Samantha Bee on Making Comedy Amidst ‘Unimaginable’ Tragedy
Sam Bee checked in from her home, where she’s taping new episodes of her late-night show during the coronavirus crisis. Plus, watch an exclusive clip from tonight’s “Full Frontal.”
The first episode of Full Frontal to air during our collective quarantine opens with a beautiful view of a peaceful forest. Samantha Bee calmly approaches the camera holding a small bouquet of daffodils.
“Look, I know it’s easy to feel down right now,” she says. “I mean, of course it is, that’s only natural. But if I can pass on the immortal words of my beloved grandmother, ‘this too shall pass.’ The seasons are changing, the brook is babbling, the birds are chirping.” Letting out a deep sigh, she adds, “Guys, I think we’re gonna be alright.”
After “20 minutes later” appears on the screen, the forest is covered in snow and Bee is shouting, “What the fuck is happening?! Why are you doing this to us?! I’m sorry I called the president’s daughter a—” The video cuts out and the opening credits begin before she can let out the final word of that sentence.
“This is so weird watching the whole world shatter from not having structure in their lives,” Bee says when I reach her by phone at home on Wednesday morning.
It’s been two weeks since Full Frontal became the first late-night show to air without an audience on March 11th. That was the same night President Trump delivered his disastrous Oval Office address, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed they had tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA abruptly canceled its entire season.
Tonight, after posting a series of “Beeing at Home with Samantha Bee” videos on her social channels, Full Frontal is returning to TBS in its regular 10:30 p.m. time slot with the subtitle “Little Show in the Big Woods.” Despite the world shutting down all around her, the host tells me she “pushed to keep the show going” during the crisis.
I definitely questioned it yesterday when my hands were just frozen. But it’ll warm up soon.
So you were actually the first late-night show to go without an audience two weeks ago. What was that like?
It was a pretty short trip from “let’s not have an audience” to “now I live in the forest.” The day that we taped, we got to work and it was a pretty easy decision to not have an audience. It just felt like the walls were closing in, that making that decision was really vital. Then as the day progressed and we got closer and closer to taping, we weren’t really aware of everything that was happening across the street in our office building. But while we were actually taping, they closed a floor of the building that we work from because someone had tested positive. And really at that point, it seemed pretty clear that we weren’t going to be coming back to those buildings for quite a while.
So that’s what prompted the decision to shut down production and move everyone home?
Yeah, and a lot of us were already working from home at that point because, of course, we have a lot of staff members who just didn’t want to come into the city. The decision was made for us but we would have made that decision anyway. I mean, the world changed very rapidly. And our kids are in public school, so they were still in school. And it really took the public school system calling it that made everything very apparent.
It seems like an incredible challenge to produce a show like this remotely, with everyone stuck in their own homes. How are you actually doing this?
Well, it’s been…different. It’s been very challenging, but not impossible. We have the capacity. A lot of people in our office can work from home. It was really just about getting equipment to the people who needed it. Nobody knew what was happening, but we all knew that something new was happening. In that moment, we made the really good decision to make sure everybody had what they needed for whatever happened next. I would say that this version of the show evolved pretty organically. I definitely pushed for it. I definitely pushed to keep the show going.
Why was that important to you?
It felt important to me in terms of just keeping the lights on and keeping continuity of the show. It felt like giving us all a focus would be a good idea. And I stand by that; I think it has been good for us, to keep going, just one step in front of the other. I happen to be married to an extremely talented, amazing director [former Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones]. We’ve collaborated a million times. We’ve been together for 23 years, so we actually know how to do this together. And we’ve made enough low-budget stuff—and I mean low-budget stuff—that we just are good partners.
I was thinking, it must feel like going back to the early days, right?
Yeah, it’s like going back to Coopers’ Christmas days, the small indie movies that we used to make in our house.
What do your kids think about their parents working from home? Because everyone’s dealing with that now and I noticed they popped up in one clip that you posted.
Well, my daughter was holding that bounce thing. And the other two kids were doing other equipment-related duties. And we really needed them. It’s not like we have metal stands everywhere in our house. We needed them to help and boy, they were just so bored. They did not enjoy it at all. Talk about demystifying the television experience. The studio is one thing—there’s people and activity and buzz. But when it’s just you talking into an iPhone in your backyard while your kids try to shine a golden reflector to make your chin look better? It’s not impressive.
