Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which is in the midst of its fourth season, has often made the most noise and delved deepest into issues that have sometimes fallen by the wayside in the over-caffeinated Donald Trump driven news cycle. Host and producer Samantha Bee has even had the unique experience of being pulled into that news cycle, prompting Trump and his acolytes to call for her to lose her job after remarks about the President’s aide (and daughter), Ivanka Trump, were deemed controversial. But that hasn’t slowed Bee down. The show has forged on and Bee has continued to take hard swings.
On Saturday (10pm EST) TBS will air the second Not The White House Correspondents Dinner, offering an answer to the actual correspondents’ dinner’s recusal from its duty to roast the President (every President, as is tradition). It’s also a response to a world made more hostile toward the press thanks to Trump’s words and actions (proceeds from the event, which is being recorded Friday, are going to the Committee To Protect Journalists). But as Bee explained when we spoke with her earlier this week, this latest special and everything her show does isn’t done out of a sense of obligation. Rather, Bee is propelled by a sense inspiration and passion that enriches the work that she and her team put out.
Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it.
Oh, no problem. I’m happy to be doing it. I’m in the hotel lobby so you’ll have to pardon me for a sec, I’m going to try to find a quiet, kind of unobtrusive place. There’s a lot of club music playing. [Laughs]
That’s my lede: Sam Bee called me from the club…
It’s four o’clock in the morning, I was in Ibiza…
Yeah, exactly. Perfect. So, what was your response when they announced that they weren’t going to go ahead with a comedian as host of the actual White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Well, I think that was one of the deciding factors for us in determining very positively that we were going to do our own event, actually. We kind of heard that and went, “Oh brother, okay. Well, let’s do it again.” The idea was bubbling in my own brain and amongst the staff. I’m pretty sure that was one of the precipitating pieces of information that pushed us forward. It was just so unfair. When the President reacts so strongly to something and tells the White House Correspondents’ Association to do something about it… and they actually pivoted. Listen, I think Ron Chernow will do a great job. He’s a smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. But, you know, this is the tradition. When you’re the President, it’s your job to sit there once a year and look straight into the eye of a comedian and take your lumps for fifteen minutes. It’s part of the social contract. So, we decided to do one.
I think I’ve heard you say this before, but that kind of capitulation, it’s not like it’s going to change anything in the relationship between him and the White House Correspondents.
He’s still going to do exactly what he’s been doing. So, it’s like, why appease him?
Yeah, why appease him? Why bother? You don’t let him set the terms for the First Amendment, that’s for sure.
Definitely. Why did you say you weren’t going to do another one after the first special?
I think we just felt like we had done it. I didn’t think that it was necessary to make an annual tradition out of it. I like to do things when I’m kind of called to do them or I feel interested in doing them. I don’t like to do things just because… you know, “It happens once a year, and once you do it once it happens the same time every year.” I just don’t like to operate that way, in general. So, I didn’t really know that we’d feel so called to do it again and then we were so we decided to do it again, you know? I don’t like to be tied to anything, particularly. I like to do things when the spirit moves. And I’m very lucky because TBS is down with that, actually. They’re very good about it and they’re excited to do it again.
With that in mind, what’s going to feel different this year as opposed to the last one?
I think they’re really different this year because we’re reacting to different things. Two years have passed. I think that the first Not The White House Correspondents Dinner had the feeling of reacting to the election and the inauguration and how in shock we all were. Even continuing into April. So much has happened in that two year period. Everyone’s kind of feeling under siege. It’s dangerous and scary to be a journalist now. It’s a very important job. Great journalism is happening on a scale that I think… there’s an awareness of it. But the landscape is changing and so we wanted to respond to that two years later.
Like you said, so much has changed in two years. Obviously, the show has been on… this is Season Four. Things have changed so much in four years. How do you feel the show has changed over that time, in general?
We’ve adapted to this crazy news cycle. We could not have anticipated that it would feel like this. We’re grappling with the same kinds of issues that other shows like ours are grappling with. Just the relentlessness of the news cycle. I mean that’s our job to respond to the news and current events. Handling that is actually pretty onerous. I think the show has evolved. It’s different. There’s a different flavor when you’re an upstart news show versus a show that has been established for four years. It’s just a feeling or a maturity on the show. Everybody kind of knows what they’re doing now. The machine is working really well. So living life is ever so slightly easier… [laughs] Which is nice.
But then we take on these big tasks like doing an hour-long special at the end of a five-week run of shows. So we do like to challenge ourselves.
How do you go about picking which stories to focus on? The deeper dives like when you go to Yemen.
You know, they’re driven by the things that we feel passionately about. But also you can kind of tell. Everybody pitches stories at the office and you can see which ones really excite all of us. There are a couple of stories coming up in the next couple of months that we all kind of went on a journey with, and that’s really fun too. So you don’t feel like you’re sitting back and telling people things they already know. The period of discovery is where we can find freshness or we find variety in our day. Investigating things that we just didn’t know about. You can tell. You can tell when a story really wakes people up. Those are exciting to do.
