What it's like making a late-night TV show in Samantha Bee's backyard
‘Comedians, during dark times … we do find the jokes and it's survival,’ says producer Allana Harkin
Late-night TV is known for celebrity guests, flashy sets and studio audiences. But in a world of physical distancing, comedians and producers are making do, demonstrating you can still make a great show if you think out of the box — and the studio.
While most film and TV production has stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of late-night talk show hosts have found success by bringing their work home with them, literally.
But Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, has taken things one step further, shooting her show in a forest outside her New York area home.
Bee's collaborator, Canadian producer and comedian Allana Harkin is still working on the show -- from afar. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the shift to virtual production. Here is part of their conversation.
Allana, just how much has your job changed over the past few weeks?
I'm doing everything from my computer. We have a staff of 70 at the show and we're all working, obviously, remotely.
We've never had this before, because we're really a show that when I have a question for somebody I run down the hallway or I say, "I'm going to pop into your office," or "Can you come into the edit?" Like, that world doesn't exist right now.
We have been in full, full quarantine since the 13th of March. Like, we haven't seen anybody, gone anywhere or done anything.
I miss [New York]. I miss seeing people. But on the other hand, this is what it is. We all have to be safe and we all take care of each other.
Do you [ever] get a response that, "How dare you make jokes … when people are getting sick and dying?"
Well, no, because we would never, ever make a joke about people getting sick or dying. What we do is we go after the people that everybody wants us to go after. You know, we comment on how the president has handled this pandemic … the different state senators who are doing a great job, who are not doing a great job.
We are pleasantly surprised by our own governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is like suddenly our dad. [Laughs] He's like our resident dad.
And he's really honestly bringing a sense of calm. I love listening to his press conferences. All of a sudden he'll break into, you know, talking about recipes.
Who would have thought that he could do that?
I would have never guessed it.
But listen, ever since we started the show, which was Feb. 8, 2016, there has been lots to talk about that's heartbreaking. But, I think comedians, during dark times, we do find, I guess it's light?
Maybe some people call it that. We do find the jokes and it's survival. It's a way of communicating that a journalist just can't. Like, a journalist is just not going to come and go, "This is my opinion.'"
Oh, for sure. People are watching more television right now. They're connecting with us. I think it would be worse if we didn't have a show.
I would find it painful because … there would be no outlet. I mean, I'd figure something out. I'd do my own videos on Instagram. I posted some videos of my husband doing my hair.
Like, this is where we're at, Carol. My husband had to colour my hair. So if you can't see humour in that, I mean, I don't know. Like, he works in construction.
[Meanwhile], Samantha Bee has her kids working as crew members.
I find it hilarious. Sam and I started our comedy careers in Toronto and the sketch troupe called The Atomic Fireballs. And Jason Jones, who is her husband, used to shoot our videos … and he was so frustrated with us the whole time. And so, I feel like we've gone back in time.
But this time, her children … are involved. They're holding the bounce for the light. They're doing the slating.
Yesterday, I had a conversation with Sam and I said, "I know this is a lot because your kids are in school, but can they get some B-roll tomorrow when you're shooting?" This is where we're at right now.
How difficult is it for her and for all of you to make comedy when you don't have an audience?
Part of our show is field pieces … and everything you're doing, you'd never have an audience. So you just have to instinctively know this joke is going to land, this joke is not going to land. So I think that's the tool she's using right now.
But yes, for the studio, our audience is so important. Like, you feed off it. It's an exchange of energy that we miss desperately. But, you know, I guess her audience are the birds and the forest bunnies.
Written and produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and style.