huh? in cleveland

All Samantha Bee Needs to Conquer the Political Conventions Is a Cozy Airbnb

This week, New Girl creator Liz Meriwether will be in Philadelphia covering the Democratic National Convention for Vulture. Last week she went to Cleveland to report on the RNC.

I was rushing to meet Samantha Bee for an interview in Cleveland last week, when I got stuck in a slow-moving glob of texting, picture-taking people inching down East Fourth street — the narrow street the convention had named “Media Row.” I passed the MSNBC stages, the headquarters for the Washington Post, and, finally, the “CNN Grill,” two floors of a restaurant and bar that CNN had taken over for convention coverage. The CNN Grill, which I had plus-one’d my way into twice, had free food and drinks, free buttons, and custom-made placemats with presidential word searches; their corporate sponsor, Google, ran useless facts on large flat-screens everywhere, such as “the five most-Googled questions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (Number 2: Why isn’t the band Chicago in it?) I’d seen Billy Baldwin and Don King. Inside the Grill, it felt like CNN was throwing a wedding and getting married to itself.

Samantha Bee, on the other hand, was running her entire production office from a random woman’s two-bedroom Airbnb.

“The weirdest thing to me is that all her toiletries are there,” she told me, laughing, as we sat in a quiet spot just outside the arena where the convention cleanup crew went to check their phones and smoke cigarettes. “Like her toothbrush is sitting out. All her clothes are in the closet. I didn’t forensically look through her clothes, but I browsed. You have to! You just run your fingers across the fabric. ‘Anything good in here?’ Wherever she is, she’s not brushing her teeth. On that level, I’m concerned.” We were meeting here because the Airbnb was already crammed with 20 or 30 people. The producers had done their best to turn the bedrooms into editing suites. “It’s literally like: a woman’s bedroom with a floral quilt. And Christmas lights. The editor is editing on a makeshift desk with a little makeshift chair. And then when you sit and watch the edit, you’re sitting on her bed! And wearing her clothes!”

Only 20 episodes into its first year, Full Frontal can’t afford a live broadcast at either convention. But in a crowded field of late-night comedy, Full Frontal is already making an impact. Its ratings have been great. Its writing staff was nominated for an Emmy. Bee has become an essential part of election coverage in the kind of election year where the least reported story from last week’s Republican Convention was that a Trump surrogate publicly said that Hillary Clinton should be “shot.” Bee’s show is what I turn to when I can’t shake the buzzing rage in my head about a candidate (Trump) or a campaign (Trump’s campaign). As one of only two women on television hosting a show past ten p.m.  — let that one sink in — Bee could have chosen to create the kind of content Hollywood often thinks women want to see. Instead, we have James Corden charming celebrities in cars, and we have Samantha Bee eviscerating world leaders and political candidates. One of the reasons her show is taking off is that there are simply no other angry, funny, female comedians hosting shows. “We certainly needed some female anger,” she told me. “Not so much anger, but sharpness. Catharsis, I think.”

Catharsis is what I get when, on last week’s episode, Bee rents a bus to go to Cleveland, and it ends up being Herman Cain’s old campaign bus from 2012. Or when Bee hugs an undecided voter in Pennsylvania until it became painfully awkward, or when a Full Frontal correspondent interviews a Bernie-or-bust woman who traveled around the world taking pictures of herself carrying an enormous glass ball. I am laughing so hard that I start to cry, and then I get so mad that I stop crying. This election has turned me into one of those angry, red-faced feminists that no one wants to party with and who has, more than once this year, ended otherwise lovely dinner parties yelling about politics with people I have just met. Bee is the only person on television who gets it. I came to interview her on my last night in Cleveland, because after six days of watching a Trump Organization infomercial shot during the Salem witch trials, I have never needed catharsis more.

Bee describes herself as a convention “warhorse,” and the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week will be the eighth convention she’s covered. At her first, when she covered Democrats in Boston for The Daily Show, in 2004, she remembers being astonished at “the big machine that takes over. I mean I grew up in Canada — we don’t have things on this scale. To conduct interviews with all that chaos all around — it was hard to do. It took a minute to get up to speed, to calm down. I was just trying to not be terrified and squeeze out a single joke.” Of course, she did squeeze out a joke — with Madeleine Albright, no less: After Albright finishes explaining why we should elect John Kerry, Bee waits a beat and then says: “Okay, that’s so incredibly partisan.”

Twelve years later, she still finds covering conventions intense (“There’s no privacy! There’s nowhere to sit!”), but she’s learned important lessons like: For funny interviews, “people in crazy hats aren’t necessarily the best.” She’s actually covered so many conventions that she’s started to recognize delegates. “You end up lurking through the halls just to find people to talk to — and then yesterday, I was on one of my lurks, and I met all these people who I had interviewed before,” she said, laughing. “I kept turning around and going: ‘Oh, I know you. Oh, we go back.’ And then we’d have long conversations.”

