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Samantha Bee on Writing Full Frontal, Her Daily News Diet, and Orlando

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Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is barely four months old, but the TBS series has already established itself as a weekly must-watch in the increasingly crowded comedic news show marketplace. Clips of segments featuring Bee “destroying,” “roasting,” “slaying,” or  “skewering” reliably ripple across the internet hours after they air on Monday nights, much the same way they did when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were still on Comedy Central. Ratings have been solid, leading to a quick renewal by TBS. And on Wednesday, Full Frontal snagged two Television Critics Awards nominations, including one for Bee herself — the only comedy talk-show host to snag a mention from the association. Vulture caught up with Bee last week for a 15-minute phone chat to talk about the early days of Full Frontal, her news diet, and how she and her staff reacted when Stewart decided to make a cameo appearance on the show.

You’re a few months into Full Frontal now. What’s been easier than what you expected going into this show, and has anything been more difficult?
It’s been easier to follow our passions than we probably would have thought a year ago. Last summer, when the show was just a twinkle in our eye, we all thought, “Oh, how will we figure out what stories we wanna do? How will we know what’s the right story? What if the world runs out of crazy things that happen?” And that has not proven to be the situation at all. There has been no shortage of stories that affect us. Things emerge in a way that has been pretty organic thus far. Of course, we were blessed by this election cycle, so that’s helped, too.

And the most difficult part was really the very beginning, when we were hiring people. It’s difficult. I mean, not difficult, but just more work than any of us expected. The result is great. We did a great job of hiring people. But that part was a ton of work. It was really surprising, because you’re like, “Hey, let’s make a show!”— but you end up becoming human resources for a good straight four or five months.

You certainly ended up with what’s almost certainly the most diverse writing staff among the regular comedy-satire shows. Has it been difficult making a show with relatively few white men?
[Laughs.] We have lots of white men here — you don’t have to worry. We’re fine. We love our white men!

Whew. I was a bit worried for you.
Yeah, don’t worry. It’s totally okay.

Whether it’s because of you or your staff or some combination thereof, your show, for me at least, often seems to have a different take on some big topics. I think you’re one of only shows that’s not been afraid to take a critical look at Bernie Sanders or his supporters — beyond the usual “Oh, he’s really old” cracks. Is this voice the result of your strong take on certain matters, or is there more of a hive mind at play?
Obviously everything gets filtered through me, but there is a hive mind here. A very feisty hive mind, and that’s a good thing. What I am so proud of is the collaborative atmosphere we have built. It really is everything that I could have wanted from that point of view. I like when people feel free to share opinions and ideas. I think it’s important when you do a show like this that the best joke should win. For me, that’s the only atmosphere that could work — I like that can-do attitude. I like it to be a bit of a communal experience. Building the show that way was essential. In fact, I don’t even think that I knew how much I liked collaborating until we were really collaborating. It comes naturally.

How did that work, in the case of your Sanders segments — especially the one on what went down at the Nevada state Democratic convention?
When you’re not having to do a show every day, you get to sit back and watch the way the story is going, or the way the narrative is shifting … which gives you an opportunity to do a little more analysis. There are stories that were emerging from the Sanders campaign that were intriguing to us. With what happened in Nevada, that was something that was of great interest to us. We’re just latching on to the stories that are of interest to us. I don’t think there was any concerted effort. It’s not like we had a morning meeting and went, “Let’s do a story about Bernie.” It’s more organic than that: “This is intriguing; is there more here? Can we dig in?” And with that, there was a lot more to dig into.

Starting with your monologue the night after the Orlando massacre, and continuing with this week’s episode and your Twitter feed, you’ve been incredibly forceful in your response to the gun-violence issue. Was that first segment, in particular, a very organic response to what happened this month, or was it something you’d been thinking about for a while?
It was just organic to what was happening. It had been building up in our society, it’s been building up in us individually — the feeling that we’ve completely had enough. But [the segment] was organic to what was happening. I feel like there have been a lot of stories about all of our reactions to it. It feels wrong to even talk about it, to me, because I want to shift the focus back to the actual issue. When you’re first or second out of the gate, when something like that happens, you can’t avoid addressing it. And certainly we did address it, with our hearts and souls. But it’s incumbent upon everybody to now take the reins of that outrage and actually make something happen. I hope so fervently that we never lose this burning. I hope that we can stoke the flames of our fury, because that’s the only way to be truly useful. You have to keep it burning.

Right. We’ve been here before with gun violence … 
We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again, and we need to sustain our outrage over time. It’s very difficult to do that, and I get that. But we have to.

Full Frontal really seems to have been ahead of the curve on a lot of issues. You’ve been focused on the importance of state legislatures in a way other shows haven’t. You had a really interesting two-part segment on Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Is that one of your goals — to be on issues first?

We’ve been pretty lucky — we’ve been a little prescient on a couple things, which is great. But we don’t decide what we’re doing on our show based on what we think other people haven’t done yet. We’re not in a competition to get it first. If we happen to get it first, that’s just because the story itself is exciting to us. We’re going based on what’s coming out of our own guts, versus what other people are doing. If we knew for a fact that somebody else was doing a story on something very specific that we wanted to do a story on, we would probably back off. But we don’t really know what anybody else is doing. We don’t have a big communications network where we can go like, “Hey, do you guys wanna do something on …?” So we’re flying by the seat of our pants, to some extent. We do like to dig in hard, though, to find a nugget of something we haven’t [seen]. We’re very well-versed in what’s going on out there. So when we can learn something new? That’s the most exciting for us. Why tell a story that everyone here already knows everything about?

What’s your daily news diet?
My personal news diet? I wake up so early. By nature, I’m really an early bird, like an early, early bird. I lay in my bed with my phone, and I read all the papers on my phone between 5 and 6 a.m.  I read articles all morning until about 6 o’clock, and then I get up. We all have a lot of TV monitors, so TVs are running throughout the day. But most of us read stuff online. And we all read a lot, like all the time. It helps you to be able to see patterns across multiple outlets. Local papers are really a great source of information as well. Most people who are here come from somewhere else, and they still read their local papers. We had a piece on the mental-health-care system in Florida on last week’s show, and the genesis of that was just someone reading their Tampa newspaper.

If Pat Kiernan ever needs someone to sub in for him, you could totally step in.
I could, I could. Ugh, we love Pat Kiernan. Who doesn’t love Pat Kiernan? Have you seen his video where he opens a bottle of wine against a brick wall with his shoe? It’s fantastic. We love that guy.

The show is once a week for a specific reason, as you’ve noted before. You want to dig deeper into issues and not just react to headlines. But the political conventions coming up scream out for more Full Frontal. Any chance of extra shows those weeks?
That’s an interesting question. That may happen, somewhere in the convention cycle, we might add a show in between, but we don’t actually know yet, so I can’t give you anything specific on that. I’ll do my best!

You’ve been renewed for the rest of the year, and the critical reaction to the show has been pretty amazing.  Some people have even made the case that you’re the true successor to Jon Stewart, even if you don’t host The Daily Show. Do you just put aside all that talk, especially when something like Stewart’s cameo on Full Frontal gets people linking the two of you again?
Yup. I utterly put it aside. I just can’t focus on that. It was so great having him here though. He gave us so much time. He’s so relaxed now. He looks amazing. He’s lost all kinds of weight, he’s vegetarian now. It was a very happy night. And plus, we had a pony. That’s just happiness.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Samantha Bee on Writing Full Frontal, Orlando