The Interviews: Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee talks about her journey from improv to the host of her own take on the news. PLUS: An update on how things are going in the COVID-19 shutdown.
Samantha Bee got her start in improv, and she's been thinking on her feet ever since.
When stay-at-home measures became necessary, these skills came in handy: her late- night TBS show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee transitioned into Beeing at Home with Samantha Bee, where fans have watched her deliver her take on the global crisis from her backyard woodshed.
[For more on how she is coping with the quarantine, see the story below.]
The Toronto native joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2003, and during her 12 years there, she and her husband, fellow correspondent Jason Jones, had three children.
In 2015, when she announced her departure from the show, she was its longest-tenured regular correspondent. The following year, she launched her own satirical news show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, where she is the host, an executive producer and a writer.
In a late-night landscape teeming with men, Bee offered a refreshing alternative. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017, and in 2018 she was recognized by the Television Academy Honors.
The awards have had little impact on her ongoing embrace of controversy. She maintains: "I think it's an honor to be able to plant a flag in the right side of history and say, 'We were here; we were right; we're not all crazy.'"
Bee has been Emmy-nominated seven times for Full Frontal, four times as a writer and three times as executive producer and host.
In 2017 she won an Emmy as a writer of the TBS special, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee Presents Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner. With her husband, she also produces projects such as The Detour, a comedy series that aired for four seasons on TBS.
Bee was interviewed in October 2019 by Jenni Matz , director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be seen at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: How did you get into sketch comedy?
A: I started dating Jason [Jones], who eventually became my husband, and he did sketch comedy. Until I met him, I really didn't know that that world existed.
I had some friends who had a sketch comedy troupe, Catch-21, and there was a woman who wasn't available one night. They said, "Can you fill in for her?" I thought, this'll be an experiment. And from the first laugh, it was like, "This is for me! I love this! How did I not know that this was absolutely perfect?"
And then The Atomic Fireballs, which was an all-female troupe in town, was looking to replace someone. There were three other women: Allana Harkin, who is on Full Frontal, and Fiona and Sarah Carver, who are still in Toronto.
We started working together, and that opened a million doors. I was doing something that I truly loved that was extremely creative — for almost no purpose. It seems so improbable, but if you find the kernel of something that you love so much, it opens doors in unexpected ways.
Q: How did you become a correspondent on The Daily Show?
A: In their search for a woman, The Daily Show came to Toronto. My agent called me and was like, "There's an audition. It's for something called 'The Jon Daily Show with Stewart' or something. I don't know it." I knew it.
The Daily Show was my favorite show. It was Jason's favorite show. The moment that it came on the Comedy Network in Canada, it was appointment viewing for us.
I got really excited. I thought, "This is perfect. This is my swan song. I'll do this final audition, and I will put everything into it, and when I don't get the job, I will know that I gave it my all. And then I can walk away."
So I did. And five weeks later, I got a callback and I had to come to New York. I read the same two pieces that they had me read before, but I did them in the studio with Jon [Stewart]. And I did a good job. I guess I was able to pretend that I wasn't nervous. And they hired me.
Maybe a week later, I got the call. I was at my advertising agency job and my agent called me. I quit my job at that moment. I walked into my boss's office and said, "Hey, Patrick, I'm gonna quit now. Sorry." He took me out for a martini. He was so nice.
Q: How did you develop your persona for the show?
A: They were doing four shows a week then, so nobody had time to hold my hand. It was like, "This is what you're doing. Bye!"
It really was a self-starting place. There was no budget for wardrobe — for 10 of the 12 years I was there, I paid for my own suits. I had to learn to do my own makeup. I did a terrible job.
Q: Were you trying to emulate a journalist?
A: Absolutely. You're trying to be a journalist, trying to do the work that a journalist does, but not really.
The kind of work that we did in the later years of The Daily Show got a lot more intense, but when I started, the stories were really dumb. But learning how to interview people, really hearing what another person has to say when you're trying to knock things off your own agenda is truly difficult.
Q: At some point you got good at it, because people would reveal things to you.
A: I grew to really love it. I always feel nervous. I think that's very invigorating, to feel nervous about things, because people will take you places that you never thought you would go. Even to this day, I try to approach every interview with "This could go in an unexpected direction….." Nothing is a given.
I spent a ton of time in the edit suites, watching myself, learning from myself. It was not really required of me to be there, and it's humiliating watching all the opportunities that you missed for a joke, all the ways your reaction could've been better, all the things you could've done better — but then also seeing your successes.
Successes were less frequent than failures. TV is made perfect in the edit, and TV is a piece of shit before it reaches the edit suite. So that was instructive.
Q: Why did you ultimately leave The Daily Show?
A: I was there for a really long time. My husband and I shared an office; we had desks opposite each other. It was very cute. And we knew that we wanted to take ownership of something.