In Cleveland, for better or worse, she was recognizable enough that few delegates would talk to her. The name of the show didn’t help. “To be honest with you, coming to the RNC, you can’t just go, ‘I have a show and it’s called Full Frontal, would you like to talk to us?’ It’s off-putting,” Bee admitted. “The name would be alarming to probably three quarters of the people in this building. The people who aren’t alarmed by it are journalists.”

She ended up sending three producers out to get interviews instead, which she planned to then cut together into a story. It’s a different process than what she used to do at The Daily Show, where the correspondents would go into each convention with “a point of view and definitely stick to the point of view. Here, we’re letting the material dictate. Which is harder to do, actually.” She’s appreciative of the pace of a weekly show, and the time it affords them to incorporate more “nuance” into the show. To me, it sounded like the more female approach, and Bee agreed. “Yeah. We’re literally gathering. We’re literally female gatherers of all of this information and then we can concoct a delicious dinner that the men eat first. And then we just come in after and we eat the scraps and then we can clean up.”

Her description of taking time to gather reminded me of some of the struggles I’ve had running New Girl as a first-time female showrunner. “I like to have consensus,” she said. “I like to hear other people’s opinions. I’ll change my mind the day after.” This approach, she admitted, “drives people fucking crazy.” It’s true — I’ve found that any hint of indecisiveness can scare people, especially coming from a woman. It takes time to prove that being thoughtful is not the same as being indecisive. “I think that maybe at the beginning, people thought that I was dithering,” Bee said. “You know what I mean? You seem like you’re dithering, when it’s really wrestling — just tossing things around a little bit.” I did know what she meant. My first week as a showrunner, I lost my voice, and a doctor took one look at my throat and asked: “Have you been drinking a lot of coffee and/or trying to sound authoritative?”

At first, Bee felt that she had to change her personality to fit her new job. “There have been a lot of hot showers that I’ve taken where I’ve been like, ‘I should speak more firmly. Like in a meeting. I wonder if everyone would appreciate it if I just made up my mind right away about something?’” But after a while she realized that would be a mistake. “It’s so counterintuitive,” she told me. “Being thoughtful about things is actually really important. Everyone gets used to it. It just takes a minute.”

This year has been about learning to trust her instincts in every aspect of the show, and she credits the network executives at TBS with sometimes knowing her better than she knew herself. During an early test show, Bee put on a “tight tube dress,” because that’s what she assumed everyone at the network would want her to wear. “In my head, I was like: ‘Oh, that’s what they’ll want, everyone will be happy if I’m in a tight tube dress, right?’” Afterwards, the network’s one note was to lose the dress. “Honestly,” she said, “their note was: ‘You seem really uncomfortable in that dress. It seemed like you were having so much fun in a blazer and running shoes. Why don’t you just wear a blazer and running shoes?’ And I was like: Oh my God. It was nothing short of a miracle. Nobody has ever spoken to me in that way.”

This was an especially incredible anecdote to ponder this weekend, as I read about the rack of miniskirts left in the office of a female correspondent at Fox News who chose not to wear a skirt on camera. TBS let Bee be comfortable and be herself, and viewers love it. She has 3.7 million viewers an episode across all platforms and 29 million views on YouTube, and she manages to do it all wearing blazers, pants, and sneakers.

I asked her what she was looking forward to this week in Philadelphia. “There’s more joy in the Democratic side,” she said. “Something historic is happening. I think it will actually be a moment.” In Cleveland, she noticed, “there is not a lot of lightness in the conversations. There’s lots of anger. There’s lots of people who have a short fuse. And sadness.” One thing she didn’t see last week were pro-life protesters. “Usually there are people running around with big placards with fetuses on them, but that’s vanished from the conversation,” she said. “It’s much more about the bigotry.” And grim television: “The journalists are all so deeply bored. Because even though crazy stuff keeps happening, it’s a boring convention. The speeches are dull.” She kept wanting to complain to the organizers: “‘Oh I see, this is your first time out after you took a party-planning course? Great. Great. Not bad. Here’s where you have room for improvement: Don’t fucking get Scott Baio to talk.’”

She wasn’t sure if she’d be taking the Herman Cain bus to Philadelphia this week, but she heard a promising rumor that Hillary Clinton’s campaign might lease the bus after Full Frontal is done with it. “She’s obviously probably going to take my face off the side of it,” she said. “But if she didn’t, I would just die a thousand deaths of happiness.” Bee has met Hillary once in her life. “Only briefly. I definitely was overwhelming to her. Could I overwhelm her? I probably couldn’t overwhelm her. But I was definitely like, ‘Oh-my-God-it’s-so-nice-take-a-picture!’” Bee laughed. “She does smell nice. I definitely took a big whiff.”

By this point I was laughing harder than I’d laughed since I arrived in Cleveland. I just hope she leaves her toiletries on the bus for Hillary.

(Watch the episode newest Full Frontal tonight at 10:30 p.m. on TBS. Herman Cain may or may not be involved.)

How Samantha Bee Found Her Footing on TV, at RNC