Samantha Bee (‘Full Frontal’) on her hopes for the 2020 election cycle [Complete Interview Transcript]

Samantha Bee is once again nominated at the Emmys for her variety talk series, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” She now has 12 nominations in total, with one victory for her “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” special in 2017.

Bee recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery to discuss the turbulent news cycle, her episode on Yemeni refugees and her plans for a new tech project. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: As we’re recording this it’s been another scary and bizarre week of news with Jeffrey Epstein’s death and an ICE raid in Mississippi, but it’s kind of like every news week feels this way now. Is it getting more challenging over time to plan and prioritize for a weekly half-hour show that, of course, you have limited time?

Samantha Bee: it doesn’t get more difficult over time. I would say that it’s very fatiguing at the end of a long cycle of shows, by the fifth bad news story of the week. It’s challenging to get the last show out in a cycle ‘cause you just feel like, “I can’t believe more stuff is happening.” And now we’re actually on vacation. We actually have a dark week starting today so I’m very grateful. We’re all really in need of a vacation. Melinda Taub, the head writer of the show, she’s incredible. I will not hear from her for two straight weeks. She goes into a hanger and just stays in seclusion.

GD: I feel like we all need a bunker or to all be researching properties in Canada maybe.

SB: We’re actually gonna go to Canada. All my social media I’m gonna turn off everything and I’m gonna just listen to the call of the loons and let that be my guide. I’ll come back with a big story after vacation about how loons are really pretty and I saw a moose.

GD: As we head into another presidential election cycle, there’s so much made about how Trump got so much free advertising and coverage from the networks just from covering him all the time and the way they covered things out of balance, the emails and all that. Does it feel like at this point the news media that you’ve observed has learned any of those lessons or not?

SB: It doesn’t feel that way to me at the moment. I say this very generally because I do think there are people doing amazing work and everybody’s really taxed and balls to the wall all the time ‘cause this cycle is just so rapid. I do think that there’s a problem in the arena of follow-up questions. You really cannot ask these people yes or no questions. It’s really an exceptional challenge pinning these people down. I’m not sure that people have had enough time, honestly, to analyze what went wrong and to move the needle pushing forward. I don’t think that anybody’s up to speed. This is just a tornado. I don’t really have faith. I think that was a really longwinded way to say mostly nobody learned anything and we are definitely cruising for a bruising (laughs).

GD: It just feels like how everything’s going now it’s only gonna get worse as we get closer.

SB: It feels like a lot of the same and much worse. Anyway! (Laughs.)

GD: Speaking of which, is it getting more challenging to frame things with comedy and to give people that kind of comedic catharsis?

SB: Political satire, it’s a very challenging art form, if I may. We definitely tackle really hard subject matter. I think it’s actually been very consistently challenging and the cycle moves very quickly and the stories are very dire. That’s its own issue. We try to sprinkle in joy where we can. After this week’s show we’re coming back in September. We’re starting off with something really fun, hitting the election cycle with a bang, planting a flag in that. I’m excited about that. We’ll be more seriously talking about the election I think when we come back in September. That’ll be more real. The process itself is so long, it’s so drawn out, it’s so crazy compared to other countries. But this is really where it starts to happen, in the fall, if that is to be believed, that it’ll get more intense. Yikes. Maybe I won’t come back from the lake in Canada. I don’t know.

GD: The lake in Canada sounds nice. As you mentioned, there have been hopeful segments the show has managed to incorporate, like Alanna Harkin’s interviewing young voters and seeing how engaged they are, that party at the U.S.-Mexico border where people actually get along. Is it comforting more and more to look for those rays of hope?

SB: We have to. I think that’s happening all across the country. People are finding their community to belong to. One would hope that your community is not white supremacists but rather the country is full of good people who are experiencing a similar kind of anxiety and the stakes are very high for them. There’s a lot of like-minded people out there who really are coming together, who are getting more engaged. Meeting young women on the beach who have voter registration forms in their beach tote is fairly amazing. I have not seen that in my lifetime of covering this type of stuff and I’ve been doing it since the early 2000s. It feels uncommonly engaged out there and if you can move first-time voters, it’ll be a really big deal in this upcoming cycle.

