“I’m slowly dying inside,” Samantha Bee said onstage, at the top of her panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.
No, it’s not some degenerative disease that’s got her down; it’s this election. When the moderator, Fast Company writer KC Ifeanyi, asked how she was feeling in the ever-tightening home stretch, the comedian and talk show host did not mince words. She is not handling the suspense very well.
“At least while I’m up here, it’s 37 minutes where I can’t check [data-based analysis hub] FiveThirtyEight.”
It might seem as though Bee should be thanking her lucky stars for this unfastened rollercoaster of an election, which has seen her rookie TBS show go on to beat her former home, The Daily Show, in ratings. However, Bee has a right to her exhaustion with and distaste for the election. Considering the work she put into assembling her show, it likely would have been just as much of a smash even without the sprawling target of Donald Trump or the premium on a woman’s perspective of the first female presidential nominee.
The first thing she had to do was decide exactly what sort of show she wanted to bear her name.
“I really did want to make something new,” Bee said. “Also, I knew early on that making a show four nights a week, that would be a life-ruiner for me. I care a lot about life quality. It’s important to me. I have kids and I like my life and I don’t want to destroy it. There’s no way I can make the caliber of show I want to make if we’re doing it four nights a week. I like to do field pieces and fly to Russia, and we wouldn’t be able to do it on that kind of schedule.”
Bee also had to decide how closely to hew toward the house that Jon Stewart built. While she admits that she learned a lot from her old boss during her tenure on The Daily Show, and that she and her husband were fans of it before she was ever hired, Bee was determined that Full Frontal would stand apart from it–beyond simply airing three fewer nights a week.
“I got asked that question a lot, ‘How will your show be different from The Daily Show?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know! I just know that it will be!’ Because I see the world differently. Because we’ll come at it from a different way. We’re steeped in something else. We just have a different way of telling stories that maybe are similar foundationally, but we see the whole world differently. So it was hard to define how it would be different; we just knew it would be. We wanted to make a show that would kick the door in.”
A major step on the road toward establishing the tone of Full Frontal was putting a staff together. The onus of choosing, empowering, and maintaining employees, though, was uncharted territory for Bee.
“I didn’t actually expect to have to think so much about leadership,” she said. “It is something that I do think about a lot. And I never thought before this show about having to manage people. We started very small. At the very beginning, it was just me and [former Daily Show writer] Jo Miller and [former Daily Show producer] Miles Kahn. And it was just three of us in a room and we would laugh and send each other crazy emails, and for a long time it was just that. But then we got offices and we had to hire people.”
One of the decisions attributed to the show’s success so far has been its blind hiring process. Bee and her team instituted a policy in which submission packets arrived without detailing gender or previous work experience–which resulted in a diverse writing staff. Although other late-night talk shows have begun using similar hiring practices in recent years, Bee pushed the diversity needle further by doing lots of outreach to find talented comedy writers who weren’t yet writing professionally. Once she had assembled a staff, though, she had to figure out how to manage it.
“We have a tight, curated staff of about 60 or 65 people, which is really quite small,” she said. “When you’re trying to create a comedy show initially, which is just a tremendous amount of work, the backdrop to that is you have to manage people and you have to think about their lives. You have to make their lives livable. You have to think about their feelings. You have to manage their relationships a little with other people. That territory was very new to me. I had no experience in that department, and it has been the greatest learning curve for me so far.”
Apparently, though, learning happens on both sides of her staff.
“I don’t think of it as an education; I think that I’m getting educated,” Bee says. “People on the staff are educating me and we’re educating each other. The stories we get excited about are the ones we don’t really know a lot about. We really love the stories where we learn something new.”
The kind of stories Bee prizes the most, however, are the ones her staff are most passionate about. This category includes the recent web-only viral hit, A Totally Real, 100% Valid Theory, which a staffer had been slowly putting together for six months. According to the host, this kind of devotion is what she is most interested in seeing from her staff.
“One thing that we really encourage people to do—it’s the imperative of the show—is if you pitch a story, we want it to really mean something to you,” Bee said. “The things we’re doing on the show—if we’re doing them, it’s because they mean something to us. If people have a particular story they’re passionate about, they need to find a way to pitch it to us that communicates that passion, and then we’ll be attracted to it. Letting people explore things they’re truly interested in has been extremely fruitful for us. I think you feel that on the show.”
Will anything get the staff as fired up as the presidential election of 2016? Bee is confident that it will. Just in case, however, she has an alternate plan in mind. During the Innovation Festival panel, when Ifeanyi asked about her plans for keeping up the momentum she gained from this election year, Bee joked: “We’re going to have another presidential election in 2017.”