Meet Samantha Bee’s Army of Trumpster-Confronting Comics
‘Full Frontal’ correspondents Ashley Nicole Black, Michael Rubens, and Allana Harkin on the madness of election night, interacting with Trump supporters, and the insane news cycle.
Last summer, the Full Frontal With Samantha Bee correspondents, along with their fearless leader, boarded a bus to travel to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
A year later in Full Frontal’s new Hell’s Kitchen offices in New York, writer and correspondent Ashley Nicole Black is recounting her favorite memory of the experience. The staff was sitting together on the bus when Bee very calmly asked, “Can someone please hand me a piece of paper?” Then she reached over, killed a wasp with her bare hands, and wiped it on the paper.
“She was just like, ‘I didn’t want anyone to freak out,’” Black remembers.
It’s the most telling story of Bee—a no-fuss, strong leader with a particular maternal grace—that we’ve heard yet, and an attitude that has quite evidently trickled down to the correspondents she has hired to surround her.
It’s the morning after Full Frontal has aired its 50th episode, and correspondents Black, Allana Harkin, and Michael Rubens are discussing the show’s 16-month (and counting) journey to the top of the political comedy zeitgeist on the back of Bee’s signature brand of rage-humor, incisive field segments, and a blockbuster Not the White House Correspondents Dinner special event earlier this year.
They’re an eclectic group. Ashley Nicole Black is celebrating her 32nd birthday as we talk. (An order of birthday breakfast nachos arrives during our interview.) She was four years into a PhD when she dropped out to pursue a career performing comedy, and was hired as part of Bee’s revolutionary blind-packet submission procedure meant to diversify the writer’s room.
Rubens also serves as a field producer on the series, a position he’s also held on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show. Harkin, who moved from Canada to work on Full Frontal, has been friends with Bee for decades—perhaps explaining her tears when talking about Bee, as well as her insistence that we not mention such embarrassment in our piece (sorry). Like her boss, Harkin is also a working mom.
And so with birthday breakfast nachos to our left and a misty-eyed correspondent to our right, we talk to the team about the first 50 episodes of their show: What it was like working with Bee on election night, how they resist making too much fun of Trump supporters, creating the show in a relentless news cycle of insanity, and their wasp-slaying boss/host/superwoman.
What has it been like doing this show in recent months with the onslaught of crazy news to react to?
Allana: It feels lately that everything is just…now. Everything feels like it’s happening now and you have five minutes and make it great.
Ashley: Even this past show, Jeff Sessions’s hearing was at 2 o’clock. And we were like, “Why isn’t it at 9 am!?” Those few hours change everything about our process so much.
Allana: They don’t know our schedule! What is wrong with them?
Ashley: We keep writing to them about it!
How close up until the show are you rewriting and reacting to the news?
Ashley: When it first started happening it was a surprise. Now it’s just like, this is our life. We know we’re writing that act to maybe be on TV based on what happens.
Michael: You’re still rewriting yesterday’s show actually.
Allana: I mean you rewrite right up until like 4:30, and we tape at 6.
Ashley: When John McCain interrupts Kamala Harris during the Sessions hearings, we’re not going to leave that on the floor and talk about something else. We’re going to have to write about that.
Michael: The same thing happens with field pieces. We shoot stuff, and then news happens, and you have to toss it. A lot of work and effort.
What is the most drastic example of breaking news interrupting the work you had already prepared?
Michael: The election.
Allana: We had a celebration show [assuming a Hillary Clinton win] ready for Wednesday, and then Tuesday was the election. It was the middle of the night and we were all completely panicking—about the country, but then we had to also rewrite an entire show. That had so many different levels of stress on it because it was like, “Oh, new news!” But it was also, “We’re all gonna die.”
Ashley: That’s also the only time I’ve slept here. So that’s the most drastic example.
I’m curious to hear more about how election night was for you all, and that duality of being a citizen and being horrified, and also needing to put together a completely brand new show.
Allana: I’m not even a citizen of this country. I’m the resident Full Frontal immigrant.
Ashley: For me, we had to rewrite the show, so I couldn’t do my citizen freak-out until later. Probably at three o’clock in the morning I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I look in the mirror and in that moment I just felt like I looked at my grandmother. And I thought, “I’m so glad my grandmother died with Barack Obama as president,” and then I started crying. I cried until the next morning.
