You Have to Punch Up to Power: Speaking With ‘Samantha Bee’ Executive Producer Miles Kahn

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Over the course of a two-decade career in television, Peabody Award–winning writer-director-producer Miles Kahn has witnessed and documented unprecedented chaos in the realms of media, politics, and culture. Having worked for years as a senior producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he left in 2015 to serve as executive producer for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Since its launch last February, Bee’s program has distinguished itself amidst a roiling sea of news satire as a uniquely sober and genuinely hilarious beacon during these jet-black times. We spoke to Kahn about his perspective on Donald Trump, the challenges and responsibilities implicit to his work, and exactly how it is we all got here.

The election results in November came as a shock to much of the media and electorate. I’m curious about the extent to which you and your team had allowed for the possibility of a Trump presidency and to what extent you had created a contingency for that development?

We had a show the next day and had been reading the same polls and analysis as everyone else. I think most of us were pretty sure Clinton had it. Sam had picked out this amazing sparkly blazer and we invited Lizzo to perform “Good as Hell,” a great hip-hop anthem about getting over your man and moving on. So I guess you can say we were caught a little off guard.

Once it was clear Trump was going to win, every department started reworking everything we had planned. Our writers and producers had to simultaneously watch the news, process how they were feeling about it, and then make jokes about it in record time. In our field department, we had shot a man-on-the-street piece that day with people who had just voted. That too was completely recut. It was quite a turnaround.

But Sam kept the celebratory blazer, Lizzo sang her song, and strangely it all sort of worked.

Do you have a personal theory as to how it is the pundit class and pollsters were so thoroughly confounded by the results?

Polls suck and they continue to suck since so many are landline phone-based, and the only people answering those phones are over 60 and have too much time on their hands. Then there is partisan polling, which I still don’t get as a concept. I’m not sure polling works very well anymore for something with so many variables.

Also, I’m convinced voters told pollsters what they thought they wanted to hear, but deep inside they wanted to vote for Trump. I think for some, voting for Trump was a guilty pleasure — a bit of schadenfreude that they couldn’t quite admit out loud. I think people wanted to lash out, and the polls never captured that.

I also think we underestimated how cultural and institutionalized sexism played a role. As much as I’ve thought of myself as a feminist, the past year of creating and working on a show with such strong female voices has opened my eyes even more to how society treats powerful women. To be clear, I don’t think sexism alone cost Hillary the election, but I produced a lot of man-on-the-street interviews, and I heard so many sexist code words: “She’s shrill, she’s bitchy, she wants it too much.” I never would have imagined that a disqualifier for President is that you “want it too much.” And the shocking part was this wasn’t just from men. I heard this from so many women. There was one woman we interviewed at a county fair in rural Pennsylvania who said that women were too emotional to be president. This woman happened to be a truck mechanic.

After the election, your show has continued to lampoon Trump, but you’ve also begun a discourse with individuals outside of your ideological spectrum. The dialog between Sam Bee and Glenn Beck served as a template for how well-meaning people can disagree and be funny and insightful in the process. Will you continue to attempt to foster conversation between non-horrible individuals from across the political spectrum?

Sam immediately started thinking about what we can do after the election that might be more satisfying than just making Trump jokes every week. I mean, we’re still going to do our fair share of Trump jokes, don’t get me wrong. But we realized that we could maybe do more. Turns out there are pundits and politicians of all stripes who think our President shouldn’t aspire to be an autocrat. Beck was a great example. My favorite part of that interview was when he accused us of becoming just like him, of becoming “catastrophists.” That really stuck with me. It was insightful. Of course, I’ll read his Twitter page now and tear my fucking hair out. He’s a confusing guy.

Trump has been widely ridiculed and shamed by a whole host of comedy shows since first announcing his intention to run for the presidency. In the ensuing 18 months he has gone from an apparent gag candidate to leader of the free world. Does this series of developments ever cause you to question the efficacy of satire in enabling positive social change?

Our basic cable satire program takes full responsibility for getting Trump elected.

We don’t make the news. We react to it and try to give it some shape and maybe throw in a dick joke or two. We do stories that we’re personally interested in, and I don’t think any of us feel like we are going to change the world by calling Trump “Casino Mussolini.” Although that’s a sick burn.

If we drive people to learn more about an issue, that’s great. I went to Jordan and did a couple of stories with Sam about Syrian refugees. There’s not a ton of comedy to be found inside a desert refugee camp, but I was really damn proud of those pieces. And they were funny. I really wanted to methodically shoot down all the myths about Syrian refugees, and we accomplished that. But even more importantly, we got to see refugees as just normal humans, laughing along with Sam’s jokes. I love that she made a classroom of Syrian refugees crack up by telling them that Americans wear sweatpants everywhere they go. Those pieces were not designed to sway the mind of someone who vehemently believes that all refugees are secret terrorists. That person is a lost cause. But maybe there’s someone who just doesn’t know what’s going on over there. Maybe we gave them a little bit of perspective.

