NYCC 2019: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee talks gamifying the election, diversity in late night


While Full Frontal host Samantha Bee was at New York Comic-Con 2019 to promote an app, the press at our interview roundtable couldn’t help but ask about something else. It was a bit unexpected to have a political satirist at a comic book fandom convention, but all at the roundtable took advantage of the situation to ask Bee’s thoughts on the impeachment inquiry against one President Donald J. Trump.

“It’s unfortunate,” Bee jokingly lamented to a sarcastic question about the “lack of news.” “We go to work, we read magazines, we sit in a shiatsu chair, we try our best to scrape something together for the show. Bye, everyone!” It must be an amazing time for the show, someone suggests. Bee didn’t necessarily agree: “I wouldn’t sacrifice the republic for a comedy show. I could probably use 80% less breaking news and still make a good high quality show. I’d choose country over show for sure.”

The media and political landscape is far different in 2019 than it was when Full Frontal with Samantha Bee first started in 2015. “I know I can’t say the c-word anymore,” joked Bee about what has changed since then. “Everything got much darker and serious,” she elaborated, comparing the crazy antics and silly footage of the 2016 cycle to what has happened since then.

Despite that darkness, Samantha Bee and team searches for other stories to give attention to other pressing issues. “We’re doing the show as much for our audience as much as we’re doing it for ourselves to actually process what’s happening.” Going with that, I asked Bee specifically if she feels that political late night comedy shows have a certain responsibility moving from 2016 to 2020.

“No,” she answered. I followed up by mentioning all of the other Daily Show alumni with their own platforms and agendas. “I do it for the competition,” she joked. “And to vanquish my rivals from The Daily Show. One day I will see them all burn.” Switching back, she continued: “I don’t really feel a sense of great responsibility to the audience. I do feel a great responsibility to us as a group. We really try to organically make a show that speaks to what we’re thinking about. I’m proud to tell the stories we tell on the show. We don’t take it lightly, but we don’t crowdsource what we’re going to talk about at the same time.”

“Anyway, so we made an app,” said a swerving Bee, after the conversation was becoming more dire with speculation about where the impeachment inquiry would lead to. “I think the point of making an app for us is to feed that machine of joy. We have to put light into our lives, and that means experimenting and doing things that are fun for us,” referring to the Full Frontal’$ Totally Unrigged Primary mobile game.

A follow-up to a similar mobile game for the midterm elections, this is a “comedy-based, election-related game” that may actually result in players’ favorite presidential candidates nabbing some real campaign cash. Players will choose a candidate and essentially join a team behind them, answering trivia questions and completing challenges to earn that candidate points; the candidate with the most points by the end of the game will win donations from Sam Bee’s Political Swear Jar, a PAC-controlled fund.

It’s an “app can bring people information in a way that’s really dumb and funny,” as Bee describes it, with the hopes of informing voters who will hopefully make their ways to the polls. I asked how does one make a game “funny,” whether it be through writing or gameplay. “There isn’t much intersection of politics and comedy in gaming, or comedy in gaming in general,” said Bee. “When you watch a show like Full Frontal, the delivery system with the jokes is something that’s very familiar. When you’re reading the jokes on your phone, it’s a completely different experience of telling jokes and we had to adjust that.”

After too much impeachment talk, Bee’s colleagues and collaborators, movie director Razan Ghalayini (Segment Director for Full Frontal) and Planet 10B founder Adam Werbach (Product Manager for the app) were finally able to chime in. “The last game was trivia,” Ghalayini reminded us. “You had funny questions and funny answers; but there was a timer, and we realized that people got mad because they would laugh at a joke, and then be laughing, and forgot to answer the question. … Sometimes the way someone delivers a line is what’s funny, but it’s not funny when you’re reading it. So how do you write something specifically for a phone and for the way people engage with their phones?”

“When we looked at the App Store, there weren’t a lot of comedy games,” said Werbach. “For example, the graphic design came from the show’s graphic design team, so it has the same look and feel and the same visual humor can exist.” When asked about the potential of making fun of “dark money” in campaign trails, and the intersection with controversial microtransactions in mobile games, this free game appeared to be somewhat of an antidote for that.

“We encourage people to donate because small grassroots donations is the right way to get out of dark money,” said Werbach. “We want to encourage people who haven’t donated before to maybe pick a candidate and give them $5.” And the app will be quick to adapt to real events; five new questions will go out every day covering the major issues and the candidates’ platforms, with two notifications going out every week. And with candidates dropping out, the game will get more competitive, said Ghalayini. Plus, it’ll be a solid way to keep up with the televised primary debates, without the pain of having to actually watch them.

“You don’t really have to love or watch the show to be invested in the game,” said Bee. Whether people like a candidate, or just “gently like them” whether or not they watch Full Frontal, people should have something to gain from playing the game. “It’s a cool social experiment. I don’t know where it’ll take us.”

When it came back to the state of late-night television in general, I mentioned how Lilly Singh recently became the first woman to host a network late night television show with A Little Late, and I asked Bee how she thought the industry was doing with diversity in recent years. “I’m happy to see [Singh’s] show existing and hopefully thriving. I hope that they give her enough runway to completely figure out the process. It’s not easy in that space to build an audience and keep them. Obviously, we can do better.

“Eight years ago, there was a time that I pitched a political comedy show, and everyone said, ‘why would you do that? We already have Jon [Stewart]. That’s all we need.’ So I think that people’s eyes are open to the possibility that sometimes you need to present them with something before they even know they want it, and then they figure out that they really want it. There’s more television than ever now, but networks have to understand that not everything can be celebrity-driven, and sometimes you need to find a creative voice that is meaningful, and invest that person with your time and your money. We’ll see.”

Full Frontal’$ Totally Unrigged Primary launches on phones in late October. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee airs on TBS every Wednesday night.