Samantha Bee Prepares to Debut ‘Full Frontal’

A scene from the first day of test shoots for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”
Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

It was crunchtime for Samantha Bee.

With the clock ticking down to the Feb. 8 debut of her new weekly TBS series, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” she was packed into a small editing suite at the show’s Manhattan offices, with Jo Miller and Miles Kahn, her executive producers, and Jason Jones, her husband and frequent collaborator.

While they spent a late December day fine-tuning a satirical segment on how Veterans Affairs hospitals are oblivious to the needs of female patients, they were also contemplating many crucial questions that could affect this still-developing show.

How do you set up your computer servers so they don’t overheat? Who tinkered with Ms. Bee’s phone so that whenever she types the name “Jason” it comes out “I want to marry Ted Cruz”?

How should “Full Frontal” distinguish itself in the increasingly crowded domain of topical comedy programs, including “The Daily Show,” where Ms. Bee worked as a correspondent for nearly 12 years?

And how should Ms. Bee deal with the fact that when “Full Frontal” has its premiere, it will be the only late-night satire program currently hosted by a woman, and one of very few in the decades-long history of the genre to feature a female star?

Can she embrace her role as a barrier-breaking performer and provide late-night TV with the diversity it desperately lacks, even though she is not trying to tailor her show for women, and does not expect anyone to watch simply because she has two X chromosomes?

Just as she did on “The Daily Show,” Ms. Bee, 46, a deceptively upbeat comedian, was meeting these challenges with cheerfulness tempered by a sarcastic streak.

ImageSamantha Bee
Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

Ms. Bee said wryly that, as an ambassador for her gender: “I think I get immunity from prosecution. I can murder someone.”

More seriously, she said she was ignoring any preconceptions, good or bad, that an audience might have about a female host.

“When I wake up panicking at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said, “it’s because I’m thinking about how best to do the show, not worrying about those external forces.”

She had confidence that her V.A. hospital segment — inspired by the recent announcement that the United States military would open all combat jobs to women — was consistent with the courageously goofy reporting she did on “The Daily Show,” and driven by her passions and interests, not her gender.

No one who knows her previous work, she said, will “look at this piece and go, ‘Hold on a minute — where are the Kim Kardashian jokes?’”

But being funny is not Ms. Bee’s only goal for “Full Frontal.” Now that she can create her own show from the ground up, she said it would be hypocritical if she and her colleagues failed to hire the inclusive staff they had always wanted to see.

“It actually takes a lot of effort to change things,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process, and it has to just be a part of your mental state.”

There is a baseline level of incestuousness that Ms. Bee cannot avoid in her field. She will record “Full Frontal” at a West Side studio shared with John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO; and her offices, located over a car dealership, previously belonged to Stephen Colbert and his CBS “Late Show” team before they moved into the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

(The portrait in Ms. Bee’s private office, depicting a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding a bear, was her own decorating choice.)

Like her friendly competitors Mr. Oliver and Mr. Colbert, Ms. Bee, a Toronto-born comedian and actress with a blithe delivery and seemingly no self-consciousness, came to prominence on “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart hosted that Comedy Central program.

Starting in 2003, she was a reliably intrepid field reporter and commentator, whether investigating skeptical parents who opposed immunizing their children; mocking Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for his uncomfortable touchy-feely tendencies; or performing an interpretive drama inspired by the Fox News panel show “The Five.” For several years, she was also the only female correspondent on “The Daily Show.”

“A lot of performers will not go as far as she’s willing to go,” said Mr. Jones, a fellow “Daily Show” alum and the father of their three children, who are 10, 7 and 5.

“She can go into a room where no one knows who she is,” he said, “even if a couple jokes don’t land that well, and win people over by talking normally and having a conversation with people.”

For several years, the couple had been pitching shows to other networks, and in February, TBS announced it had picked up a scripted comedy series, “The Detour,” that they created as a starring vehicle for Mr. Jones.

It quickly occurred to executives at TBS, which has Conan O’Brien’s talk show “Conan” but is still struggling to be known for more than reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The Big Bang Theory,” that Ms. Bee could play a bigger role for them.

“We were talking about being more in touch with current events, being part of the cultural conversation,” said Kevin Reilly, the president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment.

