December 1985: it’s an icy toronto night, and 16-year-old Samantha Bee is on a mission to not fail out of 10th grade. It’s going to take some doing. Up until this point – and thanks to a “kind of criminal boyfriend”, who enjoys both car theft and tempting Bee to cut class so that they can lie around, watch TV and, you know, maybe do other things – Bee has managed to, as she explains, “skip the maximum amount of school that I could skip and still pull good grades”, which had been a carefully calibrated form of rebellion, “because I am still a Catholic schoolgirl, and I like my gold star”. But now, having blown off semester exams, she fears she’s gone too far. It’s time for drastic action.
“So I went in the middle of the night to a parking lot, and I asked my boyfriend to break my hand,” she says matter-of-factly. “To break my writing hand. I was like, ‘That’s the only way I can get out of this. I fucked up so badly. You need to break my hand.’ And he was like, ‘I’m not going to break your hand.’ And I was like, ‘Break it! You fucking break it, you pussy! You break my hand!'”
She put her hand on the bumper of a car. He picked up a “boulder” and brought it crashing down. “And honest to God, I was like, ‘Thank you. OK. Done.’ I didn’t cry. I was so calculated about it.” Sometime past midnight, Bee showed up at a Toronto hospital wearing a cashmere sweater and pearls and cradling a swollen hand. “I told them I fell on it on the ice.” Bee grins wryly. “They X-rayed it. They were like, ‘You were obviously up to no good.'”
It did the trick. With her hospital wristlet and her sprained hand (“It wasn’t actually broken, thank God!”), Bee got away with skipping her exams, which meant she kept her gold star, which meant she remained on the path to a future of success and accolades, landing ultimately where she is now, on a Manhattan park bench, in the dappled sun of a perfect spring day, talking about what it’s like to host Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, her political comedy show on TBS, and mostly avoiding discussion of what it’s like to be the only female host on late-night TV, because how much more can be made of something that shouldn’t be so rare that it makes news in the first place?
She’s been up since 5:00 this morning (“I wake up when the birds start chirping”), has already perused the papers (“a little New York Times, a little Washington Post, a little BBC World“), downed two Nespressos, lured her three kids out of bed, fixed her daughter’s ponytail, ensured that everyone brushed his or her teeth, and prepared at least a dozen meals, including breakfast and lunch for her whole clan, and also a rice pilaf for good measure (“Oh, my God, I’m blushing. I did. I made rice pilaf”). She was out the door by 8:10 a.m. If she’s wearing any make-up at all, she slept in it, or sweated most of it off in her morning SoulCycle class. Wearing Lululemon yoga pants and colourful Nikes, she would look like the mum in a laundry detergent commercial if there weren’t a smudge of something on the sleeve of her white T-shirt.
But don’t let any of this wholesome, bird-chirping, rice pilaf, laundry detergent-mum stuff fool you. Don’t get caught up in the packaging. Remember: Samantha Bee is not afraid to take a boulder to her person. Do not think for one second, world, that when push comes to shove she will not take a proverbial boulder to you.
Which she did, starting with Episode One this past February. “OK, so Iowans chose fist-faced horseshit salesman Ted Cruz as their new prize heifer,” she announced, after skewering both “Hermione Clinton” and “blustery old grandpa” Bernie Sanders – and fashioning a noose onstage. The message – that no one is safe from Bee’s disapprobation – and its bare-knuckle delivery (“It’s athletic, it’s sporting; I wear running shoes”) have changed the entire tone of the late-night satire conversation. Where John Oliver is affable/caustic and Jon Stewart indignant/bemused, Bee is quite literally outraged. “She happens to be one of those rare people who is able to see the urgency of things when others may not,” Stewart tells me. “Especially when it’s something that she really feels connected to. She is invested – she’s there for a reason.”
In Bee’s clenched hands, a story about untested rape kits getting thrown out in history’s most fucked-up round of spring cleaning (“Does this rape kit spark joy?”) named names (Georgia state Sen. Renee Unterman, among others) and turned evisceration into a high art (“Are you in the pocket of Big Rape?!?!”). In an abortion segment, she stared down a Texas legislator who insisted that the regulations he’d sponsored were in the interest of women’s safety, and asked, “Have you thought about regulating the safety of back alleys? Because that’s where a lot of women will be having their abortions now.”
What’s surprised almost everyone, including Bee herself, is just how much America has liked this pummelling. When Full Frontal first aired, the country was midway through an election season that’s laid embarrassingly bare the nation’s squeamish relationship to women in power. From the get-go, Bee and her team leaned in to the sexism they knew would accompany a show in which wit is delivered in a higher register, from the tag line “Watch or you’re sexist” to the very first promo, in which Bee turns down a platter of meat (“Actually, you know what? I think I’m kind of done with sausages”) before signing off with a middle finger to the status quo: “And I am female as beep.”