Allana: I didn’t know that story. I’m happy for your grandmother. Did she have a long life?
Ashley: Yeah. She had a long life, and she died thinking, “Oh my god! We have a black president! America’s fixed!”
Michael: I was just thinking that my mom died during Obama, and I felt the same way. Yesterday I was thinking about her and I was like, “Thank god she doesn’t have to see this shit.”
Allana: My parents are alive and well and really fucking worried that I live here.
What were the pieces that you had ready that you had to change?
Michael: I think the piece then was talking to people at polls. We went out and overnight turned around this piece about people voting, how do they feel, what do Trump voters feel like. A big part was, “Look at these Trump voters. They’re probably going to be disappointed. They’re nice people and they’re really believers and they’re going to be disappointed.” Then it was like, oh my fucking god….
Allana: We shot this cold open piece for Sam running through town high-fiving news people. People from Fox News, too. Everyone, across the board. It was more of a celebration that it was over, but also a celebration that it was over and we got our girl. We clearly couldn’t air that because the tone of it was wrong. I didn’t want to lose the piece, because to have that many people in a piece takes weeks and weeks to produce. We had to turn it into a dream.
Allana: So we had Sam lie down on the couch and make it look like she just woke up and dreamed it, while we were all basically crying around her. That was a quick change. It was a major change in our hearts. I thought Sam was so incredible that night. She really just knocked it out of the park. In rehearsal she was really distraught. We all were. But she is such a pro. I want to go back and look at that show, because it really is incredible when you think about it. We were super stressed out. And not just about the show, but about the state of the country.
Whether or not you are journalists is a frequent conversation in this space of political comedy. How do you feel about that conversation?
Ashley: There are journalists who work here, but we all went to drama school. (Laughs) We are not journalists.
Allana: She’s a former clown.
Michael: I have worked in the journalistic milieu before. I don’t know if I would call myself a journalist. We had the Not the White House Correspondents Dinner and the point of that was to celebrate journalists and to celebrate our debt to the work that journalists do, because a lot of these pieces we do, we can amplify them but the deep research and the months of work that was done was by someone who was reporting a story. We find it in whatever publication…
Ashley: And then we add dick jokes!
Michael: And then we festoon it with dick jokes.
Allana: It’s very cathartic that we can do that, right? We can do all the things that journalists can’t do. We can see behind their eyes when they’re interviewing someone, and it’s like, “You want to say it, but you can’t say it. So we’re going to say it for you.”
Since The Daily Show started it, we’ve seen correspondents and field segments in this landscape for two decades now. How is the Full Frontal approach different?
Michael: We’re expanding the format.
Allana: Mike was a field producer on The Daily Show, so he can really speak to this.
Michael: On The Daily Show, pieces tend to fall into a certain style. Here on this show we’ve been able to do a lot broader things in terms of style. We’ve been able to do mock documentaries. Maybe there’s no narrator. They’re completely different. We’re not making fun of clueless news reporters reporting the news. That’s not really the style of satire here.
Allana: I think we go deeper into the story, too. That was Sam’s original goal, coming from The Daily Show. She would cover stories that were very interesting to her, but she could only do so much. For this show, she wanted us to go a layer deeper into the story, while still making it very tight.
Michael: I also think that on this show we’re allowed to tell stories that are more serious. It doesn’t have to be that we’re laughing every 10 seconds. You’re allowed to spend some time. There’s a piece on Syrian refugees. Or last night there was a piece on a debate group on Rikers Island that was really moving. It had funny parts, but there wasn’t that pressure that every five seconds there’s going to be a goofy joke.
Ashley: It’s a lot less about making fun of people
In terms of “not making fun,” there’s an impulse in comedy to laugh at or scoff at Trump supporters. How do you deal about that temptation?
Allana: I think we give them the platform to say what they want to say. Sometimes if the joke is there, we’ll make the joke. I don’t know if it’s always at their expense. I think it’s easy to just go and make fun of people. It’s more complicated to find the real story. “Why do you think that?”
[A delivery man walks in with takeout food]
Ashley: You guys, these are my birthday breakfast nachos.
