How Samantha Bee Brought Diversity to Her Writers’ Room

How Samantha Bee Brought Diversity to Her Writers’ Room

When her hit show Full Frontal premiered in February, Samantha Bee became the first woman host in the pantheon of late-night comedy, so it’s no surprise that she’s committed to breaking down barriers in her industry. Alex Morris’s recent interview with the former Daily Show star in Rolling Stone touches on the diversity of her writers’ room, which Bee achieved through a blind hiring process:

“We didn’t know what the show would look like,” says Bee, “but we knew what it would feel like. We wanted a show that was visceral, that came from a really gut place, that tapped into our fury.” That required hiring people who had fury to spare, beginning with showrunner Jo Miller, who’d worked with Bee as a writer for The Daily Show. “Jon [Stewart] loved Jo and believed in her for sure, but I don’t know how imminently anyone was ready to offer her up her own show,” Bee says. “I don’t know that any television network would say, ‘Hey, obscure woman. I’m going to pull you out of here and give you your own ship to sail.’ I don’t know what enabled me to see that, but step one was hiring Jo Miller.”

Bee took the same approach to hiring writers, creating a blind application process that didn’t favor people who’d already had success. (It spelled out, for example, how scripts should look when submitted, leveling the playing field for the uninitiated.) Lo and behold, she ended up with a writers’ room that looked kind of like America: 50 percent female; 30 percent nonwhite. One of her hires had been working at the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles. “We don’t feel like we solved the diversity problem. We didn’t fix racism, quite,” Bee jokes. “I mean, we almost did. We’ll see how things pan out. I’m feeling really good about it.” Anyway, the strategy worked. “I have literally filled my office with people who have been underestimated their entire careers. To a person, we almost all fit into that category.”

Things seem to be panning out just fine so far creatively—her writing team just picked up an Emmy nomination:

In a profile of Bee for the Cut back in January, Rebecca Traister highlighted the challenging task the show had set for itself in trying to build a representative team in the traditionally white and male-dominated field of television writing. In some cases, that meant hiring people with little or no comedy writing background:

It’s a mix of experience levels as well; there is one writer who was previously at Letterman and another whose last job was at the Maryland DMV. “If we don’t do anything else right, we hired incredible people across the board,” says Bee. “Our hiring process was great.”

Diversity is a problem the industry has faced for ages but has had a hard time addressing practically. “There’s a lot of people sitting around in rooms discussing how to make it happen as opposed to just, like, doing it,” Bee says. “Asking: ‘Do you have any 45-year-old-woman friends who you think are really talented who could submit an application to us?’ ‘Do you have any black friends who are great writers who haven’t had a shot?’”

And so the show is also at work on a mentorship program, designed to draw more unlikely suspects into writers’ rooms. “It’s a little bit embryonic,” says Bee, but they’ve hired the playwright Winter Miller to formulate a plan to find the “pockets of people who don’t formally have access to this world, who want to be in this world, who have no idea how to get there, and who demonstrate some skill in some capacity and a passion for it.” Bee imagines bringing mentees into the office, giving them weekly writing assignments and some instruction. “So much of this is about practicing, about steeping yourself in this world, about developing an ear, an ear for writing for someone else’s voice,” she says.

The mentorship program accepted its first round of applications in the spring and was scheduled to begin in June. In an interview with Ana Defillo at Complex, Full Frontal writer Ashley Black, one of the very few black women writing for late-night television, explains how the show’s unconventional hiring process helped lesser-known writers like herself get in the door:

I think their goal was to make it a lot more open than other late night processes. I think a lot of times at late night shows, it’s just, “We need someone. Who knows a funny writer?” They wanted it to be more open than that, but I actually did not have an agent. I heard about it from a friend who did. He had gotten the packet and passed it on to me. …

In most cases if someone sends an unsolicited packet without representation the show will not read it, but because they were trying to have a more open process they actually read my packet. That’s why I was not expecting anything—I wouldn’t have been surprised if they hadn’t read it. The thing where I, a person who had absolutely no connection, kind of sneakily got my hands on a packet and they actually read it is unheard of.