Ashley Nicole Black
For the half of the country watching the current administration with ever-mounting horror, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee does not make it all better.
But every Wednesday for a half hour on TBS — with biting wit and the unapologetic rage of a funny primal scream — host Samantha Bee and her crew remind resisters they are not alone.
Formerly a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Bee is now the headliner. On her late-night show, she has surrounded herself with a team of devoted writers whose backgrounds range from fellow late-night alums to recovering academics.
Showrunner Jo Miller, previously a writer on The Daily Show, started out as a historian before becoming disillusioned with that world. She had gone to graduate school because she wanted to be around brilliant people. “I didn’t find them there, but I sure found them here,” she says, speaking from Full Frontal’s Manhattan offices.
Then Miller gave those people room to run free. The writers largely work alone, interacting most often via online exchanges. When writer Melinda Taub is asked how the Full Frontal writers’ room differs from others she’s worked in, she responds: “Well, the other ones existed.”
“It’s a virtual room that we never leave,” Miller acknowledges. “Most of us are kind of introverted and awkward, so we’re actually our better selves in writing.” She compares the group to the mighty albatross, “which is great in the air but very awkward and clumsy landing on the deck.”
“It’s really quiet work, it’s hard work, it’s nose-to-the-grindstone work,” Bee says. “So it doesn’t really look as sexy as it might appear in one’s imagination. I mean, we’re all dead sexy — that’s not what I’m saying.”
It’s also never-ending work, so they’re grateful for the second-season move from Mondays to Wednesdays this past January, which gave them some semblance of a weekend.
“We couldn’t function under a Trump presidency with a Monday show,” Miller says. “It seems like every time the sun sets and Jared Kushner turns his phone off on Friday night, all hell breaks loose.”
No matter what arises from “the Deepwater Horizon gusher of information that’s spraying all over us,” as Miller puts it, these nasty women and bad dudes keep it together long enough to take the inchoate emotions roiling much of the country and make them… choate . Here’s how.
Nine-time Emmy winner Drysdale (not pictured) first met Bee and Miller when they all worked together on The Daily Show. He went on to The Colbert Report and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert before starting on Full Frontal. “He brings all of that expertise and an open and tender heart,” Miller says. “He feels very deeply the things that he’s writing about, and puts real suffering into his work.”
Says Drysdale: “I get really angry. Even though I know we’re not really fixing anything, that gives me the energy to write. I know it feels good to laugh, and I need it as much as the audience does.”
He offers an example from the end of the first season. “After Trump was elected, we were so sick of people asking us if it was good news for comedy writers. In the rewrite for our first show back, Sam was looking for a comeback to that — ‘The jokes write themselves, right?’
"And I said, ‘No, actually, Jews write jokes, and they’re scared shitless.’ It got a nice laugh in the room, and it was the first time I’d laughed or smiled in days. It was the only joke I got into that first show back — and the first inkling I had that we might survive this.”
He deftly channels his anger away from the other writers because, Miller says, “He’s just a sweet soul to have around.”
And how does the Frontal writers’ room differ from his previous ones? “There are women,” he points out, “people of color… and even women of color in it! Whaaa? ”
ASHLEY NICOLE BLACK
Black is a first-time TV writer, but her background in Chicago improv, as well as a stint in academia, made her a perfect fit for the show.
Soon after she started, she was tapped as an on-air correspondent. “I still can’t believe Sam gave me such an amazing opportunity,” she says. “I didn’t audition or anything — she saw some videos of me performing that were online. So she literally just walked up to the chubby, weird writer and was like, ‘Hey, wanna be on TV?’”
Black’s compatriots praise her ability to find and pitch stories at will. “Ashley is fearless,” says Mathan Erhardt. “If we ever need a line or a joke, she can immediately fire off half a dozen.”
Working on the show is not as funny as one might expect. “We probably do a lot more complex policy discussions than people think,” Black says. And too often, they’ve had to find humor in horror. When news of the Orlando nightclub shooting broke one Sunday, Black was out shopping, and immediately stopped to work on the show. “I kept walking into displays, crying and writing jokes… in Target.”
