In the Trump era, a visit to 'Full Frontal With Samantha Bee' feels like 'feminist church'
It’s nearly 7 p.m. Wednesday night and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” is running late. Between hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the raging healthcare debate, the president’s proposed budget, fallout from FBI director James Comey’s congressional testimony and the terror attack in London, it’s an unusually busy news day — even by the dizzying standards of the Trump administration.
Despite the delay, no one in the crowd seems to mind all that much. It helps that crew members are handing out Easter chocolate to ease the pain of waiting. But there’s also a sense of shared purpose and excitement among the fans, many of them in Bee-style blazers and “nasty woman” T-shirts, patiently waiting in the audience at CBS Studios.
“Full Frontal” correspondent Allana Harkin comes out to rev up the crowd by asking how they’ve been contributing to “the resistance,” the self-styled movement against Trump.
The vibrant response, and the overall kinetic mood is reflective of the weekly live audience for “Full Frontal,” which, like other politically flavored comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” is enjoying a boost in viewership thanks to the relentless shifting controversies surrounding the Trump administration.
But even in a fertile era for liberal-leaning late-night comedy, the TBS show stands out for its activist streak, like a small-scale women’s march each week (even if the studio audience is split almost evenly between men and women).
And a show dominated by women in front of and behind the camera, “Full Frontal” is a rarity in the boys’ club of late night.
“We just hang tampons from the ceiling everywhere, and the men self-deport,” executive producer and showrunner Jo Miller jokes in a phone interview.
Following the warmup, Bee takes to the stage at nearly 7:30 p.m. and launches into a blistering segment on Trump’s “hard power” budget that features a wonky discussion of energy-efficiency ratings.
Next up is a piece on Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism advisor to the president and one of the many eccentric figures in the Trump administration.
Finally, the show wraps with a field piece about the importance of supporting local newspapers.
As fans trickle out of the studio after the taping, an audience coordinator urged them, “Call about Gorsuch. Call about healthcare. Keep fighting the good fight.”
Miller says later that the studio audience is characteristically spirited.
“I have a friend who comes to the show sometimes and calls it ‘feminist church,’ ” she says.
A former academic who worked with Bee at “The Daily Show,” Miller is comfortable with the show’s vibe of advocacy, evident in a recent segment that encouraged viewers to call their representatives about a bill that would loosen hunting restrictions on national preserve lands in Alaska.
“We are comedians. We’re also citizens. We feel the responsibility of the pulpit we’re lucky to have,” she says. “Also, Sam and I are old, and we don’t give a … .”
Nor should they, if ratings are any indication. Like “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Full Frontal” appears to have received a “Trump bump,” now averaging 3.4 million viewers a week across all platforms.
But with a surfeit of news to cover in just a half-hour each week — barely 20 minutes once you take out the commercials — the biggest challenge can be making everything fit.
“We tighten and tighten at the word level, and we shave every word we can out of the montages,” Miller says.
Bee, Miller and their writing team tend to avoid the low-hanging fruit, focusing instead on stories just below the radar (Gorka) or zeroing in on overlooked details in the bigger stories (government-regulated energy-efficiency ratings).
There also is more focus on issues directly relevant to women, including rape kit backlogs and reproductive care at Catholic hospitals.
“I’ll get printed letters in the mail and emails from friends of friends saying how much the show means to them as women,” Miller said. “Someone told me the other day she didn’t think that hearing a feminist perspective reflected back at her so strongly was even possible on TV.”