GD: One of the big differences for voters and for comedians and talk show hosts covering this election is that, where 2016 was mostly Bernie [Sanders] and Hillary [Clinton] on the Democratic side, this year there are about 815 Democratic candidates. Does that feel better or worse than the way things went in 2016?

SB: I don’t see it in those terms. It is objectively better to have more women in the race and to normalize that. I truly do believe that. It feels to me right now like we need to start separating the wheat from the chaff because it takes a really, really, really long time to reach voters and to really engage with them. This period where there’s tons of people in the race is fun and there’s certainly a lot to talk about but if big issues aren’t coming forward in an interesting way from the more tertiary candidates, it’s time for them to let go. That’s just my personal opinion because I don’t wanna dilute the experience. If people don’t have a realistic shot at anything, for me, it’s time.

GD: The one plus side, maybe having this many people is for a comedy show it gives you twice as may material, 10 times the material. Although, you’re also depending on people who have heard of any of these people getting those jokes.

SB: There’s been comedic opportunity there, for sure, but if we’re still having those comedic opportunities in November, it’s not gonna feel like comedy anymore (laughs). I showed my kids a picture of John Delaney. I just showed it to them and then I was like, “Draw his face from memory,” and they made the funniest pictures. It was great. I don’t know why, just an art project on a rainy day.

GD: You’ve interviewed Kamala Harris on the show and other politicians and journalists. Is there a particular favorite interview you’ve done over the past season?

SB: That’s so interesting. That would rely on me being able to remember a single thing I’ve done for the last year. I love interviewing people. I did love talking to Elizabeth Warren and I did love talking to Kamala Harris. I talked to Julián Castro the other day and that was really fun too. I love talking to the different candidates. I really do. We are certainly inviting them, all of them, to do a really big project with us starting in October. I can’t really give it away. It’s another tech project which we’re super excited about and I think we’re launching it at Comic-Con. So watch for that. It’s very cool. We’re trying to get them all to be a part of it, whoever’s left in the race. I look forward to talking to them all. It would be fun to have our viewers ask them questions, to facilitate that in some way. I think it would be really interesting. I don’t know, we’ll see how it pans out but hopefully they’ll all talk to me.

GD: Fingers crossed. If not, they could take you up on your offer for them to drop out on your show.

SB: Totally. No one announced on my show. The least they could do is drop out on my show.

GD: Speaking of tech projects, last year you had the “This is Not a Game” app to gamify the 2018 election midterms to get people more involved. Working with Gold Derby, since we have that sort of game element to our predictions for Emmys, that’s sort of how we get involved and interested and understand what’s going on. We look it up ‘cause we wanna play the game so it gets you more informed. What were your thoughts going into creating that project and developing that and how related is that, if you can say, to what might be coming up this year?

SB: It was an exciting side project ‘cause we had done a big piece about gamification and I found it utterly to be the most fascinating thing. We wanted to just apply gamification to the midterm election to see what happened. We made it really fun. We gave it purpose and the jokes were hilarious. It engaged a lot of people. It surprised us, actually, how many people downloaded the app and played the game and won the game. So we took all of that knowledge and we’ve tried to grow it into something else that’s perhaps even more exciting. I can’t really say what it is right now. I really can’t and I want to very badly but we learned from that process, which ultimately was very successful for us. It was a success for me because I don’t really do that, I don’t spend a lot of time playing games of any kind. So for me to enjoy the game is saying a lot. We’ve tried to apply it. We’re all such newbies, or we were when we made the original game, learned a lot and we’re trying to make it bigger, if that’s possible.

GD: Full disclosure, I think I won a $1.50.

SB: You know what, it’s a dollar you didn’t have before.

GD: Yeah, absolutely. I was thrilled just to win it ‘cause I always get knocked out in the middle. I always get something wrong.

SB: You’re a winner!

