'Ultimate confusion': Allana Harkin on creating late-night laughs when the election isn't decided
The Canadian is co-executive producer of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee — and the show goes to air tonight
For anyone watching the U.S. election, it was a long night — and it looks like there could be some long days ahead.
People around the world are glued to their TVs and their phones, feverishly waiting for news on who has won the American election.
But one person who is watching more closely than most is Allana Harkin, a Canadian comedian and co-executive producer of the political comedy show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Full Frontal is going to air tonight, but without a clear election result. So what's a comedy team to do?
Q host Tom Power caught up with Harkin in New York early Wednesday morning and talked about lessons learned from 2016, preparing for any scenario, and what she thinks Canadians should do right now. (Hint: call your friends.)
How are you? Did you get any sleep?
You know what, I did. Because I learned a little bit from 2016, that not sleeping at all and having to produce a show the next day is not the wisest decision. Anyone who was watching last night realized that we weren't going to know, so there was no point in staying up to punish oneself. So I slept. I'm glad I did.
Good for you. I'm glad you got some maybe fitful sleep.
Yes, and I actually woke up to — I'm knocking on lots of wood right now — some decent positive news, because there are still ballots being counted and Wisconsin's looking pretty good. Arizona's looking pretty good.
I really don't want people to lose hope. I understand why there's an enormous amount of disappointment, because I think people believe, knowing what we know, that this should have been a landslide. But the truth is that millions of Americans came out and they voted for the Trump administration, and that is painful.
Warning: Videos contain strong language.
As a Canadian living in the U.S., how invested are you in this election?
I've lived here for five years, and I feel like my life is complete American politics. Especially because I can't vote here, there's a real Canadian-ness in me that says I must do everything else. And I'm very emotional when people vote. Sorry my alerts are going off.
I'm not surprised your phone is blowing up.
But you make jokes, you do the research, and you figure out what you can do. And there are things that Canadians can do right now. You can call or email or text your friends of colour, your queer friends, your women friends, your disabled friends, and tell them that you love them, and that no matter what, you're going to fight for them. Because we're in a pretty big fight right now, even if Biden wins. You don't have to be at home going, "Oh, America. I'm so glad I don't live there."
And I'm hopeful. I'm always the person on staff who is texting, "But you know, here's a good thing." New Jersey legalized weed: there's one thing you can celebrate. Cori Bush — first Black woman to serve in Congress from Missouri. Sarah McBride from Delaware — openly trans senator. Huge strides.
We were imagining your team in a newsroom trying to jot down anything you might be able to make a joke out of. Do you have a non-stop chat going? Or are you guys sitting in a big room together with a screen? How are you processing this?
Well, we believe there's a pandemic happening, so we're all working remotely, and we are on multiple Slack channels constantly updating. We have an incredible research team of journalists who are always updating us on Slack so we know what's going on. We have a show tonight, but obviously, to deliver a show, we have to tape it this morning. And what we did differently this year is we actually created different scenarios.
In 2016 I created a cold open where it was all high fives, because it was going to be the first woman president — and then that didn't happen. I think it was something like 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning, and I was hanging over Sam with a camera and we were rewriting and reshooting the ending.
So what were your scenarios for this year?
We have Trump wins, which we didn't like to talk about a lot; Biden wins; and then ultimate confusion, which is the one we were pretty much guaranteeing was going to happen. So whatever we shoot right now by tonight at 10:30 is going to change. But we will be updating and commenting, and all the pre-shot pieces will be really, really fun to watch. We're still a comedy show. And I'm like, "Listen, if we can write jokes over the past four years, we can we can write jokes tonight."
Sadly I'm not sure I can say I was personally prepared for it to be this close. And here's the Canadian in me: I really did believe that people would see children separated at the border, 230,000 people dead from a pandemic, what has happened to Black people in America, what he has done, what he has said. I really believed people would think to themselves, "We can't. This is too much." But millions of people came out for him. That's a hard pill to swallow.
Comedians are very emotional; I'm very emotional. That's why we can make jokes that are so deep cutting. So we aren't taking any of this lightly.
That seems like a contradiction, though. You're a comedian. You have to make jokes. But you're not taking any of this lightly?
Every line, we take it so seriously. I don't think people quite understand how seriously we take it. We're not all just cracking up on Slack. We're writing very serious things to each other. I think most of the late-night shows are like this. We're still going to create a show that's fun to tune into — and if you haven't been following things as deeply as we are, it's a great show to watch, because it'll give you everything you need to know.
I know people who are constantly on social media feeds looking for updates, but I think it's really important to take breaks throughout the day. I'm saying this as advice to myself, just saying it out loud. [Laughs]
On the show, Samantha Bee did an election segment called Expect The Worst 2020. How did you land on Expect The Worst?
Um reality? We were just like, "Yeah, that sounds about right." I wish we weren't this right. And that's one thing I was tweeting out a lot: "Expect the worst. Don't buy into the polls. Make sure you're voting. Stay in that line. Don't think he's going to win." Because as of right now, Biden has more presidential votes than any other president in history, I believe. So he could still win the popular vote, and still, because the electoral college, lose.
So how do you make this day funny?
It's our job. That's what we have to do. I'm usually the one who would go to all the Trump rallies in 2016. And if you watch any of those pieces, they're funny because even in the darkest places, we find jokes. And sometimes it's hard to satirize things that the GOP is doing because they're satirizing themselves. It's like, "We can't top this." But anyone who watches stand-up knows a lot of the subject matter is pretty dark. But there are still jokes.
And we write so much material, but you only see 10 per cent of it. There's so much that we throw out that we're killing ourselves laughing over in the room. But at the end of the day, we're like, "Well, we can't put that on air. That was just for us."
Before we go, what's the next thing you have to do after this?
[Laughs] What's the next thing on your agenda for making the show for tonight?
Actually, it is working with our post-production department and making sure we have chosen the pieces that we need to go, because we really do need to deliver the show in the afternoon as it stands right now. So we just have to make a call on everything. And that's going to be really challenging because, and every writer understands this, as soon as you send something in, you're like, "Oh, I left out that thing." That is going to happen to us all day.
And by 4 o'clock, we're going to have a little bit of a different take on things. So from now until then, we just have to make a lot of executive decisions about what we want to go with. And we're all just following the news diligently right now. Like this is the longest I've been off my phone when I'm not sleeping.
How about we just take like five seconds right now. Let's just relax for five seconds. How do feel about that?
Awful. What are you talking about? Who does that? [Laughs] I groan or silent scream in the bathroom so my children don't hear.
Well there goes my audition for the Calm app. Allana, thank you so much.
It's been a delight. And I miss you Canada.
Come home soon.
Oh, let me in soon, please.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Greco.