It’s been more than a year since Full Frontal With Samantha Bee debuted on TBS, but time hasn’t dulled the satirical talk show’s edge—it’s sharpened it. The series is resonating with more viewers than ever, regularly securing a top spot in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic. But Bee and executive producer Jo Miller aren’t interested in bragging rights or just preaching to the choir—they take care to shine a light on issues and groups that aren’t on the national stage. Even in the immediate aftermath of the election, Full Frontal went right back to work to provide its audience with comedy and comfort. The A.V. Club spoke with Miller about four episodes that focus on prescience, the press, and polarization in this country.
The A.V. Club: In the wake of Brexit, did that feel like the first really big “WTF?” moment in the world for you all to tackle?
Jo Miller: I lived in Britain, so that had been on my radar, as it was, obviously, on all of our radars. It did seem like an emergency alarm going off, taking the temperature of anti-immigrant, nationalist, protectionist acting-out protest votes. The polls showed it was always going to be close. The result was actually in line with the polls, but it doesn’t seem like people, particularly in the south of England, were paying much attention to the polls. The next day, you had a lot of those people who were instantly regretful of their tantrum vote that wound up having consequences. And of course, as soon as that vote came through, we were up all night. Predictably enough, there was a rise in disgusting anti-immigrant, anti-black incidents for everybody, immediately. So we could see that as a template for what could happen here.
AVC: How quickly did you think to loop in David Tennant to read the tweets from all those Scots who were pissed that Donald Trump had confused England with Scotland?
JM: That happened over the weekend. We were still on Mondays then; I was here in my Kaczynski shack, and I was texting with Sam [Bee]. We have a running joke, where she does accents badly on purpose. So I asked her, “How’s your Scottish accent?” and she said, “About as good as my Australian.” And I said, “Okay, maybe we can get Patrick Stewart to read these.” And she said her agent reps David Tennant, so within a couple of hours, we were emailing with David Tennant. So that’s how that happened, and he was absolutely lovely. He was shooting Broadchurch; he was on his way to the shooting location. And I think they pulled over to the side of the road and shot him reading those with an iPhone. It was so enormously generous and menschy of the guy. We both adore him, because he’s wonderful, and we’re women. And we’re both Doctor Who fans and Shakespeare fans. It added to the show something that was pure delight, in the midst of this Cassandra-like screaming that we were doing.
AVC: We often see those brighter moments interspersed throughout the “Cassandra-like” predictions. In this same episode, there was all this heartening news at the end occurring in, of all places, Texas. Is it important to include something to prove that not everything’s going to shit?
JM: It’s very important to us to do that, because it’s a more accurate picture. It’s a more full and complete picture, to cover the good and the bad. And we need it, and the audience needs it. We need something to get us out of bed, and get us through the day, and keep us living, fighting, and laughing, and behaving like people. Especially in the wake of the election—we’ve sort of naturally developed this rhythm, where one week, we do something encouraging and fun, and the next week, we’ll wind up being—we’ll have explosions on the side screens going the whole time. This week, both of our acts had explosions and flames on the side screens. We’ve got this sort of pendulum rhythm going.
AVC: When that happens, is there at all the sense that you’ve missed out on an opportunity to weigh in on something, or is balance more important in those cases?
JM: We always miss the opportunity to weigh in on things, because we have one show a week. So, the selection process is—it’s not a consciously sitting down with a piece of paper, going, “What does the audience need this week?” That’s the unconscious process. We can feel—we feel that our audience is in a similar emotional place to where we are. So knowing what we need, we assume that’s what they need, too. The feedback we get from them seems to bear that out. We’ll just keep trying to get the tone right and give them what helps them and what they enjoy.
AVC: You have the most inclusive writers room in late night—
JM: That’s a statement about late night.
AVC: True. But you do have this diverse staff on one of the only woman-led late-night shows, which means Full Frontal represents more view points. Does that help you connect with a greater audience?
JM: Frankly, we have the smartest group of writers. We also have diversity in terms of age and backgrounds, and that was deliberate. I wanted to put together a lot of points of view, not just six of the same. And they’re people who are personally affected by the things going on. So when we see the news, we don’t think, “Oh, what’s a clever thing I could say about that?” We think, “Holy shit, that’s an attack on me and my friends, and I would like to start drinking now, and it’s 8 a.m.” And then we take all of those feelings and turn those into jokes. So that is our process. I mean, the stuff that we did about the Jew-shaped holes in the wall—that was completely true. And that photo of our staff looking sad was just—we were in rewrite, and we just took an iPhone and took a picture of them being sad.
AVC: That takes us into the pre- and post-election episodes, which, appropriately enough, was the first time you did multiple episodes in one week.
