Samantha Bee has had a busy season: Earlier this year, she debuted an hourlong special focusing on Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Irma (for which the show received one of its nominations). She also found herself in a wave of controversy after she used a vulgar term to describe Ivanka Trump during a segment about the separation of migrant children from their parents at the US border. Bee received four Emmy Award nominations this year, including one in the variety talk series category, for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
What do you think the show’s mission is, and has it evolved since Trump was elected?
Obviously, we are following the content that means the most to us, and unfortunately, this administration has been so busy being so destructive, so we often get caught up in what it is that they’re doing. So it’s not that the mission itself has changed, it hasn’t. It’s just that the amount of news that we’re kind of drowning under has changed. That is the unique experience, but I think every show like ours is similarly experiencing it. I think every human being living in America and abroad right now is kind of overwhelmed by the amount of news pouring out of the White House.
I think that, you know, we’ll always aim to be an audacious show. But it’s topical, and a lot of our topical comedy does align with the current temperature of things.
Two of the nominations you received were for your hourlong special on Puerto Rico.
I’m really so thrilled about that. It was really a labour of love for us, for sure. That feels very special to me.
How did that episode come to fruition?
I think over time, as we were observing the recovery, and observing that the administration was doing very little to assist Puerto Rico, it just felt ludicrous to us. We were watching it happen, we were watching days and weeks go by without much coverage, or without people paying attention to the coverage that was happening. And it just felt like something we could and should do. It felt like the right move to dedicate a couple of episodes, or a special, just going there and being on the ground, and telling stories the way that we do.
Not too long after the hurricane, we started talking about it, in probably late November. And then by early January we were making up plans to go. It’s just a story we care deeply about, and that has not changed. I’m actually hoping that, with the Emmy nomination for the special, we get the chance to rerun it. We should not be taking our eyes off Puerto Rico for one second. We’re coming into hurricane season again; it’s not like their problems have been solved.
Every day your job is to try to strike the right balance between humour and the seriousness of whatever you’re discussing. In the case of the Puerto Rico special, you were confronting it in person while the devastation was still and is still being felt. Did you find this balance particularly challenging to tackle?
You definitely have to strike a balance and realise that there might be some footage that you get that you can’t really [use]. Maybe it’s going too far, it’s not respectful. You don’t want to turn the show into a telethon — you want to bring attention the way you do best, which is to bring comedy to a serious situation, and that’s what we do. But we also can’t turn it into, like, an ASPCA infomercial. It needs to shine a light on Puerto Rico, but what I was really trying to do was let the people of Puerto Rico shine themselves.
Let people see how great it is, let people see it’s amazing there and we should care. We should be thinking about them all the time, they’re American citizens.
You’ve also had a busy year with the controversy around your use of a vulgar term to describe Ivanka Trump. In hindsight, how do you feel about the way that unfolded?
I’m glad I’m looking at it through a rearview mirror right now, I’ll definitely say that. Not to say that it’s not going to happen again — not in that form, obviously, but I’m going to say something that has tremendous controversy again. That’s just the nature of the show: We deal in a world that is pretty polarised and we are pretty passionate about our opinions. So, that’s the world we live in. It’s regretful for me that it took attention away from the story that we were trying to tell at the moment that we were trying to tell it. That was pretty painful, I would say.
We’re lucky to be able to revisit it a million times; the story is certainly not over yet. We’re certainly still mid-story.
Since your show began, late night has gotten a bit more diverse, between Sarah Silverman and Robin Thede, but it’s still very white and male. When you first started Full Frontal, did you think there would be a wider variety of viewpoints by now?
Of course. I think it could go faster, but you know, Michelle [Wolf] has her show now, it’s great. Hasan Minhaj has his show he’s firing up just down the street from us. I think that it is opening up, for sure. Wyatt [Cenac] has his show. People are definitely starting to realise that there’s more than one viewpoint out there, and they should be exploring those. It’s not like the floodgates have opened and suddenly everybody’s got a show, but definitely I feel like networks are taking more risks now. Or what would conventionally be considered risks.
Listen, when I was at The Daily Show, I remember pitching a show that was a little bit like this show, not quite like it. And the feedback I got at the time was: “Why would we do another political comedy show? We already have one of those.” You know, that’s really what the world was like not too long ago. That’s not even close to being 10 years ago. And so that has changed, and that is making things better. Diversity is strength, and I think we’ll see more and more shows.
The Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented on September 17 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.