The show has also given Black one of the greatest moments of her life. Everyone at work knew she had a crush on New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, so they arranged a surprise on-camera meeting between the two. “I’ve never felt more loved,” she says. “I feel a little bad that I’ve let the team down by not having married the senator yet. But honestly, that’s on him. I asked.”
Cassels hails from CollegeHumor Originals, where he was head writer. When the Full Frontal writers gather in person, Cassels is the one keeping everybody’s spirits up, Miller says, “because he’s not as much of an introvert as the rest of us.” Bee adds: “Pat is such a fresh soul, and he dives into things with complete abandon.”
He enjoys the group meetings, because once the discussion of that week’s stories is over, he says, “We’ll also spend about 20 minutes talking about something weird Ted Cruz did that week, even if he’s not in the next episode. We’re just obsessed with that man.”
Miller likens Cassels’s mind to a scene in The Matrix in which Trinity uploads a helicopter program so she can fly it moments later. “That’s Pat. He just decided he’s going to learn history, and he’s downloading history into his head at an astonishing rate. I’m a historian, and after a year it’s gotten to the point where I’m having trouble keeping up with Pat.”
Cassels admits to one particular historical fixation. “I’ve seen a dozen documentaries about Richard Nixon. Sadly, that’s proving way more useful than it should be in 2017.”
Grossman’s only other TV writing job was The Late Show With David Letterman, which he loved. “But those shows are largely about finding ways to fill five hours a week, so you write about whatever’s in the news,” he says.
“Some guy gets arrested for having sex with an ATM? There’s your Act 2. Here, we have only 30 minutes a week, and Sam and Jo want to make sure every word counts, so there’s no phoning it in. Everyone is fully engaged with the stories and invested in their writing, which is exhausting but rewarding.”
He deprecates his own impact on the proceedings, limiting it to his grammar skills, before adding, “I’m the writer who rarely talks but presumably writes well enough to justify his continued employment. I should probably put that on my résumé.”
Bee disagrees. “Joe Grossman is a national treasure. Quiet is not the word for him. The word is stealth, because he’s so skillful. He’s a complete tactician.” Miller says she couldn’t do the show without him. “He puts his head down and produces the most polished, meticulous, tight, hilarious, well-researched scripts that I think I’ve ever seen.”
Grossman’s favorite joke on the show so far “is the time I got Sam to squeegee vomit off the camera in response to Trump talking about his penis size at a debate,” he says. “There’s something rewarding about coming up with a ridiculously crude joke at 1 a.m. and, the next thing you know, stagehands are slathering damp oats onto a fake lens.”
With Full Frontal, Erhardt returns to late night after working on BET’s Don’t Sleep! Hosted by T. J. Holmes. But immediately before joining the show, he says, “I was working at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, so it’s refreshing to have people actually enjoy my work.”
He calls himself a utility player, but that’s not how his colleagues see him. “Mathan has this offbeat, esoteric sense of humor that surprises you,” Taub says. “We had a Black History Month title card with a bunch of great black historical figures, and he insisted we add Urkel-Bot, which makes me laugh every time I look at it.”
Miller says that of the 250 applications she read through, Erhardt’s was the only one that didn’t make jokes anyone else had made. “There was a deceptively light tone in there that was undercut by some real darkness,” Miller says. “I just loved that voice; I’d never seen it before.”
More important, Grossman adds, “He bought a Nintendo Classic for the office. This makes him my favorite.” Erhardt loves spending time with his coworkers, saying they even made watching last year’s political debates fun.
But after a long day wrestling with painful subjects, he escapes with Nintendo, comic books, albums and concerts, “to remind myself there’s still joy to be found. And I plan on spending some quality time with the new Zelda game.”
Taub, also a story producer on truTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, calls herself “the writer who asks Jo if we can work from home tomorrow.” Everyone else calls her the miner of darkness. “Melinda’s scripts are full of really sharp, grim, pitch-black jokes that make you laugh while also feeling terrible about the world,” Grossman notes.
