Variety Virtual TV Festival
The late-night TV landscape is markedly different than when Samantha Bee started her series, “Full Frontal” in 2016, the host and executive producer recalls as she joins Phoebe Robinson, Ziwe…
The late-night TV landscape is markedly different than when Samantha Bee started her series, “Full Frontal” in 2016, the host and executive producer recalls as she joins Phoebe Robinson, Ziwe and Amber Ruffin for ‘The Women of Late-Night’ discussion at Variety’s TV Fest.
“The one thing that we wanted to do was make the show super audacious,” Bee tells Variety’s Angelique Jackson, looking back at those early years as host and executive producer of TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” admitting that it was a surprise that her independent creative streak was well-received.
“Every time people [would] ask me the question of, ‘What are you going to do on the show?’ It was like, ‘Well, I think basically we’re going to try to kick the barn doors in, and that’s all I really know.’ That’s what we did,” Bee adds.
“But I definitely thought when we started the show we’ll be six [episodes] and done,” she says. “We’ll make this little precious jewel box of a show, so that when I get fired I’ll have this little perfect distillation of what it is that I like to do, and I’ll take it to other places and be like, ‘I can do this elsewhere.’ Then it accidentally lasted, which is nice.”
Now 20 Emmy nominations (and one win) later, Bee is joined on the airwaves by a group of women who are redefining what late-night comedy looks like — with talk, sketch and variety shows that match their comedic sensibilities and personalities.
Amber Ruffin, who hosts and executive produces “The Amber Ruffin Show” for Peacock summed up each of her group mates’ strengths, saying that being assembled for the conversation feels really personal because of the way the other women have inspired her.
“I was watching Sam Bee and I was going, ‘Well, she’s a woman. Can they hear her the way I hear her?’ And then I saw that they could, and I was like, oh (beep), it is on.” Ruffin recalls. “Then I saw Ziwe’s stand up, and I was like, ‘She is hilarious. Oh my God, her songs. Wait a second. Are there zero rules?”
Of Robinson’s style, she adds, “When she is hanging out with someone, you get to see what being their friend is like. And I’ve never seen that anywhere. There are people whose job it is to interview people, they don’t have that. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never felt like I’m friends with Kevin Bacon.”
For Ruffin’s part, she describes her own as a bit of a Trojan-horse — with the talk-show style set and opening monologue luring the viewer into an experience that’s more unique than it looks on the surface.
But speaking of the group as a whole, Ruffin summed up what makes each of their voices distinct and even more valuable. “Each person is on the edge of what comedy is, and is pushing it, and making it wider,” she says. “And now it’s this huge field, where it was like a porta-potty.”
When Ziwe set out to adapt her uber successful Instagram Live interviews into a new format for her self-titled series on Showtime, the host and executive producer aimed to make the new show feel personal.
“I think ultimately this show looks like the inside of my brain, which is a manic episode,” she quips. “So you have sketches, and musical performances where I’m always the musical guest. And then filler pieces, and then interviews with Gloria Steinem and Fran Lebowitz.”
The result, Ziwe says, is “a really pink, hyper-feminine creation that feels in contrast to the late night sphere. That was definitely a goal. But it’s hyper-stylized, because the inside of my brain is like a seven-year old’s playground.”
Robinson also does things a little differently on her Comedy Central show, “Doing the Most With Phoebe Robinson,” where, as the host and executive producer, she has made it a priority to illustrate things that are as simple — but not often aired — as a Black woman having fun.
“Black girl joy is also an experience that should just be normalized on TV, and also in real life,” Robinson explains, highlighting an episode where she and Ruffin do gymnastics.
Being empowered with creative freedom to be yourself is crucial to the success of today’s late-night talk, sketch and variety shows, all the panelists agreed — and it helps when you’re not just the face of the show, but also the boss behind the scenes.
Robinson recalls the way she was able to ensure an inclusive and representative environment behind the scenes of her show. “We did blind submissions for the story producers, and everything, and then we ended up with such an amazing, diverse, inclusive work staff,” she says. “And I was just like, ‘This is how it always should be.’ … Things are just better when you have people from all walks of life.'”