On Monday, Samantha Bee will become the only woman in late-night when her new show, Full Frontal, debuts on TBS.
All over America right now Bee—familiar to us all after 12 years wielding her self-described lady balls on The Daily Show—is plastered on billboards, the sides of buses, and on subways. Her finger is pointing at us, as if ready to reprimand, directly under what has become Full Frontal’s pre-premiere tagline.
“Watch or you’re sexist.”
Perfectly pitched to address an industry-wide controversy about the lack of female late-night hosts while cannily capturing Bee’s, well, full-frontal sense of humor, the tagline is obviously a joke. But also, it kind of isn’t. Is it?
“I don’t think you’re a sexist if you don’t watch,” Bee says with a laugh, sitting in front of the snazzy new New York set for Full Frontal, her name—a woman’s name—in lights behind her. “I think you’re a fool if you don’t watch.”
Of course, the inferences people were going to draw about that whole women-in-late-night conversation were intentional. This is the same person who sold herself in the first trailer for her new show by proclaiming, “I am female as f**k.”
“We did try to face it head on,” she says. “You can’t avoid it. I think it’s a valid point to make. I don’t at all shy away from the question of being a woman in this space. It’s kind of out there. I did think we needed to address it in our tagline and we really did.”
Aside from proudly asserting your lack of sexism by watching, Bee is eager to offer a slew of other reasons to watch Full Frontal. With less than a week before her weekly series premiere, and with a handful of test shows under her belt, she’s ready to share some hints of what exactly Full Frontal will be.
After sampling some segments she already has in the can, we can say that Full Frontal will be very funny. And it will be very Samantha Bee.
It was last May that Bee left The Daily Show after 12 years, many of those spent working alongside her husband, Jason Jones. Her time at The Daily Show, the longest tenure of any of the show’s correspondents, is characterized by the greatest hits of her field segments, news packages shot outside the studio featuring interviews with real, everyday people.
There was her interview with Long Islanders who wanted to secede. Her reporting at the Occupy Wall Street protests. And, most famously, a trip to the GOP Convention soon after Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was announced, where she tried (and failed) to get conservatives to use the word “choice.”
Bee’s ambition is to have at least one field segment in each episode of Full Frontal. It makes sense; that’s where she excelled on Comedy Central. What, then, will separate her new series from her time at The Daily Show? “I think about that a lot actually,” she says.
“I’m certainly exploring my own interests in a way that I was never really prevented from exploring [on The Daily Show], but it was filtered through someone else’s point of view,” she says, before a pause. “I’m steeped in, you know, my woman-ness, quite frankly.”
In one pre-taped Full Frontal clip, Bee is touring the show’s offices. She disappears into her dressing room to get camera ready, then emerges and says, “Finally, I’m ready for late night!” She is dressed as a man.
Another bit has her eviscerating Kansas Senator Mitch Holmes for drafting a dress code solely for women. Systematically and logically ripping Holmes a new one, you see the influence of her mentor, Jon Stewart. But there’s a difference to her perspective. She’s not Jon Stewart. She’s Samantha Bee.
When it was announced that Bee would be fronting, um, Full Frontal, the enthusiasm over the inclusion of a female perspective in late night was palpable, especially after Chelsea Handler had left her run on E!. (Handler will debut a talk show on Netflix later in 2016.)
But when Vanity Fair published a feature last year proclaiming late-night TV to be better than ever, leaving Bee and Handler out of an accompanying portrait featuring 10 male late-night hosts, the outrage was palpable.
At a time when the lack of a woman on late-night television seems more like an embarrassing and almost willful indecency than it does any sort of Hollywood coincidence—institutional sexism at its most glaring—it was especially affronting for Bee and Handler to be excluded from the photo shoot.
Perhaps hinting at the kind of comedic confrontation we should expect from Full Frontal, Bee responded to the outrage in kind, by tweeting a Photoshopped image of her joining the boys’ club…as a centaur with lasers shooting out of her eyes. “BETTER,” she captioned the photo.
