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Meet the Female Directors Behind “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has already changed the game in late night. The show, hosted by comedian Samantha Bee, is known for its diverse writing team and crew of women hoisting its sails. It’s been nominated, again, for an Emmy Award for outstanding variety talk series and also snagged a nomination this year for outstanding writing for a variety talk series.

And notably, it’s been a team of female directors who have helped create some of the show’s most significant pieces, and their contributions illustrate what makes the show work.

Razan Ghalayini, a senior field producer at Full Frontal, has worked on the show since its launch and took the job after years of working in documentary film. Never having worked in comedy before, she interviewed for the job but had no idea what she was getting herself into. During her first field piece for the show, she went to a Syrian refugee camp; it was the first time she spent considerable time with Bee.

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Ghalayini is a field producer and director on Full Frontal.

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“It was pretty crazy, at the very beginning, Sam would make a note that was like, ‘Oh, I think we should add more jokes here,’” Ghalayini told ELLE.com. “And I’d have to be like, ‘Can we please pause? What is a joke exactly?’” Even though Ghalayini was still finding her way in this hybrid news-comedy world, she respected Bee’s vision to find the humor and joy in difficult topics.

During one piece she worked on, the show traveled to Djibouti to interview Yemeni refugees who were stuck in the country due to the Trump administration’s travel ban. (The Full Frontal show ended up having real world consequences; after waiting months with no word, several of their interview subjects received visas to come to the United States, according to the Washington Post.)

During one of the interviews, Ghalayini recalled that Bee was speaking to a woman wearing a niqab, a piece of clothing that covered most of her face. “The interview was so powerful,” she says. “To hear a mom talking about how she was separated from her family, and she was saying that her kids had been put into two different states because her husband couldn’t take care of them and two jobs.” The woman started crying, and although she was speaking Arabic and only Ghalayini and a translator knew what she was saying, as Ghalayini looked around at the crew, she saw that they were all crying, too.

But then, because this is still Full Frontal, the crew found the humor. They asked the woman if it was frustrating that while all this was happening, the U.S. media had decided to cover a story about a Chuck-E-Cheese going viral for a pizza it made. “We read it to her, and she goes, ‘What? What the hell is Chuck-E-Cheese?’”

Ghalayini, whose family is originally from Palestine, says it’s especially refreshing to show the Middle East in a different way—and even more refreshing to do it in a funny way: “Humor and laughing with someone is such a shortcut to seeing and experiencing the humanity of someone else.”

For Allana Harkin, a producer, correspondent, and segment director on the show, a job at Full Frontal was cosmically in the cards. Harkin first met Bee back in Canada in the ’90s when they were both in the all-female sketch group, the Atomic Fireballs. Bee eventually moved to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Harkin kept working in Canada as an actor and writer. The two wrote a parenting blog together called “Eating Over the Sink.” And when Bee started developing Full Frontal, she asked Harkin to move to the states and be a part of the journey.

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Harkin and Bee in the Atomic Fireballs.

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“In the beginning, I think for many of us, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” she told ELLE.com. “It was more, let’s just be really authentic to what [Bee] brings to this, and what we all can put behind it.”

Harkin says she’s most proud of the show’s strong moral compass—and she points to the year the whole show traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria as an example. (Harkin was a writer on the special.) She also explains how they’ve worked on finessing the balance of the show, making sure a serious episode is paired with a lighter field piece, all with topics they can stand behind. For instance, during an episode that dealt with gun violence, they also had a field piece where Harkin went to the beach and spoke to young people about voting. “Everyone I’m talking to ended up being young women who were incredibly motivated to vote,” she explains. “It was one of those pieces that, even at the end of the day, we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel so full of hope right now. What is this place, this feeling?’”

The show has also stretched itself beyond its weekly half-hour block. Back in 2018, Full Frontal launched “This Is Not a Game: The Game,” a game meant to educate viewers about the midterm elections, all spearheaded by Ghalayini. (The team had already had success with gamification back when they saved a local New Jersey newspaper by gamifying their subscription service.) Ghalayini says they got over 450,000 people playing and directed half of them to Vote.org to sign up for voting reminders. They plan to do it all again with another game for the 2020 election.

And they’re still finding ways to have the most fun possible. Because of Harkin’s long history with Bee, she’s found ways to inject some truly random, hilarious bits into the show that no one else might have thought of. “As a director, the really fun thing is, because I know Sam, I can think to myself, OK her favorite movie is Alien. What would be really fun? She would literally just melt into a puddle on the floor if she could do something with Sigourney Weaver.So they did. And Harkin found herself on set, giving notes to Weaver, watching the piece come together.

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Bee and Harkin on set.

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Bee and Weaver getting notes from Harkin.

Courtesy of “Full Frontal”

“I always say to myself, don’t forget: Hamilton, Ontario, Allana Harkin, 17. If you could tell yourself that in this many years you would be standing in front of Sigourney Weaver and giving her notes…” she says. “I always have that moment on set where I’m just so incredibly grateful.”

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