Brow Beat

How Late-Night TV Is Adapting to the Social-Distancing Era

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’s executive producer on how to make TV without a studio or an audience.

Samantha Bee with her new stage crew, her children.
Samantha Bee with her new stage crew: her kids. screenshot from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

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As the novel coronavirus outbreak has shut down businesses all over the country, Americans have been adapting to working from home, whether that means figuring out how to wrangle a class of eighth-graders using video conferencing software, or how to produce a broadcast-quality late night television show without cameras or a studio. The week of March 9, late night TV sputtered out chaotically in a way that added to the nation’s apocalyptic mood—shows taped with no audience, Pete Buttigieg hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live!—and since then, late night has been slowly clawing its way back onto the air, with hosts taping from their homes, interviewing guests over Skype, and persuading musical acts to perform from their bathrooms. The transition from “fully equipped television studios” to “whatever we had around the house” has been a rocky one, but Full Frontal With Samantha Bee was back on the air after only a week with something that was a pretty close approximation of a before-times episode of the show. I spoke to executive producer Alison Camillo on Thursday about the challenges of producing TV under quarantine. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Matthew Dessem: Tell me about the last regular show you did.

Alison Camillo: March 11 was our last show, and that morning, we had been sort of on the fence about whether or not we would have a live studio audience that night. I went into Sam’s office that morning, and we both decided, “You know what? It just doesn’t feel right.” We want to keep the staff safe, we want to keep the audience safe. But we’ll figure out a way to make the show still have a lot of oomph, even without the audience—we’ll just give it a go and see how it goes.

And then that day, right before we taped the show, we found out that there were two people who had been tested positive for coronavirus, one in our office building, and then one on our studio side. That happened right before we taped, so we sent home everybody we could at that point, and then taped the show, sent it out as quickly as possible, and grabbed all of our equipment that we possibly could—Avid laptops, giant graphics machines, drives, anything we could possibly get our hands on—and brought it home with us. Because we knew that it would be a while before we could come back to the office. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to shoot remotely, because we grabbed all of that equipment, got it out, and got it to our houses.

Whoa, a real  “last moments on the Titanic kind of feeling. Did people take home production equipment, like cameras?  Your usual camera crew wasn’t actually filming what you ended up airing, so did Samantha Bee take home stuff to shoot, or was that not on your radar yet?

It was not on our radar yet. But because we had all of that equipment, once we decided that we were going to do a show remotely, we packed it all up and sent it to where she is and literally dropped it on her lawn and then ran. So no contact. But then they had enough cameras and lighting equipment and things like that. All the other stuff we just figured out a way to make it work without having that extra equipment.

So tell me about deciding to do it remotely. When was the decision made?

We knew right away that we wanted to do it. We don’t like being off the air, we love to be on the air. We’re so lucky to have a platform to speak from. And we just feel super grateful to have that, and we wanted to do anything we could to try to keep it. We weren’t exactly sure how we were going to do it technically. So we first started with this series called “Beeing at Home,” which is, you know, Sam in her woodshed, just to see what it would look like.

Luckily, Sam is sort of a Swiss Army Knife of humans, she can do anything. Oh, that was the one thing she did grab—she grabbed a whole bunch of her wardrobe before she went home. She just had, like, a giant bag full of blazers that she took back to her house. She knows how to do her own hair and makeup, which is incredible. And then Jason [Jones], her husband, is a writer/producer/director, so that was a fantastically lucky break.

What did the conversations with the network look like during this process?

We did those digital videos because we wanted to sort of test it out, to see if we had the capability to actually shoot something broadcast quality. Those turned out really well, so they became our proof of concept. What we ended up building was almost like launching an entirely new show, because everything is so different. I was on the phone with TBS multiple times a day, every day. They were very supportive—they really wanted us to get the show back on the air, and so they were thrilled that we wanted to do it. We came to them with a very specific plan of how we would do the show technically. Tony Hernandez at Jax was also super supportive, I was on the phone with him a lot, as well, trying to figure out exactly, how we would make this work, and how we’d be able to put something out that’s good quality, but also shot in a totally safe manner.

What did the first post-coronavirus week look like, in terms of building the structure of the show? You already had that remote segment shot, I imagine. Was that something you’d planned to air the week before?

This is the funny thing about that piece. We went out a couple of weeks ago, we shot a Super Tuesday piece from multiple states with multiple correspondents. And Todd Bieber, who was directing his portion of the Super Tuesday field piece with Amy Hoggart, the hotel that they were staying in, just coincidentally, had a furry convention. And they were like, “Hey, do you mind if we ask you guys some questions and shoot some stuff here?” So they shot all of this footage that we knew didn’t have anything to do with Super Tuesday. And then Todd cut it together, and he was like, “Hey, we just shot an extra piece while we were there, what do you guys think of it?” And we loved it. It’s so sweet, especially at the end of it, that even after everything went crazy, it still felt relevant to what was going on.

So you had something that you could sort of anchor the show around. When did you start doing the monologue?