One time we helped draw attention to a rape kit backlog bill in Georgia that was being debated. They were going to start throwing away untested rape kits. We helped get that bill some attention and it was ultimately tossed. But the real heroes of that fight were the state legislators on the ground doing actual work. They got it done. But I do like that we did a story about rape kits on a late-night comedy show. I mean, the jokes just write themselves.

As was mentioned previously, your show has demonstrated a capacity for wringing gales of humor and poignancy from the dreadful ordeals of refugees and victims of war and oppression. Have you considered attempting to profile some of the disenfranchised voters in the rural states who felt they were driven to support Trump as a means of economic self-preservation? I feel like I’ve seen certain other comedy shows persistently portray West Virginians, for example, as essentially an endless parade of stumble-bums. When the reality is that many of these individuals had cogent and rational reasons for believing that a Trump administration was the better hope for their families’ immediate future.

We’ve interviewed a wide swath of voters on our show, and we’ll continue to reach out and talk to people of all stripes. As far as our own comedic interest, we don’t like to punch down on our show. Portraying West Virginians as stumble-bums is elitist and lazy. You have to punch up to power.

But I do object to the idea that rural white voters were somehow “disenfranchised.” Applying the term “disenfranchised voters” to a wide swath of rural white voters who can freely vote seems a bit ironic considering members of this administration, and many in the GOP, have spent an inordinate amount of time making it harder for people of color to vote.

Also, there’s the fallacy that white working class voters were the sole reason for Trump’s win. It’s not true. There is plenty of post-election analysis that shows he won the vote of well-heeled suburbanites who were whipped into a nationalistic frenzy. These people didn’t vote out of economic self-preservation.

In a completely unscientific poll, I interviewed dozens of people at the inauguration who all said a main reason they voted for Trump was to repeal Obamacare. Not a single one of them was on Obamacare. They all had private insurance.

I don’t think any of us should discount the real economic anxiety that helped Trump’s victory, but let’s not forget that fear was a weapon he used on all issues — especially on national security and immigration. He continues to blatantly lie about our refugee program, the scope of our immigration problem, and our “war-zone” inner cities, because scaring people works. I’m personally angry that Trump lied to good people with rational fears and exploited them for personal gain.

Over the period of years that you’ve spent first on The Daily Show and now at Full Frontal, you’ve seen a phenomenon occur where the increasing ambition, intellect, and quality of the work on your shows has an indirect relationship to the gradual decline of mainstream-TV news outlets. As a consequence, many people have come to rely on you as something less like a comedy show and more like a bellwether with laughs. I am wondering to what extent you and your team think about that, and how or if it impacts your process. Do the journalistic and comedic imperatives ever work at cross-purposes? How do you tend to define your mission in its most fundamental terms?

The fallacy here is that we do any large amount of original reporting. We’ve had some great pieces where our producers did a ton of their own legwork (like finding Russian trolls to talk with), but our work stands on the shoulders of real reporters. We react to the news that they do. We have a rigorous research and fact-checking operation, but we’re nothing without journalists in small towns and cities knocking on doors and staying up late to crack stories. They work on smaller-market newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times. They shoot excellent investigative pieces like Atlanta’s 11Alive News team. They don’t get the attention or respect they rightly deserve (#FakeNews) and this is part of the reason why we’re doing our “Not the Correspondent’s Dinner” to celebrate the uncelebrated.

We love that people watch us to learn a few things aside from some catchy new epithets for Trump. We’re under no illusion that anyone looks at us as a primary news source, but if we drive curious people to learn more about the things we care about, that’s amazing. I can’t say any of us spend much time thinking about our broader role in the media. We’re too busy.

I think what’s different for me on this show is that we keep challenging ourselves to find humor in really bleak stories: Refugees, rape culture, rampant gun violence (you know, the three Rs of comedy). Sometimes we pass on a story where there is just no possible way to find a joke. At the height of the Zika scare last year, we kept trying to figure out how we could cover it. It was and is an important story, but we just couldn’t crack it comedically. So I guess we always want to tell great stories about big meaty issues, but at the end of the day we know we also need to find some humor in there or who the hell is going to watch?

Maybe, at the very least, we give people a 30-minute respite from the incestuous clusterfuck of ratings, marketing, and manufactured outrage that is cable news. And if that doesn’t win us a Nobel Prize, then I fucking quit.

Full Frontal airs Wednesdays at 10:30/9:30c on TBS

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