But, really, she’d set the confrontational tone of her show a few months earlier, when a Vanity Fair spread celebrating the new wave of late-night hosts post-David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson featured a gaggle of (mostly white) men in exquisitely tailored suits sipping brown cocktails – or, in James Corden’s case, a juice box. Never mind that Bee’s show (and Chelsea Handler’s, for that matter) had already been announced for 2016. “You know when you can feel your own heartbeat in your ears?” Bee asks, of the moment she first saw that photograph. Within two minutes, almost without thinking, she had responded, tweeting a Photoshopped version in which she had added herself into the picture. As a muscle-bound centaur. With laser eyes. And a one-word tag line: “BETTER.”
The tweet established Bee’s brand; it also went viral. “People responded to it,” says Bee. “And that was the first time I felt, ‘Oh, if a little tweet can electrify our potential audience, there are people out there whose desires are not being answered. There really is a place for our niche show.'”
In person, Bee isn’t angry at all. She’s Canadian. Her parents were high school sweethearts who married young, divorced young and often left their only child in the care of a grandmother who worked as a secretary at the Catholic school Bee attended. She wasn’t a cheerleader. She had “good friends, but not too many of them”. Besides the criminal boyfriend who “turned me into maybe a bit of a sociopath”, Bee mostly did as a good Catholic girl should: She broke up with him and “became a much more responsible person”.
More to the point: There is a place for her particular brand of gonzo outrage. “It wasn’t a conscious decision,” Bee says of taking this approach. “I don’t think you could put in a document, ‘The character will be Furious Woman. Just trust me. People will go for it.’ That would have been a really tough sell at the network.” So Bee didn’t sell it; she just put on her cashmere sweater and pearls and told the network to trust her. Then she made the show that she herself would want to watch, one in which “women’s issues” are taken off the sidelines, and boulders are rained down on racism and sexism and any person, institution or -ism that needs a good whopping. Bee shrugs. “I don’t know how we would do it any other way.”
There was a lonely first year at McGill University before she transferred to the University of Ottawa. There was the thought that maybe she should be a lawyer, which she now knows she would have hated. There were, and still are, moments of extreme self-doubt and crying in the shower (“I’m a big crier. It’s really good for you. It just gets it out”). But things changed for Bee in a cosmic way when she signed up to take a theatre class. “I thought it would be easy,” she says. “And it was, sort of.” She was cast as “Singing Bar Wench” in a Bertolt Brecht play, and “I loved it. I loved it so much. I just came alive.” From that moment, it was on.
Sort of. “Then I tried to be an actor in Toronto,” she says, “and I did not get hired for two years. I waitered, I auditioned for things, but I did not get hired for anything, ever.” By age 26, she had eked out a career of sorts in a travelling adaptation of the Nineties anime series Sailor Moon, of which “there is no photographic evidence, and if there were, I would not provide it readily”. She was in the “A” cast, and a guy named Jason Jones was in the “B” cast. They were married in 2001.
“We wanted a show that was visceral, that came from a really gut place, that tapped into our fury.”
Then, one day, just as she was about to give up the acting dream for good, Bee got a call from her agent. An American TV program called The Daily Show was holding auditions for women. At the time, few people in Canada – including Bee’s agent – had even heard of The Daily Show, but for Bee and Jones, it was appointment television. “We would have tea, watch The Daily Show in our little attic room and go to bed,” says Bee. “A nightly routine. So I flipped out.” She was given two bits to perform, both of which had already aired. “No one else who was auditioning that day was familiar with the show at all. I knew it completely. I understood the tone they were going for.” A couple of weeks later, she got a call: The show wanted to fly her to New York to audition with Stewart. Later, when she found out she’d booked the job, she hung up the phone, went to the bathroom in the ad agency where she was working, cried in a stall for a while, then marched into her boss’s office and said, “I quit, effective this moment.” He took her to get a martini.
July Fourth weekend, 2003, Bee and Jones drove to New York with a cube van full of her possessions. The first night, they stayed at a hotel in New Jersey (“People were screaming; there were rubber sheets on the bed”). The next day, she moved into a studio only a few blocks from The Daily Show offices. Jones returned to Canada. Neither knew how long her Daily Show gig would last. “I remember just being terrified,” she says. “I had no idea what the job actually entailed, and no one really has time to baby-step you. I just tried to stay quiet as much as possible so nobody would figure out that I had so many questions that it would render me completely incapable of doing the job.” For weeks she didn’t realise that there was a free lunch.
