The scent of mulled wine and righteous indignation wafted through the air Monday night at a theater in New York’s Times Square, as Samantha Bee promised a weary audience a night of good cheer amid a stream of relentlessly grim political news.
“Your hearts are going to swell with goodwill toward your fellow humans if it’s the last [bleeping] thing I do,” said the “Full Frontal” host as a flock of figure skaters in Bee-esque blond wigs and blazers swirled around a patch of ice lined by heaps of fake snow and towering, tinsel-laden Christmas trees.
Bee and her team of correspondents were taping “Christmas on I.C.E.,” a holiday special about immigration that makes liberal use of wordplay. Airing Wednesday, the half-hour show is the latest attempt by Bee and her team of correspondents at “Full Frontal” to break out of the weekly topical-comedy routine, following “Not the White House Correspondents Dinner” last year and “The Great American Puerto Rico” in March.
“We knew we wanted to center a whole episode on immigration, and it felt like the holiday season was the right time to do it,” said Bee in a phone interview Tuesday. “And then the pun occurred and you know when someone says they wrote a song in 15 minutes? We were tossing ideas around and it kind of coalesced quickly.”
In addition to copious sequins, skating and a few musical numbers, the special features field-reported pieces about undocumented Christmas-tree-farm workers and an immigrant detention center in rural Georgia. It also raised money for Kids in Need of Defense, a charity that provides legal aid to children in the immigration system.
Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon also pays a visit. In South Korea this year, he became the first openly gay American man to compete at the Winter Games. Though he didn’t medal, he became a breakout star thanks to his sharp social-media wit and vocal support of LGBTQ rights.
“When I’m on the ice, it’s my time to feel free,” Rippon told The Times in a phone interview. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (the I.C.E. of the special’s title) “does the opposite of that to a lot of people. I hope this special really shows a different side of a lot of these immigrants who are trying to seek asylum.”
“I started training in all these cities. Everyone else is from Russia, China, Korea,” he added. “I skate with so many people from around he world. It opened my eyes.”
For Bee, a Canadian who grew up in multicultural Toronto and became an American citizen a few years ago, immigration is something that “has always interested me.”
Though she describes her naturalization process as “quite lovely” on the whole, she recalls picking up her green card and seeing needless confusion and lack of compassion extended to immigrants who weren’t native speakers of English.
“I was upset by the process. It was hard for me to do and I spoke perfect English and was immigrating because I got a job on a television show. We’re all here trying to do this legally. Why are you being so mean to us?” she said.
To prepare for the special, Bee took skating lessons — her lack of skill on the ice despite being Canadian is a running gag. And in the show’s opening number she makes an attempt at talk-singing reminiscent of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady.” “Full Frontal” also hired seven professional figure skaters and installed a temporary rink at New York’s PlayStation Theater.
“We put a lot of elements of the show in the hands of other people and didn’t pull the threads together until very close to taping. It was fun, but it was an adventure,” she said. “It was a lot of, ‘I wonder if this will work? I guess we’ll find out on Monday.’ ”
One of those loose threads was the purchase and renovation of a house in the small town of Lumpkin, Ga., which is home to the Stewart Detention Center. It will be used by El Refugio, an organization that provides meals and housing to visiting families of detainees, who have few options for lodging in the small town. The sale was closed in late November, and the renovation was completed in two weeks, Bee said.
“Christmas on I.C.E.” arrives amid revived debate over President Trump’s plans for a border wall and the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, while in border patrol custody this month.
“You can have lots of different opinions about what it would take to fix the immigration problem. That’s fine,” Bee said, “but we are meeting it with the most profound level of cruelty. It’s unimaginable. That’s something we can solve.”
She recalls a woman at the detention center in Lumpkin who had driven overnight with three children under the age of 3 in order to visit their father.
“The detainees don’t get to hold their babies, they don’t get to touch their children, the meeting is held behind glass, the telephones do not work,” Bee continued. “It is just literally — sorry, I’m going to cry — dads with their hands pressed up to the glass and babies on the other side going, ‘Why isn’t Daddy picking me up?’ This is what we’re doing by the tens of thousands. We cannot be OK with this.”
For Bee, the message is especially resonant at Christmas, a holiday inspired by the story of a family fleeing persecution and seeking shelter.
“It can either be platitudes or you can put something behind it,” she said, “so we tried to put something behind it.”
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