Besides, putting Bee on at 10:30 means “she gets to lead in to all of the conversations,” he says. “She gets to have an authoritative voice before anyone else.”

One of the people who is instrumental in preserving that voice is Jo Miller, a former “Daily Show” writer who studied medieval Jewish history at Yale University even as she founded an improvisational comedy troupe. Miller, a “Full Frontal” executive producer and showrunner, sets writers, fact checkers, and producers to find topics that interest them, and often finds germs of ideas in a never-ending burst of commentary the staff produces on Slack, the instant-messaging app. When Bee learned she was getting her own show, one of her first moves was to invite Miller along for the ride. Miller says she made the leap because she had mastered the art of writing for Jon Stewart but never had the chance to write something in a tone that was more her own.

“This show is our coping mechanism,” she says. “Hopefully, it’s a coping mechanism for people who watch it.”

Bee has plenty more to say — even if Donald Trump loses his bid for the nation’s highest office. “If Hillary Clinton is elected, the tsunami of misogyny that will emerge will overtake all of us. You can see what happened when we had a black president, and you will see the same if she becomes the leader of this nation,” says Bee. “I feel there will be no shortage of things for us to talk about,” including Clinton’s own foibles. Bee has been quick to defend Clinton from sexist double-standards in recent months but has also been happy to poke fun at the nominee’s performance at debates and the recent conventions — making the prospect of how Bee will handle a Clinton White House interesting, to say the least.

But what if Trump proves victorious?

“I’m not sure we’ll have a world, so we’ll see,” says Bee.

Whether or not the Earth continues to spin, there’s a good chance Samantha Bee will have some way to analyze it. There’s been no official announcement, but Bee’s team, under contract through this year, is already considering plans for 2017. “This is not just a flash in the pan,” says Weitz. “This is something that’s going to be around for a while.”

Such talk ought to please Bee. After years as a supporting player, she is more than happy to finally take center stage. “I’ve always been the underdog, the quiet one, the one who does all the work for the group project, the one who properly stands in line and waits their turn like a good girl, even when some jerk butts in front. Well, I’m done with all that now. It is my greatest pleasure to stand up for something, to be bold, to grab people by the collar and force them to listen to me,” she says. “But like, in a funny way.”