It’s now been six months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but our fellow Americans are rallying. They could obviously still use some help with their rebuilding efforts, which Full Frontal With Samantha Bee is highlighting in The Great American Puerto Rico* (*It’s Complicated) special on March 28 at 10 p.m. Bee and her staff traveled to the island in February to provide a platform through which Puerto Ricans could speak for themselves about how they are piecing their lives back together. Their resilience and exuberance take the spotlight in the hour-long special, which includes a trip to the Arecibo Observatory, which has made almost as many contributions to relief efforts as science in recent months.
The A.V. Club spoke with Bee by phone about the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, the difficulty of making lasting change, and what everyone—including other late-night hosts—can do to help.
The A.V. Club: Your TBS neighbor, Conan O’Brien, has made a few of these trips abroad, but how did your special come together?
Samantha Bee: I feel like the back-to-back tragedies of multiple hurricanes—Hurricane Maria in particular—really just resonated with us, with a lot of people on my staff thinking about Puerto Rico. It was just a story that didn’t go away for us. We kept coming back to it because it meant a lot to us. Then [Head writer] Melinda Taub suggested doing a whole episode on Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico, and we immediately as a staff wanted to do that.
As we started digging into the story, we dug into the aftermath, the process of rebuilding the island, and what it means to be in this situation. We’ve got so many stories we could be telling. There was so much research that we expanded it to become an even longer special. We traveled in a big group in February to shoot the special. What we found was so interesting, and what we’re sharing is a diverse bunch of stories. Puerto Ricans speaking for themselves here. I’m really proud of that, but it was also really fun and I learned a lot. Just an overall great experience.
AVC: You said the story stuck with you and your staff. That’s always been one of Full Frontal’s strengths—not being tied to the daily or hourly news cycle. You’re able to stay with a story when others might have moved on.
SB: You know, it could be because it’s the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, but I’m seeing a lot of updates. Maybe it’s just the coverage that I’m able to forage for myself. I think overall, we have been able to follow the story—things are being reported on. They’re not really fun stories; there’s been report after report of contracts that went south, granted to people unqualified to execute terms of the contract. People did not get fed. A lot of news outlets are trying to keep the story alive and people are not that interested, perhaps? I don’t know what it is. But it doesn’t feel right to us to have this story fade from people’s consciousness. Particularly given that over 100,000 people don’t have power, and haven’t for 6 months. It feels very abstract to think about that, but the reality of living that is so difficult. And these people are American citizens. I don’t think most people know that.
AVC: There’s something so powerful about the name of the special: The Great American Puerto Rico*. You’re making that connection from the get-go.
SB: We definitely had to put a little asterisk, because it is complicated, their relationship to the mainland of the United States. It’s really complicated. But Puerto Ricans are American citizens and they are not treated as such. I think that what this hurricane did was lay bare the complicated nature of our relationship, and the way we have really mistreated the island throughout the years. All of that hurt, and all of that history is there for everyone to see now. That’s what it is. It’s an open book now, and you read the chapter if you choose. It’s really terrible, what happened.
And it’s amazing, the number of people who did not know that before the hurricane. Even more will learn that after Wednesday!
AVC: What would you like viewers to take away from the special?
SB: I would say that the episode is infused with joy. It was important to us to have Puerto Ricans speaking for themselves. They are, in their DNA, quite optimistic and joyful, in a way that’s hard to translate for me, being in New York, scurrying everywhere in the darkness like a rat. So there’s a lot of joy in the piece—yeah, just a lot of joy.
AVC: I think that does come across in the field pieces; you spotlight a punk club and a feminist grassroots organization that are offering a place where people can still gather. The special isn’t glossing over the harsher realities, but you do see people being optimistic—proactive, really.
SB: Yeah, if nobody’s going to come, they literally have to do it for themselves. It’s pretty scrappy, but really interesting and cool. I do talk about it with people in the outside world, and they wonder, “what’s it like there? Is it so sad?” But when you’re there, it’s not like “Oh, there’s trees everywhere—it’s so sad here.” When you’re there, it doesn’t have that character, because Puerto Ricans are scrappy and DIY. They are making things work and changing things, and trying to make it better. So we wanted the piece to be a reflection of that, and to not just show these like, “pornographic” images of sad things. Because people are still eating in restaurants, making beautiful cocktails, and doing fun things. There’s a vibrance, and there’s a life there, and we wanted that to be reflected in the special.
AVC: Let’s talk about the T-shirt initiative and your call to action.
SB: As the special was materializing, you know, I enjoy—where it’s appropriate and makes sense—to incorporate some aspect of giving back. We’ve had a couple of really successful fundraising campaigns that we’ve done with great T-shirts. And so, we knew we didn’t want to just to go Puerto Rico and shoot a special there. We wanted to give back something.
We wanted to try something that was experimental for sure, but maybe had more legs—something that would give back to the economy in a more long-term way. And we kind of figured that we would do a T-shirt campaign. It just made sense to me to try and see if we could get our T-shirts printed, or have part of the manufacturing process live in Puerto Rico on a more permanent basis.
AVC: And now the T-shirts will not only be printed in Puerto Rico, but proceeds from the sales will go to the Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Disaster Relief and Recovery Program.
SB: Yes. We’re trying to feed into the job creation system, and the proceeds for the T-shirts go to the Hispanic Federation, which as I understand, is one of the only charities that’s doing that day-to-day work of helping people rebuild their homes. Where FEMA is failing them, the Hispanic Federation is really stepping in. So proceeds from our T-shirts are going to go the Hispanic Federation, but [we’re] taking it one step further and having the T-shirts printed there and issuing a challenge to other people. Sure, you have a TV show and a really big platform, but anyone can get their T-shirts printed in Puerto Rico. We can all do that. We’ve created a web page where you can figure out how to do that. They’ll help you design a T-shirt, these people that we worked with. And they’ll print it for you. So anyone could do that. It feels like a really fun and unique opportunity to experiment with helping to make our mark in a bigger way. Or to just do something that’s just really fundamental in rebuilding a place—you know, helping to pay people to do their jobs on an ongoing basis.
AVC: It’s very exciting.
SB: It excites me, too. It just feels very different to me. Obviously when you have a platform and an opportunity to do that—and a TV network that will back you up on this endeavor—it’s really helpful, but to think about things in broader terms, it’s just neat. We’ll see where it takes us. I love to go on rides like this, and see if it’s meaningful and if it makes a difference. I hope it works out. I really hope it does.
AVC: In addition to your correspondents going out in the field, you also brought David Duchovny along to do a FEMA explainer. How did he get involved?
SB: Oh my gosh. [laughs] Well, there’s such obscurity on the subject of FEMA, and how they give out their contracts. There was no transparency whatsoever, so I feel like David is iconically the person who leads you through the fog of something mysterious. So honestly, we just asked him, and he was so cool about it. We just asked him to do it, and he said yes. And he is so funny and so great. Well, you’ll see.
Full Frontal’s The Great American Puerto Rico* (*It’s Complicated) special airs Wednesday, March 28 at 10 p.m. ET on TBS.