In the age of Twitter, the news cycle now moves much faster than just 24 hours at a time. News arrives almost constantly, making it difficult to focus on particular stories for very long before getting swept up into something else. This posed a particular problem for coverage of the Hurricane Maria devastation in Puerto Rico, which started as a natural disaster but (in the face of inadequate government relief) has evolved into a long-term crisis. Many Puerto Rican residents are still stuck without power six months after the storm first hit, and others have left the island entirely. Though Full Frontal with Samantha Bee covered the effects of Hurricane Maria initially, Bee and her team decided to travel to Puerto Rico and tell the islanders’ stories in a one-hour special — The Great American Puerto Rico — airing Wednesday.
Bee’s show is probably most famous for her impassioned and unapologetic takedowns of politicians like Ted Cruz (Bee used to wield a prop book full of insults for the Texas senator), but on-the-ground reporting has also been a key component of Full Frontal since the beginning. One of the very first episodes of the show, in fact, featured Bee traveling to Jordan to meet with refugees to learn from “the people we’re incoherently yelling about.”
“I love making the show and doing stuff in the studio for sure, but it feels good every once in a while to get out into the world and meet the people who are living the experience, and letting them tell their story about what is happening,” Bee tells EW. “It’s a better overall experience to just go to a place and see firsthand what people are experiencing and talk to them about it. It makes the storytelling better.”
Bee and her team approached the situation in Puerto Rico from all angles. They interviewed people working to get power back or provide medical help to their neighbors or keep people safe in community spaces. They traveled all over the island to report (and even visited the growing Puerto Rican expatriate community in Orlando), and in the process found that the hurricane had different effects on different island communities.
“You could almost be in [Puerto Rico capital] San Juan and not totally know that anything had happened, but once you get outside the perimeter you can really see that things have changed,” Bee says. “We visited a town in this mountainous area, and it looks like any other town, with Walgreens and Outback Steakhouse and McDonald’s. Schools are functioning and people are driving around living their lives, but we were there because a laundry company drives around a big tour bus full of washers and dryers for all the people there who still don’t have power. They have to come into this parking lot once a week where this laundry bus comes, and do their laundry because they still don’t have power. It’s six months later, and when you talk to them they don’t have any expectation to get power anytime soon. They have no idea. They vaguely heard maybe by July they’d have power? But no promises are being made. There are rolling blackouts and brownouts all the time. It’s very unsettling.”
In fact, the power situation is so intense and constant that Bee’s team experienced a blackout while they were reporting in San Juan.
Ever since her Daily Show days, Bee’s stock-in-trade has been injecting humor into serious situations, political news, and interviews. Even in the face of Puerto Rico’s suffering, Bee says people were ready for some lightness.
“It’s not directing the fun toward them, it’s more like bringing them into the fun and letting them tell their story with whatever exuberance or however they want to tell it,” Bee says. “It just ended up that they have a real buoyancy, and it’s actually a really fun special. With the backdrop of this really terrible thing that happened, it wasn’t hard to find people who were wanting to have a good time. I met so many different people, and the energy there was really unlike anything else I’ve experienced anywhere before. It’s a pretty remarkable place.”
On top of reporting and interviewing, the Full Frontal team is also doing their part to raise money for the people of Puerto Rico. They’ve partnered with the Hispanic Federation (an organization co-founded by Luis Miranda, father of Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda) to sell T-shirts that say “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” in Spanish, complete with excerpts of a Puerto Rican map (available here). All proceeds from shirt sales go to Hispanic Federation, who through their UNIDOS Program are continuing to facilitate donation drives and help with recovery projects on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Though the news cycle is constantly moving, Bee says one of her goals for the special is to help viewers understand that the island’s inhabitants deserve attention.
“I think people will be able to see from the special that what Puerto Rico really needs is money to rebuild,” Bee says. “I don’t think the government is going to come in and be a white knight anytime soon. People’s stories of the things they’re doing for themselves is amazing for sure, but viewers will be able to see that this is an island full of American citizens and it deserves our attention. The people of Puerto Rico deserve this story not to stray from our consciousness.”
The Great American Puerto Rico airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on TBS. Watch a preview above.