JM: Yeah, we had one on the eve of the election and one after. Going into the election, we had a show that had been percolating for months. Sam and I, and the women on our staff, had been compiling our “let Hillary be Hillary” material, and we had all been waiting for the moment to say it. It had actually been going on longer than that for me, because when Bill Clinton was first elected president, and [Hillary] went to Washington as part of the first baby boomer couple to make it to the White House, it was a generational change. She was a lawyer who’d been doing her own work in school integration and women and children’s issues for a long time. She was coming to the WH to do a job and not simply arrange flowers or decorate. And that seemed like a natural progression, coming out of the ’80s, for all of us, who believed that the arc of history bent toward justice, and we believed—and we were young—sort of in a positivist fallacy, that things got better as time went on. This was the beginning of the backlash. She got to the White House and made a remark about not just baking cookies, and America said, “Bitch, get into the kitchen and bake cookies.” And she did, and my heart died. I was in my early 20s, and my heart just died, and it has never really come back all the way. Because that was the first hard slap of ’90s backlash that we went through here, and in Britain, that we’re still feeling aggressive misogyny, and we saw it in the person of the first lady. So that’s how long that had been brewing.
The Hillary piece was also an attempt to explain to people who don’t remember the ’90s that politics was different then. You’d say that you didn’t like broccoli, and it would be a fucking incident with the farmers. You couldn’t be authentic at all. Everything had to be focus-grouped and vetted. And it was terrible. But she’d gotten slapped down so hard for being authentic that she learned and was forced to learn the inauthentic way of doing politics—the “politic” way of doing politics. And you think a 69-year-old woman, who was punished for being authentic, is going to be able to change on the spot now that it’s needed? Grandma’s not going to learn to do it a different way. We had this horribly out of step, focus-grouped, tightly controlled, inauthentic campaign, and we were all like, “Hillary, let down your hair. Be authentic!” and she just could not do it.
AVC: In the same episode, following this retrospective piece on Hillary Clinton, there’s a more surreal bit, where Sarah Paulson reads from those damn emails we’d heard so much about. How did that come together?
JM: God, I love her [Sarah]. That week is a sleepless blur. We knew Sarah was a fan, and she was in New York. We’re just huge fans of hers, and we wanted a woman like that to read the emails, and we thought there was no better way to show what a fucking “nothing burger” these Wikileaks emails were than to just read them. The nefarious conspiracy is that she can’t print her own shit, which we laughed at, too, until I found myself forwarding things to my assistant to print, because I was on my phone on a bus. I didn’t have a printer. That’s probably why she did it—she wasn’t near one. It probably wasn’t that she didn’t know how to use one! I figured that out a couple of weeks ago. I thought, “Oh, great, now I’m Grandma.”
We wanted to pull in that the emails showed this was a woman who was micromanaging in a really endearing and admirable way. Micromanaging on behalf of women who were in trouble and taking a personal interest in making sure that they got taken care of and that their issues got moved forward in the massive bureaucracy that she worked in. And I will take a micromanaging secretary of state over what we got now.
AVC: Speaking of what we’ve got now, there’s been some discussion over whether comedy and satire have become harder to do now, because it’s hard to imagine something more absurd going on.
JM: I don’t agree with that. I think that it makes parody impossible, but not satire. So no, you can’t outdo the absurdity of a Trump presidency with a parody that pushes something to its extreme in a comical way. But satire isn’t parody. So you can still cut to the heart of what’s wrong in the world around us and do it in a comedic way. I think satire is more necessary than ever, which is why people who do it well, like Stephen Colbert, have shot up in the ratings. I don’t think people are in the mood for light parody anymore. They’re in the mood for jokes that illuminate. So I think that’s one reason Colbert has come into his own in the ratings—people are appreciating what he does [on The Late Show].
AVC: Full Frontal is also seeing its highest ratings.
JM: Yeah, we’re number one in the demo. Which is weird because we’ve got a couple of women over 45 who are resonating with the college kids, for some reason, with our jokes about the ’90s. I read articles in the college papers written by students, and they seem to get us better than just about anybody. I kind of love that generation, actually.
AVC: The Russian journalist who was interviewed in that episode says the thing a dictator hates most is being laughed at, which feels like another prescient bit about Trump.
JM: Yeah, he doesn’t even like the people around him being made fun of. Or played by a woman. I just love that Saturday Night Live is now having all of his staff played by women. I’m sure he hates it. He has not taken notice of us in any public way yet, which is interesting. We’re trolling him pretty fucking hard. I think our studio audience shows up wanting that, so even when we want to skip Trump and look at what’s going on in the states or Congress, we’ll do that, but we throw a little bit of Trump in there. And the audience goes wild. There’s this emotional release. They need to see the authority figure punctured and played with, like a cat with a mouse. They need it. They want it. So we’ll keep doing that.
AVC: That was both harder and more necessary than ever in the post-election episode. As a weekly show, you aren’t often firing off a quick take on something, but in this case, you had planned to weigh in quickly.
JM: It was surreal and not fun. But I was deeply impressed. I was frankly blown away by the professionalism of our entire staff, because they are mostly younger than I am. This was a body blow to them, in real time, watching the results. They’d just come off a show, and they didn’t get to process or really indulge their emotions like the rest of the country did. They had to sit down and work and turn those emotions into a show—a funny show—in the middle of the night. And they did. They just sat down and brought it; they put their personal feelings on hold or into the show, and at one in the morning, they were sitting at their desks, producing top-notch work. That also includes Tyler Hall, a field producer who went out and shot footage of people on Election Day. That day, he’d gotten the footage back and had planned a completely different piece, one about people coming together and the election being over. He took the same material and turned it into a very different piece with a very different point, but I thought he executed it beautifully. I was blown away. Our writers handed me their scripts after midnight then finally went home. I sat at my desk putting the show together. My assistant came in the next morning, and I sent her to my house to feed Sammy (my cat) and get me a clean shirt, because I had the same shirt on. And it’s kind of a blur, actually.
