On the Verge: The Sam Squad from ‘Full Frontal’
Welcome to our series On the Verge, where our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years — ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee premiered on TBS back in February 2016, and given all that has happened in the world over the past year and a half, that feels like a lifetime ago. The show was strong right out of the gate. It felt fully formed and confident in ways that few late night comedies manage to be in their early days. By the time the Democratic and Republican conventions rolled around, Full Frontal’s ratings surged. Suddenly the show was essential weekly viewing, and its numbers have continued to skyrocket throughout the Trump presidency. More sets of eyes on Bee hopefully means people are starting to pay attention to her amazingly talented correspondents. Known on the show as “The Sam Squad,” Allana Harkin, Ashley Nicole Black, Mike Rubens, and more recently Amy Hoggart have all produced some of the most potent political comedy pieces of the last year.
Donald Trump himself has been parodied by every conceivable comedy outlet by now, but the Full Frontal correspondents are especially gifted with talking to his supporters. Many of Full Frontal’s best field segments involve them going out to conservative conferences and rallies and getting some face time with the opposite side. One general strategy the “Sam Squad” has used to great success is to let these “MAGA” folks talk, and have the comedy emerge from their own words. In a July 2016 segment called “Disturbing the PC,” the team attended a conservative rally filled with people who said they feel fed up with PC culture and love how Trump allows them to “unleash the beast” and speak their minds. Harkin talks to a woman who mispronounces “misogynist” and doesn’t know what the word actually means, but insists that Trump himself must be familiar with the term because he’s “very wise.” Harkin, who also directs field pieces for the show, doesn’t miss a beat. “I think he’s really familiar with that,” she agrees. Meanwhile, Rubens and Black find a couple of men at the conference who extol Trump for being like Andrew Jackson—but they don’t appear to know that he killed Native Americans during his presidency.
The Full Frontal correspondents all have a talent for picking their moments. In other words, they’re extremely skilled at restraint, which is a seriously underrated comedic skill. They share similar interviewing styles, but each brings their own perspectives to the stories they work on. Mike Rubens hails from The Daily Show, Black is a Second City alum, and Harkin is a playwright and actress originally from Canada, who met Sam Bee on an all-female sketch team called The Atomic Fireballs. In their on-camera pieces for Full Frontal, each of them focuses on bringing attention to their subject—whether it’s a serious, complicated issue, or group of underrepresented people—while still mining comedy out of whatever they see and hear. As performers, each of them conveys so much with a simple look. It makes for more substantive and relaxed conversations—this way people don’t immediately feel like they’re being mocked—and it makes the show all the more satisfying when the jokes finally land.
The show’s field pieces are tightly paced and a handful of jokes come through in the editing, but there’s also this storytelling quality to what the Sam Squad does that’s particularly compelling. It’s one of the things that differentiates Full Frontal from Last Week Tonight or even The Daily Show. Sam Bee isn’t really doing “news” or affecting a persona like Jon Stewart or pre-Late Show Stephen Colbert. John Oliver does long-form reporting on a single subject every episode, whereas Bee’s producers are out in the field nearly every week trying to talk to as many people as possible. All are equally viable ways to do comedy, but there’s something interesting in these polarizing times to hear from the opposite side—and more to the point, hear a story that you aren’t expecting.
Watching Full Frontal probably won’t make anyone sympathize with Trump voters, but the show is committed to showing their perspectives, and often attempts to find some common ground with them. In a piece covering Trump’s inauguration called “Get Your Gloat On,” a depressed Sam Squad limps around DC searching for signs of hope and fully expecting the “MAGA” folks to brag about their victory. To their surprise, however, not all of the Trump fans they spoke to were that arrogant. Some were in shock that they actually won, while others adopted a more skeptical “let’s wait and see what he does” attitude. Just two months before this aired, Full Frontal delivered one of the most powerful moments in its run in a morning-after (the election) segment called “Come Together or Whatever,” which ends with the genuinely touching scene of a Hillary and Trump supporter hugging each other. Rubens and Hoggart eventually join in. The end of the segment doesn’t have to concern itself with a final punchline; the moment says it all.
Sometimes the Full Frontal correspondents even get people on the other side of the aisle to rethink their opinions (at least somewhat so). Another excellent pre-election piece called “Most Lives Matter” showed some people in a conservative activist group expressing a real desire to ask questions about the things they didn’t understand when given the opportunity. Sure, many people were calling “Black Lives Matter” a domestic terrorist group, but there were also several white attendants who said they wanted to learn more about the organization from an actual black person. Ashley Nicole Black’s improv chops really show as she plays off some of the staunchest Trump fanatics when in front of the camera. Black juggles writing and producing responsibilities on Full Frontal, and a lot of her pieces cover issues of race in unexpected ways, like a Mr. Robot parody about government surveillance in marginalized communities. Black knows when to seize her moment. When she’s talking to a young white protester who says he wants to abolish America’s capitalist system, she shuts him down with one perfectly delivered line: “Do you think I’d be out here talking to white people for money if money was about to stop being a thing?” The “Most Lives Matter” segment also has an incredible moment where Harkin listens to an African-American man arguing, “We need to stop labeling everybody black lives, cop lives…” She just nods and asks him, “How many times have you been pulled over by a cop?” He smiles at her, and says, “No comment.” It’s great to see Black tackle these subjects head-on, but it’s awesome to see Full Frontal’s non-writers/producers of color not afraid to talk about race too.
Like Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal’s producers are educating viewers on one complex issue at a time. For example, Mike Rubens recently did a piece on conservative tax policy. Rubens has this impressive skill of taking a dense topic and crafting a funny, engaging narrative out of it. He interviews economist Arthur Laffer, and after the two meet for breakfast, he feels like he understands Laffer’s theories—until out of the blue, he’s ghosted by him. Things quickly take a left turn into rom-com territory, as he spends the rest of the segment struggling to get over this breakup and simultaneously grasp how tax cuts for the wealthy can somehow be a good thing. When Rubens finds a second economist to talk to, the first question he asks him isn’t anything about economics, but rather: “Would you say that I’m likable?” It probably helps that Rubens is also a novelist, because his natural storytelling ability elevates his Full Frontal pieces (his recurring Stephen Miller impression’s not too bad, either).
In these chaotic times, Full Frontal is one of the best antidotes we have. Sam Bee has been leading the comedy charge in the Trump era, and loving her show also means recognizing the genius of her creative team. These incisive field segments are a massive part of why the show feels so cathartic week after week. Mike Rubens, Allana Harkin, Ashley Nicole Black, Amy Hoggart, and the rest of the Sam Squad aren’t going anywhere. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from them.