Samantha Bee wanted to do more than throw paper towels at Puerto Ricans.
“That really sums it up perfectly,” she tells The Daily Beast by phone from her office in New York, referring to that indelible image of President Donald Trump hurling single rolls of paper towels at hurricane survivors. “Just so callous, just so tone-deaf. I mean, obviously. What am I even saying?”
This Wednesday, in lieu of a regular episode of Full Frontal, TBS will air The Great American Puerto Rico, a one-hour special that Bee and her team filmed on the island last month.
It was Full Frontal’s head writer Melinda Taub who suggested they take the show to Puerto Rico. Bee says she was interested, but “didn’t know at first what that would mean.” Months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory, would they try to perform the show there?
“Could they even accommodate that?” she remembers asking. “The answer, of course, was no.”
Bee says there were “just so many stories to tell” that they decided to turn it into an hour-long special as opposed to their usual half-hour. With a “diverse group of stories” that includes everything from a local comedy troupe that has been performing hurricane-based humor to a punk nightclub that served as a shelter for survivors, she says, “We’re painting a picture of the recovery and how it’s going and what it all means and how they’re going to be rebuild in the wake of this total catastrophe.” There’s also a FEMA conspiracy theory explainer featuring The X-Files’ David Duchovny.
Full Frontal is using the special to solicit donations for the Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Disaster Relief and Recovery Program, with a goal to raise $200,000 by the time the special airs Wednesday night at 10 p.m. On top of that, the show has partnered with two local businesses—Suxess Clothing and Transom Screen Printers—to design and print charity T-shirts for the show. “I thought it would have more legs if we tried to invest in small businesses, in a way, instead of just doing our thing and leaving the island never to return,” Bee says. She’s challenging her fellow late-night hosts to do the same.
In the exclusive clip below, we see Bee and her intrepid correspondents arrive on the shores of Puerto Rico, dragging their suitcases behind them. Reminding them why they came there, Bee says, “Puerto Rico is a constant afterthought. These people have endured the worst natural disaster in American history and most Americans don’t even know who they are!”
“So let’s do it,” she continues. “Let’s make America give a damn about Puerto Rico!”
The scene serves as one of several reminders in the special that Puerto Ricans are, in fact, U.S. citizens, despite what nearly half of Americans believe according to a recent poll.
“I think it’s been confusing for Puerto Ricans, actually,” Bee says. “I think it’s been so disappointing for them, for sure.” On top of that, she adds, the response from the Trump administration has been “so ham-fisted, so poorly executed, so thoughtlessly executed.”
“There are stories that are just emerging here now that we heard on the ground there,” Bee says. “It’s unbelievable to me.” For instance, she was baffled to learn that FEMA makes residents provide documentation that they own their house before they will provide aid, even though “that is not necessarily how people inherit property” in Puerto Rico. “They don’t necessarily have paperwork and deeds and titles and all that stuff that we kind of take for granted here.
“It’s that kind of willful blindness that is making the recovery process so fraught,” Bee continues, “with contracts given to wildly inappropriate people, people who had so many failures to honor the terms of their contracts in the past and yet were granted millions and millions of dollars to bring food to the people after the hurricane. And were just so woefully inadequate, no apology, no compensation. The story of the mainland’s response to the hurricane is catastrophic in itself.”
Bee and her crew experienced just how fraught the situation in Puerto Rico still is when they were shooting the special in February and a fire broke out at a major power station, throwing San Juan once again into darkness.
“My staff and I watched the power go out across San Juan last night and within minutes were lighting fires in our hotel rooms and drinking the contents of our minibars for warmth,” Bee said in a statement at the time. “Probably could learn a few lessons from the resilience of the Puerto Rican people, over a million of whom still don’t have power after five months. If our administration wants to make America great again, I suggest they start with the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”
With just one half-hour per week, Bee acknowledges that choosing which insane Trump World developments to cover has created a challenge. This past week, she managed to squeeze the firing of Andrew McCabe, the revelations about Cambridge Analytica and a particularly brutal takedown of former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks into one opening segment.
“It needed to be said,” Bee says of her comments, which included a large graphic that read, “F**k you, Hope Hicks!” and an extended riff about what will happen when she arrives at “the gates of the nice, white, Protestant heaven where St. Peter will laugh in your face and say, ‘You think you’re getting in here? You helped burn down democracy, bitch, get your ass downstairs!’”
“Actually, she’s been very smart about staying out of the public eye,” Bee tells me. “She’s been very strategic and smart about it, and I understand why. So, she’s kind of mystery person.” There had been a note card that read, simply, “Who is Hope Hicks?” up on the board at the Full Frontal offices for a long time. “Nobody really knows,” Bee says. “And that’s a very rare quality for somebody who’s working at the White House at that level.”
When I suggest that if Hicks does decide to speak out about her time in the Trump administration, it likely won’t be on Full Frontal, Bee says, “I wouldn’t imagine that any of them would be all that interested, which suits me just fine.”
The same goes for Stormy Daniels, who had her long-awaited sit-down with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. Does Bee have any interest in speaking with her or the other women who are alleging affairs with or sexual misconduct by Trump? “We haven’t reached out to them,” she says. “When something’s being very well covered and extensively covered elsewhere, it’s usually not something [for us], unless we can find a different way to tell that story.
“I think that story is really speaking for itself right now,” Bee continues. “I’m not sure that story really needs our touch.” That said, she admitted she would “definitely be tuning in” to the 60 Minutes episode.
About this time a year ago, Bee was preparing to host Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, her response to the official Washington, D.C., event, which President Trump decided to skip, because, as she told me before her show began, “he’s awfully thin-skinned.”
Despite the fact that Trump has still not committed to attending this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bee and her team decided to forgo their version this time in order to focus their energy on projects like the Puerto Rico special instead.
But Bee does have some advice for The Daily Show’s Michelle Wolf, who has been tapped to perform at the so-called #nerdprom, whether Trump shows up or not.
“My advice would be to just take a deep breath and really relish your moment,” Bee says, laughing. “I think she’s great. I think she’ll do a great job. And I think she gets it. I’m sure she’ll make a meal of it.”