I think we started the Friday before. We had our studio team come up with a research packet for what we wanted to cover in Act One, as far as the response to the coronavirus—they put a really great research packet together for the writers. And then they went ahead and split everything off and wrote over the weekend. Honestly, everybody has been working 50 percent harder than we ever have before. No one has had a day off. We worked all weekend long, the writers worked all weekend long, I know they’re exhausted. We sent out the first copy of the script on Sunday and revised it overnight. We kept revising it so that we could get it factually correct, and then taped the show on Tuesday.

When did you deliver it to the network? You must have had a longer post-production process because of the remote work, right?

Yeah, totally. We edited all the pieces via Zoom, which was great, because we can have four or five people sitting in there, and then what’s on the screen is just what’s on the editor’s screen, so it makes it relatively easy to edit pieces remotely that way.  You can hear everybody talking at the same time, everybody can be part of the conversation, which is super important for making those pieces look right. Then we normally feed to the network, but because we’re all at home, we asked the network if we could do a file delivery system, and they were great about it. Figured out how to deliver the files and sent it to them yesterday at four o’clock. Normally we feed it to them around eight or nine, and yesterday we sent them the files at four, just so they would have time to make sure everything met all of their standards before it could air.

What went wrong that you didn’t anticipate?

What could bring us down is death by a thousand cuts. It’s never one big thing, it’s teeny-tiny things, but it’s a million of them—. even trying to figure out how to download a prompter program for Sam for a teleprompter and get it on her iPad in a way that it makes sense for her, and reading at the right read rate. That’s a thing that took much longer than we thought it was going to take. Even stuff like trying to get into the same Zoom meeting. Everything takes an extra 50 percent amount of time. We assumed that all that stuff would probably happen, and so we tried to pad in a lot of extra time to make sure that we weren’t bumping up against deadlines in a way that would make it so that our show couldn’t get on the air. I think that was the biggest challenge.

One thing I noticed watching it was that the timing on the monologue was really fast. On other shows that have been doing this, there are dead air moments, because they’re used to doing this stuff with an audience, and you guys didn’t have that problem.

That in particular—I actually had that same note for Sam, too. She’s just a total pro. She’s the only person I’ve seen who has figured out that timing issue, and when I went back and saw the footage, that was the first thing I texted her, that I couldn’t believe how great she had compensated for not having an audience, timing-wise. And I thought it was incredible, but that’s 100 percent her—she’s just an incredible performer.

How much editing goes into it? I noticed a few cuts in the middle. Did she tape it a few times and you cut it together?

Normally when we have an act, we just tape the whole thing straight through in our studio. But we knew it would be technically challenging to do that, so I cut the script into eight parts, and she taped it in eight chunks, and then we edit it together. When you’re out in your backyard, you can’t really do more than a minute or so at a time. Then we covered everything with full frame graphics, or did it at the end of a soundbite so that you wouldn’t be able to see the edit point.

Tell me about the incredible image you used of an alligator driving a riding lawn mower the wrong way down the freeway. Is your graphics team just working normally from home?

That was a graphic by a wonderful graphic designer named Cassidy Routh. She’s incredible. Our graphics department is great, because they’re really good at graphics, but they’re also super funny people. And I agree, I thought that one was incredible.

An alligator driving a riding lawn mower down the freeway, wearing a surgical mask, a top hat, a monocle, and a sash reading "Beep beep! It's Tha Gov'na!"
Beep beep! TBS/Cassidy Routh

As far as choosing the location in the woods, was that Samantha Bee and Jason Jones?

That was 100 percent them. They both have really great eyes for what’s going to look good. Sam took a bunch of pictures of their property so we could see what the options were, but they picked the setup, Jason and Sam were the ones who put it together. I thought it was great.

Is there anything that you tried to do that didn’t work out?

The only thing that didn’t work out—but this was just me, I think everybody else was fine with it—they spray painted the sign that says Full Frontal, because they didn’t have a cord long enough to actually plug it in and light it up. And we were going to fix it digitally, but Jason has an iPhone with a Movi rig, so because it was handheld, it was moving around, we couldn’t digitally change out the sign because we had to track every single shot. That was the one thing that we wanted to do but couldn’t do. When you move a tracking shot like that, like a graphic, it takes a lot of rendering time, and we didn’t get the footage until Wednesday morning, and that’s one of those things that would have been a several day project to get right.

What have you learned doing this episode? Are you going to do this again in a week’s time?

We’re ready to go. I think we actually, we learned a lot from this. But honestly this show, from the very beginning, is a learning process. Every single week, we learn something that makes it easier, we figure out ways to tweak the process so it’s a little bit smoother. So this week we definitely learned a lot about time management. Luckily, we’re all pretty organized, but we figured out, oh, okay, we need to start this edit an hour earlier to give us a little bit of extra breathing room at the end of the day. There are also a couple of equipment upgrades that we’re going to send to Sam, just to make everything look as nice and polished as possible.