With both a pandemic and presidential election happening in the same year, 2020 has been quite the year for political satire and for the media pundits covering America's state of affairs. In a rescheduled virtual panel for the Television Critics Association, comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee, who is the host and executive producer of TBS's Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, discussed how her show's production process has changed since COVID-19 hit. Along with the show's executive producer Alison Camillo, she also shared her thoughts on media coverage of the presidential election, and how her show plans to approach the next couple of months leading up to election day.
Since March, Bee has been shooting the show with her husband, Jason Jones, a television director and producer, in her backyard on an iPhone while her New York City studio is closed. The 21-minute show, which airs once a week, is different than other late-night shows that film daily and cover more breaking news. Bee and Camillo explained that the show does not own the studio outright, which means they cannot control the happenings inside the building where other shows film as well. They also said they are prioritizing the health and safety of their staff who would have to travel to get to the studio, whether by public transportation or other means.
For the foreseeable future, Bee confirmed that her show will continue to film in the forest behind her house. This is a stark contrast to her interactions with her studio audience prior to the pandemic. "When you have an audience, it's a different kind of experience, or performance, in your communication with the audience. It's a much more shared experience," said Bee. "I'm guiding them, but they're also guiding my performance. Their levels of enthusiasm, it's like you end up kind of surfing a wave. Whereas in the forest, I'm only performing it for my husband who really doesn't care what I say. It's much more, in a weird way, a more pure performance of the material." Bee added that she could see the show's producers taking what they've learned during this time and possibly filming in other locations in a similar format even after the pandemic.
Camillo described the show's vibe as more "casual" with this new shooting format, and remarked that they have actually been able to add up to three more minutes of material per show now that audience reaction isn't taking up space during the time slot.
The show, however, has had its fair share of production challenges over the past few months. For example, an east coast storm earlier this month caused a major power outage in Bee's area, and a fallen tree damaged the show's production set in her backyard (leading to her having to reschedule the TCA panel). Woodcutters in the forest who were cleaning up all the downed trees caused by the storm also delayed one of her show's scheduled production times due to high noise levels.
But what Bee misses the most are the impromptu, casual people encounters she used to have during major events. "I do miss talking to people on the streets, those man-on-the-street moments, catching people at the [Democratic National] Convention. I miss that so deeply. I love that content. That is so exciting. It's always been so good for our show. Our audience loves it," said Bee, acknowledging that these events have turned virtual.
Production challenges and the pandemic aside, Bee commented that some things, like gender politics, haven't changed since the last election when Hillary Clinton ran for president. When asked for her thoughts on how the media has covered Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Bee said, "It's been hard to gain ground since 2016 in a way, because the news is so fast and unrelenting, the pace of the information. Everybody is kind of drowning in news all the time. So I'm not sure that there has been a tremendous reckoning in the general media about how to treat these kinds of candidacies and these history-making moments."
From that perspective, Bee said she doesn't feel great about the next couple of months. Camillo added, "Having gone through the primaries, you're still hearing, 'Is a woman electable?' 'Doesn't she need to smile more?' 'Does she seem too harsh?' ... I feel like those things still come up all the time."
Bee also shared that her show's approach for the next few weeks when it comes to the political climate surrounding the election is to "expect the worst, plan or hope for the best. Plan for the worst and expect the best. And that somewhere within there lies reality." Bee elaborated, "We need to do our very best to create enthusiasm for voting and remind people to vote and remind people to check their registration, to get their mail-in ballots as early as possible. All of that work needs to be done. I don't consider this period to be an easy cruise to the finish line. This is actually a period of great work and elbow grease."