The news cycle is crazy. There are 15 things breaking every day, it’s just buckshot all over the place and things get left behind that we would typically fixate on. Is that part of it: a drive to pick up the ball for the national media?
I mean, it’s not like we feel like we’re the ones who are doing the heavy labor or anything like that. I mean, we rely on journalists and tell stories that we’re passionate about. We have our own research team and all of that. But I think it’s more organic. If a story has been dropped or left behind and it’s a story that we love and wanna talk about, then it’s not so much that the story was dropped, but it’s that we feel like we have a different take on it and we can add something to the conversation about it. Sometimes, things are super well-covered and we’re like, why do we need to chime in on this? Which is great.
Even the amplification is, in and of itself, something, I think.
Amplification, for sure. The story in Djibouti is actually a good example of something that was really not widely known. You know, refugees from the Yemeni war who have American ties or even are American immigrants or are related to American immigrants and are stuck there in the waiver process. It’s not really a reported story because Djibouti is really far away and really hard to get to. Nobody’s covering it. It’s just kind of a fluke that one of our very brilliant producers figured it out and made all the connections. So, you know that story, very organically, speaks to all of us and the things that we care about.
No, definitely. And I think no matter where it comes from, to a certain extent, those details, those things that grip you like that, it’s obviously news.
Interestingly enough, another recent story about the soldiers and the VISA program. I actually had a very long Uber drive the other day and I was talking to the driver and he was telling me how he had served for five years in the Defense Department for Afghanistan and then came over. And then I watched the episode the next day and was like, “Oh! That!”
Actually, where we are right now actually in Washington, in D.C., there are tons of people who assisted in Iraq and Afghanistan and they’re all driving Ubers now. It’s like fleets of people. I remember, here in Washington, having the same type of conversation.
I was talking with him about what his experience was like and he was telling me about how he’s had a couple of people get rude with him and tell him to go back to his country. And he’s like, “I served five years for this country.”
Five years. I know.
Insane. It’s a really big story. It’s a really big deal. A story like that, which another one of our producers actually just pitched. And we might do it. But you know, something like that is just driven by our interest, like we’re not following some national… we’re just following stories that interest us. If it connects with people, I think that’s great. It certainly connects with us.
Just trusting that gut… Obviously, you can’t focus group this stuff.
It works out pretty well for you guys.
Yeah, yeah, it works great. It works great for us and it’s kind of the only way I’d really want to make the show. It’s personal. It’s really personal.
It definitely comes through in the work which is why it’s more effective. You can tell the difference between a news story and how it’s covered when someone actually cares about what they’re doing versus someone who’s kind of just chasing the tail and just chasing clicks, tweets, et cetera. That quick hit of attention and move onto the next.
I’m not actually saying this to suck up to the people at TBS, but we’re lucky to be able to not have to chase clicks or chase the news cycle so fervently. It’s a privilege, actually. I acknowledge that.
In general, do you feel like that’s a trend that other places are going to eventually pick up on? Are we gonna find our way back to normal at some point?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t even know that we can remember what normal felt like.
(Trump) has really busted norms all over the place. It’s going to be hard to go back in time. It’s going to be hard to restore things that really worked as handshake agreements all along that we thought were rules, but really weren’t. It’s going to be hard to replace those gentleman’s agreements that we all kind of lived by, but were never codified. It’s too late. They’ve been obliterated. So how do we rebuild? I don’t know. I think we can rebuild, for sure. But, it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to happen overnight.
For sure. I think Trump’s biggest asset is that he’s able to kind of inject so much mistrust in people. Do you think that’s something unique to him? Or do you think the next person down the line is gonna be able to do the same thing?
He’s been grooming people. He’s just been grooming people and grooming people for so long. It pains me so deeply to see people fall for his bullshit. He’s really good at it. He’s really good at it.
I’ve been in New Jersey and New York my entire life and, if you’re from here, you’re familiar with his act and your bullshit detector starts screaming.
But people in places like Kansas and other parts of the country just don’t have the same awareness of him and his shtick. It’s wild.
I grew up in Canada, you know what I mean? And I read Time Magazine. I’m like twenty years old reading about what a shithead Donald Trump is. I came here armed with the knowledge of who he is as a person from decades ago. [Laughs] How do people not see? How can people look at him and go, “Awe, he’s so rich, I want that. I want to be just like him?” … I really would like to live one day as a person who believes that he is a great guy who’s fantastically rich and amazing and super smart.
And a man of faith, also.
And a man of faith! Mind-blowing. Mind-blowing.
You’ve interviewed Barack Obama. Would you ever want to interview Trump?
I don’t think there’s really any point to it. No. I do not desire it. I don’t want to sit in the same room. I have nothing to say that I haven’t said on television. I don’t think it would be useful. I don’t think it would be good for my soul. Everything I have to say, I say on my television show. I don’t know what would compel me to do it. He would never consent to that and I certainly would never ask.
Going back to what you said before, if it’s not something that moves you, obviously it wouldn’t be worth doing.
Yeah, not a huge passion for me. [Laughs]
The ‘Not The White House Correspondents Dinner’ airs Saturday at 10 pm EST on TBS.