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

What Ms. Bee offered, Mr. Reilly said, was a recognizable, well-liked personality and a savvy perspective, as well as a proven aptitude for finding comedy in the everyday world.

“She’s not going to be strapped behind a desk, doing commentary on the news,” he said. “She likes to get into the field and talk to people.”

Ms. Bee’s gender, Mr. Reilly said, was not the core of the show. “That’s a trough you can only feed from for so long, if everything is about that,” he said. “She’s honestly too smart and has too much to say.”

But when TBS was preparing to make its offer to her, Mr. Stewart announced that he was leaving “The Daily Show,” raising the question of whether Ms. Bee, the longest-tenured correspondent at that program, would be named his successor.

Instead, after a weekslong inquiry (during which comedians like Amy Poehler, Chris Rock and Amy Schumer were also considered), Comedy Central offered the position to Trevor Noah, who at that point had appeared on “The Daily Show” only three times.

Ms. Bee, who left “The Daily Show” in April, said she accepted the TBS offer for the challenge of inventing something new.

Of course, she said, she thought about being offered Mr. Stewart’s former seat. “It’s not like it wasn’t in my brain, but it didn’t stay there for long,” she said.

“I loved ‘The Daily Show,’” she added. “But it is a machine that’s already running. And it could run with me — it could run without me. This is a much better experience and a much better fit.”

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

Mr. Jones was blunter. “The fact that she wasn’t approached was a little shocking, to say the least,” he said. “But I think she is much happier where she ended up.”

(A spokesman for Comedy Central said neither the network nor “The Daily Show” would comment for this article.)

There was a further indignity still to come. In September, Vanity Fair magazine published a feature on late-night television, accompanied by a portrait of 10 hosts, including Mr. Colbert, Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Oliver and Mr. Noah — all of them men. In addition to omitting Ms. Bee, the portrait also left out performers like Chelsea Handler, who has a new Netflix talk show in the works.

The photograph, which was widely derided for distilling the boys’-club mentality of late night into a single image, came to Ms. Bee’s attention one afternoon when she and Mr. Jones had taken their children to a pumpkin patch on Long Island.

“Someone had just tweeted it to me,” Ms. Bee recalled. “They were like, ‘Where are you in this picture?’ And I clicked on it, and I was like” — here she muttered an expletive under her breath — “I can’t, with this. My heart started to speed up.”

Mr. Jones said he saw Ms. Bee wander off for “about 20 minutes,” then return in anger. “I went, ‘Are you done?’ She went, ‘No, I’m not done.’”

Ms. Bee had saved on her phone an image that Mr. Kahn had created of her as a tattooed centaur with laser beams shooting from her eyes (“I just liked to look at it, and it made me laugh,” she explained). From the cider-doughnut hut at the pumpkin patch, she contacted Mr. Kahn and asked him to digitally insert the image into the Vanity Fair photograph.

I just tweeted it,” Ms. Bee said. “I was like, ‘Thanks for never putting me in your magazine before.’ Whatever.”


The visual retort became a social-media sensation, and Ms. Bee said she felt her message — tongue-in-cheek, but sincere in its desire for more equal representation — had been embraced.

“It lifted my spirits so much, to feel like there’s a whole community of people who would like to do things differently,” she said. “It struck a nerve, and I was really happy that it did.”

Other experienced late-night writers and producers say that for as often as the lack of diversity in their field is talked about, little progress has been made, even when new shows were introduced last year.

“Writing for late night is the closest TV gets to a Civil Service job, so there’s not a lot of turnover,” said Nell Scovell, a former writer for David Letterman and now a co-executive producer of ABC’s “The Muppets.”

Ms. Scovell specifically pointed to CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden” as programs that were restarted from scratch but neglected women.

“The talent is out there,” she said, “so late-night shows need to stop saying, ‘Diversity is a priority’ and instead make it a reality.”

Lizz Winstead, who created “The Daily Show” with Madeleine Smithberg, said that despite the success of shows like “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer,” “there’s still an undercurrent, at networks and studios, that anything that comes from a lens of quote-unquote other will not be accepted by white male viewers.”

Ms. Winstead, who is a founder of the comedic activism site Lady Parts Justice, said that people in decision-making roles still needed to go through “a full cycle in their careers” of working with people of differing backgrounds.