When you get into this business, you don't have any expectation that you're going to have this job forever. And as a correspondent on that show, you have a lot of downtime. You're not used every day. Neither Jason nor I are idle-hands people. We like to be active.
So, in that space we raised a family — we had three children. We're very attentive, hands-on parents. And we wrote other projects and tried to plan what our next step would be.
We would go to Los Angeles and do pitch meetings. With The Detour, we felt that we had something special and were so hopeful that TBS would greenlight the filming of the pilot, and they did.
We filmed it in December 2014 in North Carolina, and we loved it so much. We were like, this is it. This is our next step. If they greenlight the series, we will leave The Daily Show, and we will go make this scripted series and move into the scripted space.
And we thought that was great, because we were sick of news.
Q: Were you burned out on politics?
A: We didn't necessarily think that the next step for us would be news. We had tried to sell people on a news-based pilot, and no one was really interested in those at the time. Whenever I tried to sell something news-based, people would be like, "We don't need that. We have Jon."
I guess Stephen Colbert was on the scene, too, so they were like, "We're solid." There was no need to have a woman do it. "We've got the gents. We're covered."
Then in February 2015, Jon announced that he was leaving The Daily Show. And we had not gotten the greenlight from TBS yet [to take The Detour to series]. We knew that Jon was going to leave at some point, because he's a mortal human being. I cannot believe that he did the show for 17 years.
We knew that that day was coming, but none of us knew when. So we had a week of pure panic. Then, about a week after he announced, TBS announced that they were going to pick up The Detour, and then they approached me about doing my own show, as well. So it happened all at once.
Q: What were your biggest takeaways from The Daily Show? What did you learn from Jon Stewart?
A: His work ethic is impeccable. He works very hard to make it look easy. You have to work so hard to make it look like you didn't work on it at all.
It takes a big group of people to make a comedy show happen — a lot of voices, a lot of thought, and a lot of blood and sweat and fights and tears. A lot goes into a show like that to make it look like he is just riffing.
Q: What was your point of view as you were developing Full Frontal?
A: When your show gets picked up, there's no guarantee they're ever going to put it on TV. I visualized that we were kicking a door in. That was really how I saw the show — it's really groundbreaking.
We'll maybe do six episodes, we'll be really proud and walk away with clean hands. And it'll be an incredible calling card for some other job down the line. But it turned out that there was a hunger for a show like that.
People were waiting for something that we didn't know they were waiting for, and probably they didn't, either.
Q: Some of the elements — no desk?
A: When I'm behind an object like that, I don't think I'm at my best. I'm not having that much fun. I feel confined. I have too much bodily energy, and I just start to look like a crazy woman. So it was really a no-brainer to not have a desk.
Q: And no guests?
A: Well, this is controversial: I don't really like guests on shows. That's the part where I would turn off the show. It's not that I'm not interested in the guest. It's just pitter-patter and not super interesting to me. And I don't have a lot of time on the show.
Q: When the show was announced, a Vanity Fair cover came out with all the late-night hosts, notably leaving you and Chelsea Handler off….
A: Allana noticed it in her Twitter feed and she was like, "You are not in this picture." And I was like, "I am not in this picture."
I realize that my show had not launched yet, but Trevor [Noah] was in the picture, and his show had not launched yet. I was at a pumpkin patch with my kids, and I was so mad. Allana was like, "You should put yourself in the picture." And I was like, "I'm gonna put myself in the picture."
But I didn't know how to put myself in the picture. Miles Kahn [now an executive producer on Full Frontal] and I had been talking about the show a lot, and he had mocked up me as a centaur with laser beams coming out of my eyes for this other idea that we had.
So I was like, "Miles, can you Photoshop that into this?" And it became the calling card of the show. Allana's idea was amazing. Miles's execution was great.
Q: Around that time there was media buzz about you being the first female late-night satire host.
A: It's a history-making show.
Q: Did that pressure affect your plans for the show?
A: There was an immense amount of pressure, though I tried to block that out for the most part. But I have three kids, I still have a life that I had to continue living.
So when the pressure became unbearable, I guess it went to my ovaries — I stopped getting my period for a long time. The body is an amazing shock absorber. It truly is.
I tried very hard to bifurcate my brain. I remember one day things were getting to me. I was talking to Jason and saying, "There's some way that you compartmentalize your brain — just tell me how to do that, 'cause I'm suffering."
And he was like, "You just do it. When a worry about how your show's going to be received comes into your brain, you just push it out. Just go, 'I'm not going to think about that right now. I will think about that in the future.'"
And I did that. There were times when I would go, "No, not today. I'll think about that in two years."
But there are moments where you're vulnerable. I do give a fuck about how I relate to people in my workplace, but not about the outside world. That's not to say that I don't appreciate if people like the show or feel there's value in it.
I love to meet people who say the show has had an impact on their life. I do understand that it's a gift to have a platform, especially in this insane world.