GD: Now for the show’s nomination for the Emmys this year, I believe the show submitted the April 10th episode which included the segment where you went to interview Yemeni refugees in Djibouti. That was a huge undertaking, I would imagine, to make that trip and prepare for that. What was the decision-making behind that like and the preparation before you left for that?

SB: The story was very interesting. It really was a story centered around the travel ban and how it was affecting these refugees who basically had all of the requirements to get a visa to come to the States, an American husband or family living in the States. They met every bar for approval to come to the States but they were held in limbo for so long. They couldn’t live in Yemen anymore and so they were in this holding pattern in the cottony of Djibouti, which is east coast of Africa. It’s pretty remote. These Yemeni people, they don’t speak the language of the country, they’re not allowed to work, kids are not allowed to go to school. The State Department was not forthcoming with any information so people were left there for two years, two and a half years just stuck in an apartment, so miserable, separated from their families, separated from the children. Many of the moms had American-born children living in San Francisco. It was a smallish story but what are the physical effects of this travel ban that we’re living under? What does it mean? There’s no real logic behind it. It’s not really thought out. It’s not really codified in any way. It’s a really mysterious process and we wanted to shine a light on the mystery of that process. I think we did a good job. In the end, unfortunately, often what happens is if you tell a story where there could be a good outcome, unfortunately, often applying some measure of embarrassment to that story can actually grease the wheels. The families that we profiled in the piece were actually able to get their visas after our story aired. We wish that we could have done that for every family stuck in limbo. The travel ban is something that doesn’t get a ton of attention right now because there are other things happening. We should be still talking about it. It’s a big deal and we’re not because there are so many other things happening that require your attention. It’s so frazzled. The news cycle is so schizophrenic. It’s all over the place. We’ll be talking about it again in the fall. We just keep trying to bring it back to that because really, it’s a different kind of family separation, families torn asunder, people don’t know where they stand, it’s a very low information process. They’re just in a real blindspot so we will definitely circle back to it because it’s not going away anytime soon. Djibouti’s really far away. That was a lot of travel.

GD: It’s really on the far end of Africa from here.

SB: It’s right across a body of water from Yemen.

GD: In addition to that segment this past year, you also did another Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s the second time the show has done that. How did this time compare to the first time? Did it feel like you had the idea of how you wanted to execute it in a way that felt smoother?

SB: It was a smooth process. It’s very challenging to make a weekly show and then also host essentially a wedding for 2,000 people that is an hour’s worth of television. It’s a pretty heavy lift but it felt like the right time to do it. We try as much as it’s possible to do extra projects or to do stuff that feels really organic to the show. We did one, I think, in 2017 and then we didn’t do one the following year. It just didn’t feel like the right time to do it. This year we were called to do it again. It felt right to check in on the state of journalism and try to boost it, try to raise money for CPJ for sure. It was really successful. We had a really good time doing it. That is very key. If you’re gonna take on these big things, you have to want to do it, feel like you need to do it or just have a ton of fun, or all three of those things. It has to check a lot of boxes. But I think it did. It was really fun. I think it was successful. I really enjoyed it.

GD: Going to the next year and the next election period, just a small question. What are your hopes for 2020 both for the show and for maybe the news cycle?

SB: Oh my god, that’s the biggest question in the world. I hope that we continue doing good work at the show. I feel like it’ll be really interesting to track this election. I think it’ll be challenging in a totally different way because all the Democrats will be fighting with each other and that’s really the majority of our audience base so we have to think about that. I just hope that we continue to grow. I hope we continue to be able to find joy where joy exists. Next summer we’ll have conventions and that is a separate beast entirely. It’s also really rewarding to go to that. You feel like you’re a part of the political process when you’re on the ground there. So I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to do all these things. They’re not always pleasant but I hope that we continue to grow but also somehow enjoy our lives (laughs). That’s a terrible answer!

GD: Honestly, I can totally relate to that answer. Find joy where you can.

SB: May God help us all, is all I’m saying.

GD: Enjoy it while you can because we’re in it for a long haul.

SB: We’ve got a lot of work to do, yes.

GD: Thank you so much for your time, Samantha, and congratulations on your Emmy nominations this year.

SB: Thank you.

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