Only weeks after Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal first aired, TBS’ late-night comedy show has become a certifiable hit. “I got these patronizing emails saying, ‘I never knew you had it in you!'” said Bee, a former “Daily Show” correspondent, adding dryly, she is saving them “forever and ever.”
The only woman hosting a late-night comedy show, Bee spoke before an adoring audience of no doubters Monday as she and her producer, Allana Harkin, were on a panel at Tribeca Film Festival’s Daring Women Summit. In a warm-and-fuzzy discussion led by Rachel Sklar, founder of the Li.st, a women’s networking platform, Bee talked about how she has built a diverse staff and works hard to create a “happy workplace.”
One of the ways she said she accomplishes that is to “fill the rafters the with people you love and trust.” Bee and Harkin met back in the late 1990s, when they both were in the Atomic Fireballs, an all-female comedy troupe in Canada. “We had to fight our way onto stages,” Bee said, reminiscing about how they’d leave “candies and candles” on tables to attract audiences. The two remained close, especially as they became mothers around the same time.
So when Bee got offered the TBS job, she said she immediately called Harkin to join the staff. “I couldn’t do a show if Allana didn’t work at it,” Bee said. “Don’t make me cry,” Harkin responded. “We’ve only been here 10 minutes.”
Late-night television is known as being dominated by “white dudes from the Harvard Lampoon,” as Sklar noted, and Full Frontal is notable for the number of women working behind the camera, especially on the writing staff. Bee credited her “genius” female showrunner, Jo Miller, for the diverse writing staff, saying that she created a writer submission packet that “leveled the playing field.” Not only does Full Frontal use a blind submissions process, with no names attached to writers’ applications, but Miller created a submission process that makes it less forbidding for industry outsiders to submit their work. The submission packet is templated, showing writers what their submissions should look like and ensuring that Bee, Miller and others doing the hiring can’t tell if the submission is from a comedy pro, a new college grad or “a 45-year-old woman making a career change.”
Although Bee said the hiring process is “one of the things I’m most proud of,” she stressed, “it’s not like we fixed diversity. It’s a mandate for the show to always be moving the needle forward.”
The show, which has taken on rape kits and food stamp regulations that classify diapers as “luxury” items, has a fierce, funny and unabashedly feminist sensibility. “When I watch television, I want it to be forceful, take me on a journey, and then get me the hell out,” Bee said. “We have 21 minutes. I want it to be a full impact experience.”
Apparently viewers agree. The show was recently extended by TBS from 13 episodes to 39, which will take it through the end of 2016.