How has making the show from home changed the content of the show or what you want to say? Are you saying the same things about the crisis that you’d be saying from the studio?
Yeah, I am. There’s just no audience. There is zero audience. It’s like, squirrels.
Yeah, and the dogs that bark from next door. The snapping turtle in the pond. That’s it.
It’s been kind of fascinating to watch everyone start broadcasting television from home, including Joe Biden, who has set up a makeshift studio in his basement. How do you think this will affect the presidential election?
I have no idea. I don’t know! I really don’t know anything anymore. I feel like Sam Bee from 14 days ago is a completely different person from Sam Bee today. I don’t even feel particularly certain that an election will happen.
That’s a scary thought.
That’s something I probably shouldn’t say out loud, but it’s a thought in the dead of night: What if? Anything is possible now. I mean, I’m pretty comfortable. My life has been upended but not nearly as upended as it could be. So I think anything’s possible.
Things are moving so quickly that it’s even harder than usual to make predictions.
Literally two weeks ago we were shooting these super fun promos for the election season. And then the very next day the building was getting shut down. And the very next day, everything else was getting shut down. So it’s moving too quickly to predict anything. I’m in psychological disarray just like everybody else.
I felt it was important. It’s important to call these things out. In a time of national crisis, you want to believe that the leadership of your nation has its country’s best interests at heart. And I just don’t see that. And I think that’s very important to call out, every time. You can’t just be the president of 30 percent of the country.
Now more than ever.
There’s a reason why we’re all watching Governor Cuomo’s press conferences—for solace. It’s a port in the storm. That’s what we need at the federal level. But instead it’s just chaos. And we can all feel that. None of us can rest easy or sleep at night.
As we speak this week, Trump is signaling that he wants people to get back to work and essentially stop social distancing before it’s had a chance to work. What’s your reaction to that development?
Can you imagine? This human being does not understand anything. He will not listen to anyone. If someone would just cut his mic when he goes to speak, we would be in so much better shape. Let the sound engineer be the hero we need right now. Literally shut his mouth, make him stop talking, please. He doesn’t know anything about what’s happening. It’s incredible.
What do you think about the cable news networks carrying his daily press conferences live? Because that seems to be pretty problematic as well.
I don’t even know what to suggest. People need a sense of calm. They need a sense that something intelligent is happening at a higher level. They need a sense that there’s organization and a plan. That’s all they really ask for. That’s what my staff asked for. They asked me for a plan: “How are we going to do this? Tell us what’s next.” They need to feel that there’s a plan in place. Not someone at the very top who is subverting a pretty good plan that could possibly work. It’s just upending everything we thought we knew. I don’t even have anything funny or glib to say about it. I think it’s a tragedy. We are on the precipice of tragedy. And there is such incompetence at the very top. What we are facing is unimaginable. I don’t even have a joke about it. I feel lost. I truly feel lost. It’s such a disgrace.
And yet you’re taping a comedy show today. How do you do that when you’re feeling this way?
You can still make a comedy show. The world can go upside down and you can make a show. I mean, we always tackle seemingly impossible content, so why not this? I’m just trying to keep it moving, honestly. That is the only philosophy that I’m clinging to. Keep it moving, keep it moving.
It’s such a cliché, the importance of comedy and laughter in dark times like these, but I do think there’s so much truth to it. Have you been able to keep laughing?
I’m not doing too much in the way of navel-gazing. I’m just trying to work. I’m trying to keep my staff working. I’m trying to keep structure in my days and in our lives to the extent that I can possibly do that. If people find the show distracting or it’s a welcome relief from the world, then I embrace that.
Time seems to be moving in a different way over the past couple of weeks so it’s hard to look past the next day or two. But do you have hopes for when you can return to New York City, when you can return to the studio and normalcy?
I’m not even thinking about that. As long as we have internet, we can make a show. That’s what this week has taught us. Everybody’s working from home. We have the brain power, we have the ingenuity, we have the will to do it. And as long as we have broadband service, we’ll be fine.
For more, listen to Samantha Bee on The Last Laugh podcast.