When Samantha Bee first debuted her outdoor, studio-less version of “Full Frontal,” she delivered her distinct brand of incisive, insightful news coverage in front of a giant pile of sticks. At first thought, the thicket looked like an inescapable byproduct of Bee shooting in her actual backyard. Perhaps there aren’t that many sunny spots to provide ideal lighting or solid backdrops that don’t distract from the pressing topics Bee-ing discussed.
But the more you stare at the overgrown clump of twigs, the more you start to think: Maybe it means something. Maybe those snarled sticks represent the world in its messy, ever-more-tangled state. Maybe with every informative story and clarifying quip, Bee is loosening the knot and helping us see society a little more clearly.
Or maybe Bee’s cameraman and husband, Jason Jones, just really likes that shot.
“It is just a pile of sticks,” Bee said in an interview with IndieWire. “We have some really raggedy trees, and Jason likes to shoot that angle [even though] it’s not the prettiest version of the forest. It’s just that everything is so barren right now.”
Mimicking Bee’s backdrop, the world feels like a gnarled, desolate hellscape, especially for anyone glued to their TVs. Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, the news has become an all-consuming habit, consisting of urgent alerts that affect everyone’s daily lives: physical distancing orders, testing availability, government support — and that was before officers in the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd, spurring protests, curfews, and more mandates, both societal and moral, in response to the continued persecution of Black Americans.
When Bee spoke with IndieWire a month prior, the “Full Frontal” host was just settling into her new, DIY production style. After shooting her last in-studio episode in early March (with a physically distanced audience, most of whom were in masks), Bee regrouped with her family in upstate New York and almost immediately started trying out different shooting techniques.
“It wasn’t like Jason and I woke up one day and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and it’s going to totally work. We’re going to shoot an entire, broadcast-quality television show from our lawn.’ There was no plan like that,” Bee said. “But we very early on just imagined a reality in which we might be shooting stuff here. […] We just started chopping wood and shot a little thing of me trying to chop logs. And it worked. It looked great. We put it on digital and then we made another little thing and that also looked great, and we started to feel what was possible.”
Courtesy of TBS
While other late-night hosts have been converting their homes into makeshift sets, Bee was immediately drawn to her backyard. Even without a backup plan in case of rain or other turbulent weather, the host was partial to uncontrollable nature over the blank canvas of her new home.
“We just moved in here,” she said. “We don’t have anything up on our walls. Right now, I’m looking at a plain, taupe wall. There’s no backdrop that wouldn’t be totally fake. I don’t have a big bookcase full of smarty-pants books.”
“I like being outside. I just really prefer it,” Bee said. “And really, the thinking that went into doing it outside was just that you don’t have to get lights. It’s free lighting.”
After producing her “Little Show in the Big Woods,” WarnerMedia and TBS were on board to resume production on full-version “Full Frontal” episodes under remote working conditions. Reliant on rural internet posed its own challenge in uploading footage — not to mention communicating with writers and crew members — but having two experienced, professional television producers in-house (along with three children to lend a hand) helped facilitate a smooth transition outdoors.
“It’s been a real journey,” Bee said. “I can’t say it’s been easy, but my staff is incredible — they really are incredible. And my husband’s incredible. It’s not like if I was doing this by myself it would look anywhere near as good as it looks. He just has a great eye. And everybody’s working so hard from their homes to innovate.”
Along with the technical details of getting up-and-running again, Bee still had to meet the standards of her Emmy-winning program. “Balance” is a word that kept coming up in our conversation, as Bee and her team of writers aimed to stay informative while providing a little levity when they could. Early in the run of outdoor episodes, the show spoofed Vogue’s 73 Questions videos, in part because it was funny — a quality “Full Frontal” doesn’t ever want to lose — but also because Bee was struggling to find her own “emotional safe harbor” during the pandemic.
“So many people are reading. I swear to Jesus Christ I haven’t cracked a book,” she said. “There’s no world in which I have the mental space to read some really great fiction right now. I feel like I’m living in fiction. […] A lot of people watch turn to reality shows to lighten the load. I’m not watching a ton of television, but I will say I started watching ‘The Leftovers,’ and it’s really great.”
Bee chose the critically hailed HBO drama because it was the “most darkly entertaining show” she could fully invest in, but that’s not how she’s shaping her own show. “Full Frontal” has addressed the most prominent topics of the day, while still finding time to spotlight stories the major news outlets may have overlooked — as well as a little levity. She was ahead of John Oliver in calling for aid to the U.S. Postal Service (selling out her stamp designs before his became available), but “Full Frontal” has also incorporated more musical guests than usual, via a “Live from Sam’s Shed” conceit that uses Bee’s backyard shack as a magical portal to soothing melodies.
“Everybody’s working from home, but everybody is really mired in what’s happening,” she said. “Everybody has their own personal family life that they’re working through, whatever their circumstances are, and just a general level of high anxiety. We are trying to introduce elements to the show in a different way — that just are joyful for us because we need that. We’re trying to take a lighter approach from moment to moment.”
Bee has also been Zooming with renowned leaders like Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with the Massachusetts’ senator’s segment titled “The Elizabeth Warren Emergency Reassurance Zoom.” Despite the trying times, Bee said finding outstanding guests eager to hop on a Zoom hasn’t been too big of a burden.
“I actually think it’s been a little easier than it normally is,” she said. “First of all, we’ve had great politicians and female leaders speaking on the show. That’s been wonderful. They normally have such packed schedules that if you can even pin them down for 20 minutes you’re very, very lucky. They still have packed schedules, they’re still doing a lot, but it’s a lot easier to capture someone from their home computer. Everyone’s just got a little bit more time because there’s no getting from place to place in a car and getting out of the car and coming into the building — there’s a little more flexibility. And people really want to talk.”
With good reason. The way Bee addresses each week’s harsher headlines with equally persistent language gives voice to a nation’s frustrations — Bee screaming “What the fuck is happening?!“ remains a cathartic howl — while her witty remarks, clever gags, and soothing segments go a long way toward diffusing our collective anxiety. “Full Frontal” is both a sharp hatchet cutting through the knotted branches and a cool breeze, for once we’ve worked up a sweat. Instead of an ugly thicket, Bee makes it possible for us to see each stick. After all, the world may be a mess, but it’s one we all have to sort out somehow.
“We’re trying to figure one out because, who knows?” Bee said. “Who knows when we’re coming back? Who knows if we’ll be cast out again? I’m trying to plan for everything all at the same time.”
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is available via TBS. Seasons 1-3 are streaming on HBO Max.