[Everyone cracks up]
Allana: That is amazing. I want to hug you. Goddammit I’m not doing enough for myself!
Are they breakfast nachos meaning they have eggs and bacon on them?
Ashley: No. They’re just regular nachos in the morning.
That is amazing. Back to what we were saying about making fun of the Trump supporters…
Michael: We occasionally make fun.
Allana: OK, yeah. It’s true.
Ashley: But not unfairly. We don’t take people out of context. We don’t edit things. They definitely said the thing, and they probably said it four times to make sure they meant it.
Michael: I also think we’re very aware of it, so we’re always thinking, “Let’s find a way to not be cruel. Let’s find a way to be constructive. Let’s find a way to find the humanity.” Do we always succeed…?
Ashley: Sometimes people just refuse to let you do that. (Laughs)
Allana: It’s their fault!
Michael: But the inauguration piece, mostly that’s making fun of our suffering. For the most part, people were nice. They were like, “Hey guys, it’s going to be OK!”
When Full Frontal premiered, there was a lot of press and conversation surrounding the significance of Sam being the lone woman in late-night. How do you think that significance has played a part in the show as it exists now?
Allana: I don’t think it affects the work we do. I just feel like it was a voice that was desperately needed, and it was the right time for her in her career. The timing was all perfect. She had things that she needed to say at this time, and people needed to hear that voice. I can only imagine how annoying every single interview about being a woman in late-night was. It is significant to our audience, 100 percent. If you come to a live show, you’ll see that it’s really important to the women in the audience. One of the most amazing moments I’ve had at the show is that there were these two women who were about 20. I do the warm-up for the show. Our stage manager is a woman. The whole show is Sam. And these women said, “I’ve never gone to a show where you only heard a female voice.” Even Samantha Black, who does our audience coordinating. You only heard a female voice the entire evening.
Ashley: Our stage manager is the first female stage manager I’ve ever worked. Also one of our camera operators is a woman, the first female camera operator I’ve ever worked with.
Before the show premiered, Sam spoke about staffing the writer’s room using a blind packet submission and making sure diverse writers who would never be considered for something like this or never even know they could apply were considered. How has that impacted the show?
Ashley: Well I’m here. So that’s one big thing. I think the other late-night shows have started to diversify their hiring since our show came on the air. It’s understanding that the audience is very diverse and wants to hear their experiences reflected back to them. That’s what we go to TV for. So if everyone in the room looks the same, there are so many experiences you’re not reflecting. I love looking at Twitter during the show, and Black Twitter will pick up on a joke that other people didn’t get, because it was for them. We have writers in the room that can write for them. And you need to have people in a room when a story breaks who can give real-life context, or say, hey, we’re going in the wrong direction here there’s another perspective to consider. I think our show has done such a good job of that that now everybody is seeing that the sky is not going to fall if you hire someone who isn’t a white guy who went to Harvard to write jokes.
Because I want to make sure Ashley gets to eat her birthday breakfast nachos while they’re still hot, I just have one last question: If the show is canceled tomorrow, what is the thing you’ve done here or the moment that is the most memorable?
Michael: There’s so many. There’s pieces and this and that and stuff that personally I really liked, but I think the thing for me that was the most fun and felt the most spectacular was Not the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Ashley: Anytime we travel together. Like when we did the bus episode, we lived on a bus for three days. This is going to sound fake, but it’s real. We’re on the bus, and Sam very calmly goes, “Can someone please hand me a piece of paper?” Then she reaches over, kills a wasp with her hands, and wipes it on the piece of paper. She was just like, “I didn’t want anyone to freak out.”
Allana: I have to try to say this without crying, because that would be lame. For me, if the show ends tomorrow the thing I would remember most is every show sitting in the back, or off stage, and watching Sam do what she does. [She gets choked up] It’s amazing. It just blows my mind. Goddammit! Why did I cry?! I’ve known her for 20 years, so I get to see—[starts crying again]—everything she’s meant to do her whole life. Please don’t write that in your article, that I cried. I’ll be embarrassed and she hates when people cry.
Ashley: It’s too late.
Allana: I’m really proud of what she’s done. That’s what I’ll remember.