On March 11, two CBS employees tested positive for coronavirus. Just hours before, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which films in CBS’ New York City headquarters, became the first late-night talk show to go without a studio audience. As Bee delivered biting bits of satire while lamenting President Trump’s handling of the pandemic and confirming that no, a global outbreak was not an excuse to be racist, executive producer Alison Camillo looked on, knowing that this was probably the last show they’d shoot in studio for the foreseeable future. She and the staff made a quick decision: Take as much equipment as you can and hope there’d be a way to get back on the air.
They did so, with every department working remotely and Bee shooting in the woods of upstate New York with her husband and three kids assisting. Like every industry, late-night finds itself in uncharted territory, but the way some shows are responding feels like a promising step forward for a genre of TV that tends to become stagnant. Hosts are reinventing their interviewing styles, writers are finding clever ways of making jokes land, and technology is being used in innovative ways to bridge the divide — between audience and show, but also between coworkers, department heads, and creatives locked down in their homes, trying to find a bit of humor in this unimaginable new normal. We chatted with Camillo about how Full Frontal is embracing the chaos and why we need late night now more than ever.
What’s the vibe amongst the staff right now?
I think we’re doing really well, all things considered. I’m so thrilled that we were able to get the show back on the air because I feel like it’s good for our mental health. This is what we love to do, and so to not be able to do that would make it much more stressful.
Working remotely, how has that changed the writer’s room. How are you crafting segments and jokes now?
It’s a lot of Zoom calls. It’s a lot of Slack. It’s a lot of Google Hangouts. It’s definitely more challenging. I think the good thing is that our writers are all wonderful, beautiful, talented introverts, and so a lot of the collaborating that we did before was on Slack, which is where they really shine. We miss those brainstorm meetings and our check-in meetings, where we can say, “Okay, this is how we’re feeling, this is the story we want to cover, this is the angle we want to cover of the story,” but now we’ve moved a lot of that to Slack.
Has anyone accidentally Zoomed from the toilet yet?
Okay, maybe. It came up as a joke in our headline last night. I thought it was just a straight-up joke, and then our HR person posted something like, “Hey, just to let you know that if you go to the toilet and you’re using Zoom, people can still see you,” and I was like, “So is this a thing that’s happened or hasn’t?” I think there’s maybe a thirty-percent chance somebody accidentally did it.
Full Frontal was the first late-night show to film without a studio audience. Did that teach you anything that you’ve brought to these remote episodes?
I think it did. It was so interesting because we had been talking about when’s the tipping point to decide, “Hey, it’s not safe to have an audience anymore?” The morning of that show, which was Wednesday, March 11, I went into Sam’s office and said, “I think we should do it without an audience,” and that’s when we decided to say, “Everybody’s safety is a primary concern, we can figure out a different rhythm.” The audience is a huge role in the rhythm of the show. It’s a huge role in the rhythm of late-night comedy to have that audience reaction after every joke, and so to take that away is really scary.
But we were like, “Okay, we’ll just have studio reactions,” so everybody who’s normally in the studio, which is probably 15 people or so. Our head writers, Kristen Bartlett and Mike Drucker, had a really great idea, they were like, “Can we just write you some surprise material?” — like jokes Sam has never said or heard before until she reads the teleprompter. And luckily, she is amazing, she was totally game for it, and it brought a really unique added energy to the show.
After that live show, when did you know that you were going to need to take it one step further and do this remotely?
Right before that show taped, we found out that we had two positive coronavirus cases in our building, one in our office building and one in our studio building, and so we knew that was it for us. That night, we all figured this would be the last time we were seeing work for a while, so everybody gathered up all the equipment that they could and took it all home. We brought home laptops, we brought home giant graphics computers, we brought home drives, we brought home lights, we brought home cameras, we brought home everything that we could possibly get out of the office that night. We didn’t know what a good decision that was until now, because that’s the only way that we’ve been able to do the show is that we have all that equipment at home.
Was there ever a conversation about the show going on hiatus?
We didn’t even know if it was technically possible for us to do a show remotely. We normally feed the show to CBS and we’re like, “Can we deliver it to them as files instead?” Figuring out those technical things was a big part of it. But, also, there were larger conversations, like, “Is it better for the show just to take a break for a month? How do we do this? Do we even want to have the show on the air? What’s it going to look like? Is it going to be high enough quality that it’s something that we’re all proud of?”
Without an audience, without those in-person brainstorms, how have the way you shoot the show and the jokes you’re telling changed?
It’s changed the timing of the show, like the way that Sam has to read it, because normally she knows when to wait for a pause, or wait for clapping, and this, she has had to figure out the timing and how to read the jokes so that it still plays without that audience. When we first got the footage back from her, I thought she really nailed it. I thought she did such a good job giving every joke a beat. I will say, too, we did tape a little bit more than we would normally tape, just to make sure that if there was stuff that wasn’t landing exactly right without an audience, we can pull it out, and we can still have a cohesive headline.
Has it pushed you to get more creative? To lean into the authenticity of this DIY format?
Yes, definitely. We left this in the show last week, just because it made us laugh so hard. This is obviously unscripted, but Sam and her family are essentially out in the wilderness right now, and at the top of Act II, we were listening to the tapes that they shot, and before they started, you can hear [Sam’s husband] Jason Jones go, “Shut up, hawk,” and Sam goes, “Go hunt someplace else.” It was just a lovely real moment, we were like, “Okay, we’ve got to leave this in,” and so we did. Honestly, that’s something that I’ve always liked about our show is that we like unexpected things like if Sam breaks, we’ll leave that in. I like to give it a real feel. I like the chaos. I think that that always makes things feel more relatable, right?
Has the role of the show changed or become more important in the late-night landscape now?
Absolutely. We are a late-night show, but I do think that we’re different. We come from a different place. We have a lot of women on staff, we have a lot of diversity on staff, so we’ve always had a point of view that’s slightly different than anybody else’s. And we also are angry about what’s going on. That’s something that we’ve always included in our comedy and will continue to. We also try to make sure that there is comedy first because in addition to the anger, people also really need to laugh and feel better, so we’ve thought about a bunch of ideas for silly sketches or a really funny cold open, and they’re all super weird. I’m excited for people to see that side of the show, too, because I think that they’ll love it.
The show’s interview segments always stand out, but how are you adapting when those are being done virtually? It’s not like Sam can mimic someone like Jimmy Fallon and have these fun, light celebrity hangouts.
We’ve never been one for fluffy interviews. We just don’t do it well, honestly. What we do well is to really press people on hard issues and just talk them through it and see what they have to say. So we will continue to do that same thing, just in a slightly different format.
And if someone just shuts down an interview or logs off mid-talk?
That’s also good TV. That would be a great moment. I would love to watch that Skype interview where they suddenly end the call, and Sam’s left there alone. I think that would be fantastic.
How do you think this crisis is going to affect late-night moving forward?
This is always a learning process, everything that we’re doing. Our show today is way different than it was four years ago, and that’s just because of how we’ve grown and changed as people, and so we’re going to just take all that information in and make those tweaks because we’re trying to make the show better. I think there are some things that we’ve learned, even in the past week, that will make the show better permanently. Once we get back to the studio, there will be processes that we realized that are helpful, there will probably be people that we realize could work from home more than they ever had been before. I definitely think that there’s stuff that we’ll take and incorporate. Seeing the show in a different format and a different location, it’s exciting, and that helps you think about the show in different ways for the future as well.
TBS’ ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’ returns on Wednesday, April 1.