I think it's an honor to be able to plant a flag in the right side of history and say, "We were here; we were right; we're not all crazy." I think it's a nice legacy for our children, to say we did not stand for that when that was happening. It's a historical record, to me.
Q: You have a blind hiring process. Why was that important to you?
A: Well, I do need to correct the record somewhat, because there was a lot of conversation when we started about how we had the first blind hiring process, but that's not true. We learned from The Daily Show.
They would read initial scripts without gender details, or age, or anything like that. John Oliver's show did the same thing.
We built upon that by giving writers a template of what a late-night script looks like. Because if you're an inexperienced writer and you submit for a show like ours, [you don't know that our scripts] look a certain way.
There's a [preferred] font size and a way that we code graphics. And we can tell from looking at your script that this is the first script you've ever submitted to late night, and it can add bias to the way that you read the jokes.
And we have always tried to find people in places where you wouldn't expect to find a million comedy writers. When you're hiring, it has to be at the forefront to think, how can we add diversity here? How can we bring someone along? We're thinking about that all the time.
Q: Has that practice changed the show?
A: It expands the world of stories that you can tell, that you feel like you can speak to with authority. It's important to have the perspective of the community that you want to do a story about. It enriches the subject matter.
Q: The show is cathartic, but are you also trying to inspire action?
A: We try to influence people's opinions, but I don't think it works. I try my darnedest, but I don't think I've changed a single person's opinion on anything.
I think the show is mostly useful as catharsis. We try to shine light on things that aren't widely talked about. If segments are useful in any way, that's great. If it just brings attention, that's great.
Q: Which topics are most important to you?
A: I love talking about women's health and reproductive rights. I'm proud to have that be a lot of content on the show, for sure. We certainly lean into issues surrounding #MeToo. That will never change. We lean into immigrant stories, as well. I'm proud of that.
Q: Was it surprising to you when stories of sexual harassment became openly discussed?
A: It did surprise me how ferociously it entered our bloodstream and consciousness. I felt like a massive correction was on the verge of happening. But when Gretchen Carlson came forward — that was a huge moment.
I'm not sure that people give her the credit that she is due. It was very important that she came forward and spoke about what had happened to her in the way that she did. Very, very important. It's been horrifying to understand the breadth of people who have been abused in their workplaces.
I think it took a lot of men by surprise. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were very tough. There was a lot of PTSD emerging. People told me stories that they had never told anyone else before. In the context of that moment, I remembered things from my life that I had completely forgotten.
Q: What has Full Frontal contributed to late night?
A: We bring a very fierce point of view, and I'm proud of that — I don't mind being that person. I don't mind being a bitch on television. I love it. I'm all for it. It feels really good, representing the hard work of this incredible team that I work with.
Everybody comes to work with passion and intelligence, and it's a thrill for me to be able to represent all of that and put that out in the world.
We caught up with Samantha Bee recently through email and asked her how things are going in this new world.
Q; How are you/your family coping with the new normal during this pandemic? What does a typical day look like for you?
A: We feel very lucky to be able to work and remote learn from home, so we are not in any way taking this for granted.
Still, most days begin by reading the news at 5am and then it's 7pm and I'm sporting a side ponytail that definitely began the day as a regular one, and standing over the sink eating spaghetti. How did I get here? Who made the spaghetti? Is the President shouting nonsense in front of a helicopter? OK day's over, folks.
Q: How have you adapted to the restrictive conditions of the current times? What has been most challenging personally/professionally?
A: I think that we adapted relatively quickly. We were able to get the show safely up and running within a week or two, but it has been...humbling to perform the show solely for my husband and children out in the forest.
My kids have an intuitive understanding of what is working and what isn't. They are definitely like: "Did you want to try another take of that one?" Also my internet service is not all that reliable, so on a personal note uploading footage every week is a real nail biter.
Q: What's been the impact of Covid19 on your job (tone of the show, logistics of working with writers, dealing with technological issues, etc)
A: I actually think everyone at the show has done a remarkable job adjusting to the new normal. We are, of course, trying to figure out how to make the technology as fulfilling as being all together in an office making comedy, but we are here for the journey, and grateful to be working.
Q: Do you have any new insights or perspective on the importance of your job, and the value of what you do?
A: If anything, I feel like I have one of the least important jobs right now? Still, if all of us working in this weird new way provides our audience with 21 minutes of catharsis once a week? I'm good with that.
Q: Do you think this virus and the effects on your work will have a lasting impact on your profession - and is there anything you'd change about your show when you can return to working in a studio?
A: It's hard to say right now, but I DO know that our first official studio audience to come and see a taping in the future is going to feel CHERISHED.
Who knows when that will be? But whether a live studio audience is three months or a year away, those people should brace themselves to receive a torrent of love and appreciation. And free t-shirts.
The Interviews portion of this article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020
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