“She has a gift for a raw turn of phrase that is perfectly apt and devastating and memorable,” Miller says, adding that the lines people are quoting the day after the show are invariably Taub’s. Bee simply says: Taub is never allowed to leave.
“A segment we did about rape kits is very dear to my heart,” Taub recalls. “It was both funny and really expressed all our anger and sadness at how women are treated.” But, she insists, “Jo has the darkest sense of humor of any of us. Sometimes I’ll write a joke that’s way too dark just to see if she will take it out. About half the time she doesn’t.”
Like the others, Taub is processing her emotions through her work. “Whatever I’m feeling about the world, I know a lot of our viewers are probably feeling, too, so I try to lean into that and put it in my script.” Then she goes home and recuperates by watching “a lot of gentle British shows about midwives and cakes.”
Ask Miller’s colleagues about her, and prepare for a torrent of appreciation. “Jo has an extensive knowledge of just about any topic you can imagine, and she’s smart enough and funny enough to write the whole show by herself,” Grossman says. “Fortunately for us, she doesn’t have the time or inclination to do that.”
Once Miller — a three-time Emmy winner — sketches out the topics for an episode, she lets the writers tackle the aspects they feel most strongly about. “It works every week,” she says. “I’m happy nobody has to work on something they’re not interested in.” She then puts all the parts together seamlessly.
“Jo is the master builder,” Taub says. “She can envision the Rubik’s Cube of the whole script in a way that leaves me in awe sometimes.” Black adds: “The best joke always wins, which is the best thing a writer can ask for in a boss. Also, Jo rides a motorcycle and brings a cat to work, so she’s also a role model.”
“I compress everything down to a demi-glace, or I try to,” Miller says. “And when there’s one of those long tears that we go off on, like setting Hillary against Trump on a scale, or a long string of insults, that tends to be me.”
She’s constantly impressed by her writers’ ability to spin political dreck into comic gold, especially considering the toll it takes. “I’m a tough old bird, but they’re young, and I’m making them stare into the abyss. I know what it does to them.”
Bee and Miller start texting each other from the minute they each wake up, at 5 a.m. “She has an incredible mind,” Bee says. “And she’s so forceful and interesting and passionate, and brings her full commitment to everything. We’re very like-minded.” She pauses. “That seems like I just gave myself a whole bunch of compliments. I didn’t mean to do that.”
Anyone who followed Samantha Bee on The Daily Show knew this team player was ready to captain her own sporty metaphor. And what a time to do it, as last year’s unlikely presidential campaign gave way to this year’s even more unlikely president.
Bee works tirelessly, polishing her tirades until her targets can see their own reflections. “It’s great to work for someone who’s so thoroughly committed to the material, which makes her the ideal host for a writer,” Cassels says. “She’s basically like she is on the show: intelligent, opinionated, empathetic, irreverent. She’s just less angry than she seems on TV.”
“Sam manages to be fierce and gentle and angry and kind, all at the same time, in a way I’ve never seen anyone else achieve,” Miller says. “I think it’s why a lot of the rage and anguish that we throw out there is acceptable to people, because she undergirds it with real care for people who are being persecuted or wrongly disadvantaged or raped.”
The writers reference Bee’s kindness often. One mentions a gift sent after a surgery, another talks about beaming all day after making her laugh with a funny tweet. “It’s like when you were a kid and you’d get to hang out with your cool older sister,” Black says. “She loves you, but you’re just excited she lets you in the room, and you kind of want to steal her clothes.”
Bee probably wouldn’t mind. When she talks about her writers, the word love is most prominent. At one point she says, “I feel like I’m going to cry talking about them all.” The shows fly by so furiously, they’ve all become a blur. But Bee recalls one event that gave everyone a boost. It was the show after the inauguration, a somber evening. But they ended it on a literal high note, with a transporting musical performance by hip-hop artist Lizzo.
“We get to make a show out of the things that make us mad,” Bee says. “But when we get to find our own joy, those are the moments where I think, ‘Oh, I could do this forever.’”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017