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How Samantha Bee Learned To Become A Manager

The Full Frontal host had lots of experience with comedy. Leading a team was a new frontier.

How Samantha Bee Learned To Become A Manager
Samantha Bee understands that if her writers are passionate about a topic, the audience will respond. [Photo: ioulex]

The host of TBS’s weekly news-satire show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, arrived on the job in 2016 after spending almost 12 years at The Daily Show. By November, Full Frontal was matching The Daily Show in the ratings. Managing a team of her own was something Samantha Bee had never done before, so she had to learn fast, as she explains to Fast Company’s KC Ifeanyi at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in November.

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Full Frontal could not have launched at a more opportune time. How do you plan to keep the momentum going now that the presidential campaign is over?

We are going to have another presidential election in 2017. Is everybody on board? Let’s do it. No, the election has wrung us out.

You had a long career before hosting your own show. What was it like stepping into a leadership role?

I didn’t expect to have to think so much about leadership! At the beginning, it was just me and [head writer and showrunner] Jo Miller and [executive producer] Miles Kahn, and we would just laugh and send each other crazy emails. We still have a pretty tight staff, but when you’re trying to create a comedy show, which is a tremendous amount of work, you actually have to manage people, and think about their lives, and make their lives livable, and think about their feelings, and manage their relationships. That was very new to me and has been the greatest learning curve. I don’t think I always succeed at it, but I always am trying to do better.

You have a blind hiring process, which has resulted in a very diverse writers’ room.

Most shows now do. I think we moved the needle on that even further. We did a lot of outreach. You have to call people and say, “Hey, who do you know who is not working professionally but is a professional-caliber writer? Who do you know who has promise?” It’s not like an open call that you put at the back of the New York Post. You have to kind of know somebody. And because it was blind, we didn’t know your gender, we didn’t know anything about you. We felt that was a very fair way to receive submissions. You can’t just hire people who are exactly the same as you. It enriches your life to bring people into your workplace who aren’t a carbon copy of you and your experiences.

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How do you take those different points of view and funnel them through this one lens, with you as the host?

If [writers] have a particular passion, they need to find a way to pitch that story that communicates that passion, and then we’ll be attracted to it and we’ll want to tell that story, too. Letting people explore the things that they are truly interested in has been extremely fruitful for us. I think you feel that on the show.

Chris Rock recently said he didn’t really relate to your show.

Well, I think Chris Rock is very funny, so I don’t know what’s happening! That’s fine. It’s not for him, that’s okay.

Do you ever worry about not reaching some people?

I don’t worry about reaching people at all. It’s the last thing we think about. We are serving ourselves, trying to make a show that we like, that we find satisfying—that at the end of the day we feed to TBS and go, “That was good! Done!” I’m sure the network is like, “Well, we think about it all the time.” But you can drive yourself crazy. When you’re making art—yes, I said it was art—when you’re making a creative product, if you think too much about who it’s for and who is going to like it, it becomes impure somehow.

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What lessons did you take away from The Daily Show?

I developed a confidence over the years. TBS has never tried to squash our voice. They’ve never told us to modulate our tone. Never. But [early on], it was a big topic of discussion: “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.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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