AVC: Included in the field piece, there’s Mike Rubens’ interview with a Trump supporter who—
JM: He cries.
AVC: He breaks down and cries, even though his “team” won, because there’s such a big divide now. It felt like the show was saying that things will be okay or we’ll come together.
JM: I don’t think we’re going to be okay or come together. I do think it’s a reminder that we’re Americans, and there is more that unites us than divides us. We’re politically polarized. The longing to come together is there, but the barriers to it are enormous. Most everyone—except the fucking demented trolls who thrive on chaos—hates this feeling of polarization. We want to find common ground with other people. And that hug was the perfect expression of it, of what people feel. We feel it in our families. I live up here in the country, I feel it with my neighbors—we’re politically divided. But there’s a special pleasure now, whenever we find something that we all enjoy or agree on. I was at a little grocery store up here, and a hunter came out, and he said, “Gotta love Le Chameau,” and I wasn’t sure what he was saying until I realized he was talking about my Wellington boots. And we had this little bonding moment over my boots, and it kind of made me happy for hours. He and I probably disagree on everything but footwear, but I’ll take it.
AVC: It was reminiscent of the Brexit episode, where there was this immediate regret over what had just happened. The guy in the field piece didn’t say he regretted voting for Trump, but he did regret how divisive things had gotten.
JM: It would have been a little more hopeful if Hillary had won, because it would have meant the defeat of a movement that cultivated and thrives on conflict and hate and polarization. It would have been an American rejection of that and possibly a beginning to the healing. I mean, I think we would have had nothing but congressional hearings and trolling, but it would have been ugly either way. But a national vindication of Steve Bannon’s strategy is very sad.
AVC: On a brighter note, you had that beautiful Lizzo performance at the end.
JM: Isn’t she amazing? We were going to have a balloon drop, but we couldn’t do that. So Lizzo was on the plane, figuring out how to reorient the performance. And she decided to begin it with a civil rights song and then pivot to the uplifting song. And I thought it worked beautifully. She was going through some shit—we all were—but she figured out how to turn it into art. It seems like a pretty straight line from Lizzo’s performance to the Women’s March. That was women splashing water on their faces, getting up off the ground, and getting busy.
JM: Sam was at the D.C. march as a private citizen. A lot of writers wanted to go, and they took the bus. I was up here at the march in Hudson, New York, because I was very interested in the satellite marches, the local marches, which we mentioned on the show. I looked up the smallest places, the most “red state” remote places I could think of, and just plugged them in with “women’s march,” and every time, they came up. Photos of women’s marches in Idaho and in Kansas, and in small towns like mine up here in Hudson. These were well attended for the size of these towns. I think they were also the place where people met their neighbors and started social media groups and local meeting groups that have now organized the turnouts at the town halls over the ACA. It started at the Women’s Marches.
AVC: By showing the photos from the smaller marches, you were also pointing out the inaccuracy of reports from outlets like Fox News, who said these marches were only happening in liberal enclaves or on the coasts. Has that kind of fact-checking become exhausting for you all as a group, considering you’ve been at this for a year now?
JM: Well, I mean, if we had to spend our time fact-checking Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda juggernaut, we’d have no time to do anything else. But all of our media is hung up on reporting things in their own backyard, which is how they ended up missing a whole meth epidemic, because it didn’t happen in New York. It ate through Iowa and destroyed towns, but the national media didn’t notice it, which is the same way that we didn’t notice that there was a Trump movement building in the states. We’re easily distracted by the big cities and shiny objects.
That’s why our show keeps trying to go back to the states and to the legislatures that are making decisions that actually affect people’s lives, more than anything in Washington. Also, if you got out and marched your ass in Fairbanks, Alaska, in negative-17-degree weather, you deserve to be on TV. And they did. There was a march in Antarctica. For these people, if you’re in a small town in Idaho or Iowa or Missouri, and there’s 200 of you marching, you’re showing your neighbors that you’re here.
I’ve lived in rural Missouri myself and Georgia, and I know how it feels to think you’re alone, and the impulse is to keep your mouth shut and just get along, and not invite negative attention or harassment, and also to just give up. So when someone who’s done that looks out the window and sees 200 like-minded people, it changes the equation. That’s what matters at the end of the day, being active locally and getting people elected. It’s one thing to be able to turn on The Daily Show or our show when you’re in rural Missouri and think, “Oh, god, I’m not alone. There are people in New York who think just like me.” But it’s another thing to look out your window and think, “If I wanted to do something, people would do it with me. And it wouldn’t be pointless.” That’s real, in a way that watching TV and getting a little shot in the arm boost isn’t. So the local marches are kind of everything.
[Ed. note: The episode titles have been corrected.]