This story about Samantha Bee first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the television industry.
Like every other late-night host who stayed on the air after the pandemic hit, Samantha Bee has been producing her show, “Full Frontal,” from home. In her case, she and her husband, actor/producer/writer/director Jason Jones, have been doing it not from their library or rec room, but from the woods behind their house in upstate New York.
The last time we talked was shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the conversation was about doing a show like yours when the news was all about one thing, Trump. But that was nothing compared to now, when you really do have a single topic dominating daily life.
Oh, yeah. Think about how naïve we were. That feels like child’s play by comparison. Now, this is the only story globally. The whole world is talking about this, and the circumstances of us shooting the show are completely changed by how we’re living. Literally everything about it is different because of what’s happening in the world.
What are the particular challenges of making the show now?
I think the challenge of overcoming a general feeling of anxiety is greater now, because everybody is living in that state. At the beginning, when it was cold and rainy and we really were locked in our places, that felt so suffocating and unknowable, and now we have our bearings a little bit. But just doing a show in these circumstances is an interesting and difficult challenge.
It doesn’t compare to the challenges other people are facing — we’re still just making a comedy show. But we’re trying to make a show that we’re logistically capable of making in this time of great anxiety. We’re trying to find the peripheral angles to all the death and suffering that’s happening. The adjacent story might be, “What’s happening with our food supply?” Or, “How can we save the post office?” It’s all related to COVID, but we’re trying to find an angle that we can sink our teeth into that doesn’t drive us into despair.
At one point, you tried to do a show in the studio but without an audience.
Our last show in the studio was March 11, and prior to that we had a conversation with the staff and said, “If you don’t feel comfortable coming into the office and your work can be done from home, feel free to work from home.” And then the morning of March 11, we had a real come-to-Jesus conversation about whether or not we should have an audience. And it really felt like we should go audience-free.
And then as we started taping the show that day, the building started to shut down around us, because people had been tested positive for COVID. And that’s when we literally grabbed our stuff and left and didn’t come back.
Many late-night hosts are stand-up comedians, and you can see that their instinct is to wait for the laugh after every punchline. You tend to barrel through and not pause, but how big a difference is it to tell jokes without an audience there to laugh?
For one thing, I’m not a stand-up, so that’s not a requirement for me. I don’t have it in my genes to expect that kind of feedback. Maybe I’ve performed to very little laughter too many times in life, and I’m very comfortable with it. But I honestly love our studio audiences and appreciate their feedback when I tape the show. I really do barrel through, lots of times, even when the audience is physically present, because we have so much material to cram into 21 minutes that I tend to go fast and furious no matter what. So that’s not a huge adjustment for me.
The main difference is that I’m delivering it right into my husband’s eyes. That’s the most awkward part of the show. It’s not a soulless giant camera with a teleprompter; it’s literally my husband of many years, and I’m delivering it right into his iPhone. It’s a much more intimate experience, watching my husband find me not funny. That took a little getting used to.
In one show, you did a bit about burying things that you wouldn’t need after the pandemic. Do you think television has changed irrevocably?
I was trying to divine that, actually, the other day. But I don’t know that I have any answers. I was thinking, “What happened during the Depression? What were the types of programming that people were affected by?” But we’re such sophisticated consumers of television and the art now, and it’s such an integral part of our lives in such a different way. Some people in the pandemic find relief in really light comedy and things that feel really frivolous — reality shows and stuff that totally transports them to another place. For myself, I’m really excited because I’m watching “The Leftovers,” which is one of the darkest programs I’ve ever seen. I love the darkness, and that’s what I’m seeking in this second.
I don’t know what the television landscape is going to look like. I really don’t. But I know a lot of pitches now are trying to COVID-proof television production. People want to go into a pitch meeting with a plan in case there’s a resurgence of this disease in the fall. That is very new.
To read more from the “Race Begins” issue, click here.