Speaking to The Daily Beast about the controversy, Bee had some words for Vanity Fair. Specifically, those words were: “Fuck off.”
That was then. Now she actually has a show from which to flip her middle finger. A show, by the way, that may boast the most gender-balanced writer’s room in late-night TV. It’s a staff, Bee tells The Daily Beast, that is 50 percent male and 50 percent female.
Motivated by the shared ambitions of Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller, who came over from The Daily Show with Bee, the writer’s room was staffed using a pioneering blind submission process. Not only were identifiers of gender, race, and names scrubbed from applications, but the two sought to make sure that writers without late-night experience weren’t at a disadvantage, too.
Late-night scripts have a certain look and polish to them, Bee explains. If you submit a writing packet that doesn’t have that look, you immediately flag your lack of late-night experience. So Miller created an application that explained the fundamentals of how the script should look as a way of leveling the playing field. The result was an abundance of diversity.
“I think we are reaping the benefits of that in more ways than are even calculable,” she says.
We preview one of those benefits: a hilarious and scorching two-part field segment that Bee filmed in Jordan about Syrian refugees. Packed with jokes and seamlessly stuffed with eye-opening information, it’s the kind of segment that will leave audiences with a visceral reaction.
She brands the segment as a byproduct of one of the major themes in this year’s election: “Who shouldn’t be in America?”
So she heads to Jordan to meet “the people we’re incoherently yelling about”: Syrian refugees who might one day be resettled in the U.S., a possibility the Republican presidential candidates are vehemently against and, as Bee outlines, know not a single thing about.
The segment enumerates the intense and exhaustive vetting process a refugee must endure—through nearly a dozen international government agencies—before being resettled in the U.S., after a period of years. It’s a far cry from the picture Republican candidates are painting of terrorists masked as Syrian refugees willy-nilly hopping across the ocean to kill us all.
“The reason that we went is that we knew that they do these cultural orientations for Syrian refugees who are about to be resettled,” Bee says. “Then we thought, it’s not so much that they need an orientation to live in our world, it’s that we need an orientation to accept them.”
If the rest of Bee’s field segments pack the same comedic punch and tangible cultural power as this, we’re in for a treat. Bee is still fine-tuning what might be the rest of the show’s standard format.
She hopes to introduce new talent as correspondents, full-circle from her Daily Show days. Guests will be rare, when they’re germane—she’s among the late-night hosts courting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he’s in the U.S. in March—but she can’t imagine ever having movie stars on just to talk about their new films. “I can’t really do that convincingly,” she laughs.
Also glaring about her Full Frontal set is that it’s missing a key piece of standard late-night furniture: a desk. “The one thing I knew was that I would not have a desk,” she says. “Just as a viewer, I’m sort of sick of seeing someone sit behind the desk.”
So there will be Samantha Bee, proudly and hilariously standing. Standing there, a woman in late-night.
Maybe it’s not meant to be so poetic. But it’s certainly powerful.
But, really, is she getting at all sick of the “woman-in-late-night” conversation, and how it’s dominating the discussion of her show?
“It’s not exhausting,” she says. “I think it’s a valid question. It’s not exactly a question I can answer. But it’s a very sensible question that I completely understand. I’d ask myself the same question if I was interviewing me. So I get it.”
The reason that she’s a woman in late-night is important is because her voice is important. Just like Larry Wilmore’s voice is important, and Trevor Noah’s, and John Oliver’s. We’re in a boom for topical late-night news shows. That’s a lot of voices in a small space. Samantha Bee is ready for hers to be heard.
“I think that people love to see stories in different ways,” she says. “It’s more digestible to see a hard-news story in a comedy format. It distills things for you in a different way.”
“There’s room for so many voices in that world,” she continues. “Hopefully there’s room for one more.”