Credit...Comedy Central

“Then,” she said, “it will be glaring when a writers’ room is dominated by one gender, one color. Until that happens, we’re still going to see disparity.”

Ms. Miller and Mr. Kahn, who were hired from “The Daily Show” by Ms. Bee to work with her on “Full Frontal,” said that they encountered diversity issues at Comedy Central, and that these problems were bigger than any individual program.

Now the show runner of “Full Frontal,” Ms. Miller said that at “The Daily Show,” whenever its departing college interns were asked if they wanted to continue in the industry, the responses always broke down along gender lines.

“It’s always, ‘I’m Kyle – yeah, I’m going to be a writer,’” Ms. Miller said. “‘I’m John, I want to be a writer.’ ‘I’m Melinda, I don’t know, maybe. I’m not really good enough. Maybe someday.”

Ms. Miller added: “Somewhere in between the unearned overconfidence of the young men, and the unwarranted self-censorship of the young women, the truth lies. None of you are good enough yet, but apply and you’ll get better.”

The “Full Frontal” producers used a blind submissions process to hire new writers, meaning that they did not know the names or backgrounds of the people whose material they were reading.

Ms. Miller went a further step by creating an application packet for prospective writers to show them what their submissions should look like — what formatting, margins, abbreviations and lingo to use — so that no one would be penalized for inexperience.

“If you’re outside looking in, you can’t crack the code of how it’s made,” Ms. Miller said. “You have to crack the code for them. Then you’re just reading the jokes and the content.”

Credit...Brad Barket/Getty Images

Mr. Kahn, who oversees the field-producing staff at “Full Frontal” (and who describes himself as the “token Jewish white executive producer here”), said that he also made concerted efforts to find new contributors who might not think of themselves as late-night comedians.

“I talked to really interesting people who, frankly, weren’t white guys, to say, ‘Who do you like – who’s new and up-and-coming that I don’t know about, who’s not in this world?’” Mr. Kahn said.

“I didn’t want just my viewpoint,” he said. “I can’t have just my viewpoint. My viewpoint’s well represented.”

Ms. Bee said that the gender breakdown of the “Full Frontal” writing staff was 50-50 female and male; a December staff meeting observed by a reporter was attended by about two dozen people, and appeared equally divided between men and women.

Among the “Full Frontal” recruits who Ms. Miller and Mr. Kahn are proud of is Razan Ghalayini, a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker who has contributed to publications like The Intercept.

“She speaks fluent Arabic, and she’s traveled in the Middle East,” Mr. Kahn said. “We’re already talking about doing a story in Jordan. She’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been there.’”

No matter whom it hires, “Full Frontal” will ultimately rise or fall on Ms. Bee, who is more obsessive and single-minded about the task of creating the program than her carefree comedic persona might suggest.

At the editing session for her V.A. hospitals segment, she would often dictate her changes aloud, with her eyes closed and a hand pressed to her temple, as if she could already see the show in her mind’s eye. She said she has been jotting down notes to herself pretty much around the clock, even in her early-morning SoulCycle classes, when she’s supposed to be composing inspirational messages.

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

But just because Ms. Bee is fixated on the task at hand does not necessarily mean she is nervous about it.

Speaking from her corner office, she said: “Maybe I should be more panicky about it, but I actually feel pretty mellow. I’m really confident.”

Then again, she added, “If you look down this row of offices, there is a bottle of alcohol in every single desk.”

The show’s format, she said, is still a work in progress but is likely to feature a mix of “big headlines,” field pieces (featuring Ms. Bee as well as other contributors) and other “grab bag” segments.

“We are still putting ideas and research into our little buckets,” she said.

Mr. Reilly of TBS said that he expected it would take time for “Full Frontal” and Ms. Bee to hone their voices. “That’s the nature of these shows,” he said. “At a certain point, you’ve got to put it on its feet and work it out as you go, and they evolve.”

“I have a high degree of certainty we’re going to succeed,” he said. “But I can tell you, she’s not going to err on the side of being too safe.”

Ms. Bee was giving her own explanation of the sensibilities of “Full Frontal” when something caught her attention. She glanced at the transom window above her door and saw a maintenance worker perched high on a ladder, his rear end pointed directly at the glass.

“There it is,” she said. “That’s the show.”