Dillon Fernando, a senior at Duke University, spent the summer interning at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the late-night comedy series on TBS that offers weekly political commentary. Fernando wrote the following reflection for the DeWitt Wallace Center, which partially funded his internship.
On any given show night, Samantha Bee is unstoppable. The current first lady of late night struts onto her set with an energetic, animated and cynically hilarious badassery. With a scythe-like accuracy, she caustically picks apart politicians, politics and current affairs. No one — not even liberals — is safe. But what you might not know is that moments before her show starts, Bee gets nervous. Well, maybe nervous isn’t even the most precise word.
Backstage, Bee stands next to the studio monitors and the rest of the staff, places her arms taut at her sides (sometimes clasped together), and breathes in — the roar of the audience cheering, hyped for the show taping, within the background. A purely meditative state. I introduce to you, this nasty woman. The only woman in the late night game, Samantha Bee. And in a snap, she’s unstoppable.
The reason I even applied to intern for Bee is her comedic voice. She speaks with an incisive tone that really wasn’t on the air before. She is distinctive from the Colberts and John Olivers of the world, and wasn’t just a Jon Stewart copycat. I remember sitting in my dorm, watching her first show on YouTube, when out of nowhere, some of her punchlines made my jaw drop. Did she really just say that?! Her clear, self-realization of that cutting voice from Episode One was so inspirational to this aspiring writer and producer. I needed to know how she could be this badass week after week.
My time as an intern for Bee was the most formative and best internship I have ever done. It’s really hard to describe the impact of what I did or how it could be so impactful on me because the bullet points of my job description seem cursory. I was an intern for the field department, which was responsible for the out-of-studio segments similar to what The Daily Show would do with correspondents. One moment, I would be sent across town to pick up props for the Elizabeth Warren shoot, and the next, I would be getting coffee for the crew. Some mornings, I would take notes at idea and joke meetings for Bee and the field crew, and later that afternoon, I’d be on a shoot, acting like a production assistant for a piece about the Laffer curve.
Comedy is a thankless business, with more talented people than the industry knows how to handle. Their invaluable lessons resonate hard and stress grit in exchange for a hopeful survival, and an even more hopeful success.
At other points, I’d be researching Iraqi Peshmerga footage for hours, just to find a clip used for less than two seconds in the piece, if at all. And at other times, for a producer, I would create a 15-page research document on a topic about which I can’t tell you. (Otherwise, I’d be sued, and I have no money to be sued over — unless the plaintiff seeks Taylor Swift-like reparations.) One day, I decided to pitch an idea for a segment with a Duke alum who works at the show. It was never used, but a writer emailed me to tell me she really liked my idea.
The work I did really doesn’t speak to how much I gleaned from this experience. A lot of what I took away from this internship I also haven’t fully realized — I’m still processing, in all honesty. But I will say this: I learned that comedy production is a collaborative effort and requires more than just a marvelous host.
Comedy production is often messy, spontaneous and has many hurdles that need to be quickly resolved. I learned from watching people like my coordinator Sophie resolve an international filming crisis within hours (she’s also only three years older than me); writers like Travon, Mathan and Melinda tell us that rejection still happens as Emmy-winning or nominated writers, crafting 20 jokes a week only for maybe one — or none — to make it into the script that episode. But the show wouldn’t be at the caliber it is if it wasn’t for all of these people collaborating together to make a beautifully hilarious product. Comedy is a thankless business, with more talented people than the industry knows how to handle. Their invaluable lessons resonate hard and stress grit in exchange for a hopeful survival, and an even more hopeful success.
In the last few days of the internship, the intern class got to sit down with Bee and ask her whatever we wanted. After some asked about the future direction of the show, or how and when she knew she wanted to be a performer, I asked her about the one thing that made me infatuated with her in the first place: her comedic voice. I want to be a writer — and I’m enjoying what I’m writing — but I feel like it’s too hacky or reiterative. What was your process of figuring out what your comedic voice was?
My question, very frank and unpolished, took Bee by surprise. Her eyes winced at each rambling syllable of mine. My question was simple, but she didn’t know how to answer it. The woman who often had a quick-witted tongue was silenced, just for a moment.
And with that short breath of meditative silence, she had my answer.
I’m not sure. She said so candidly, with a less theatrical energy than I had seen her use on stage.
I started out doing sketch comedy and never imagined my career taking this political tone. Life has a way of shaping your perspective as you learn and grow and become passionate throughout your career and find new opportunities. You have to learn to forgive yourself as you go through, as you said, this process. You will write things that in a few years, you’ll look back on in disgust, maybe even in a week. You have to learn to forgive yourself. You won’t have the answer right away.
The nasty woman who always seemed unstoppable was once very stoppable. Very vulnerable. She was once in the same boat as me. Young, scared, but gleaming with ambition and an unrefined perspective. But even now with her critically acclaimed voice, she still needed to pause, take it in, in order to deliver something meaningful. And even then, it wasn’t all that polished, but it’s what I needed to hear. So with that, I called it a summer and the official beginning of my writing career.