Bee eventually found her niche doing field pieces “that no one else wanted to do, like the ones where you had to take two planes instead of one”, going out to interview a gas-industry expert about the pink breast-cancer-awareness drill bits used for fracking (yes, for real), and a state senator and tobacco farmer about a loophole that allows child labour on tobacco farms (“All kids complain about work!”). Jones was hired by The Daily Show in 2005, the couple had their first child in 2006, and Bee grew to like the patchwork nature of the job. “When you’re travelling around, you don’t know who you’re meeting, you’re doing your own make-up, buying your own clothes,” she says. “It was very much like putting a play on in the barn for your parents. And then 12 years later, here we are.”
In February 2015, Stewart announced that he was leaving The Daily Show. “We were surprised, but not surprised,” says Bee. “The signs were all there. We all knew that he wasn’t loving it anymore, that it was really grinding on him, but I think that we all thought that he would go through one more election cycle. I remember walking down the street after we heard, totally panicked. I mean, you are just jumping out into the unknown.” That same month, Bee and Jones met with executives from TBS in L.A. They’d sold a pilot for a sitcom called The Detour in September, shot it in December, and were now more anxious than ever to see if the network would really fund the whole first season. “We actually had lots of conversations where we thought, ‘If this doesn’t get a green light, I don’t know what we’ll do.'”
Plenty of people had an idea of what Bee should do: take over Stewart’s position at the helm of The Daily Show. When Trevor Noah got hired, it was tempting to view it as history repeating itself – a blonde, middle-aged, white woman with tons of experience losing out to a younger, calmer, less experienced biracial dude. But TBS not only picked up The Detour, it upped the ante by offering Bee a satire show of her own – an offer she accepted well before Stewart’s successor was even chosen. Then again, Bee says that she was quick to jump on TBS’s offer, in part, because she sensed that she would be passed over. “It was really flattering that people were talking about me in that way,” she says of the calls for her to assume Stewart’s role. “But it didn’t seem like a reality to me, to be perfectly honest.”
Besides, with her own show, she could create a new paradigm, one where humour doesn’t soften the blow but channels it. “We didn’t know what the show would look like,” says Bee, “but we knew what it would feel like. We wanted a show that was visceral, that came from a really gut place, that tapped into our fury.” That required hiring people who had fury to spare, beginning with showrunner Jo Miller, who’d worked with Bee as a writer for The Daily Show. “Jon loved Jo and believed in her for sure, but I don’t know how imminently anyone was ready to offer her up her own show,” Bee says. “I don’t know that any television network would say, ‘Hey, obscure woman. I’m going to pull you out of here and give you your own ship to sail.’ I don’t know what enabled me to see that, but step one was hiring Jo Miller.”
Bee took the same approach to hiring writers, creating a blind application process that didn’t favour people who’d already had success. (It spelled out, for example, how scripts should look when submitted, levelling the playing field for the uninitiated.) Lo and behold, she ended up with a writers’ room that looked kind of like America: 50 per cent female; 30 per cent nonwhite. One of her hires had been working at the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles. “We don’t feel like we solved the diversity problem. We didn’t fix racism, quite,” Bee jokes. “I mean, we almost did. We’ll see how things pan out. I’m feeling really good about it.” Anyway, the strategy worked. “I have literally filled my office with people who have been underestimated their entire careers. To a person, we almost all fit into that category. It is so joyful to collect a group of people who nobody has ever thought could grasp the reins of something and fucking go for it.”
And go for it they fucking have. TBS recently granted Full Frontal 26 more episodes, extending it into 2017. While The Daily Show‘s viewership has dwindled by close to 40 per cent since Noah took over, Full Frontal has 3.2 million viewers per episode. Take note. Sometimes the blonde, middle-aged, white woman with tons of experience just so happens to be the way to go.
One recent monday afternoon, a week after our first meeting, I watch Bee do a rehearsal of Full Frontal. The writers and producers milling about the studio have a familial, chummy vibe, which is heightened when Jones – who tends to drop in on Mondays to lend a fresh eye – starts pulling up cellphone videos of a towering snow fort he built for his kids. (He is also Canadian, though he and Bee both acquired dual citizenship a few years back.) On the phone’s screen, Bee’s children scamper about the fort’s walls and squeal as snowballs are launched from on high. “Our kids think it’s funny that people think that we’re funny,” Bee had told me earlier. “Because they don’t.” Just before she bounds onto the stage to the crew’s claps and whistles, Jones settles into a seat toward the back.
To the uninitiated (me), the rehearsal seems so polished that I can’t imagine what Bee will do with the rest of the afternoon, but right afterward she retreats backstage to tackle the script. This part of the studio once belonged to Bethenny Frankel’s talk show, and you can tell. “We do like our white pleather,” Bee had joked. She takes off her blazer and pulls a Tupperware container of a kale-based concoction out of the microwave while singsonging, “Thank you, thank you for your patience with my smelly lunch.” Then she plops down on a sofa as Jones and about 15 writers and producers gather around. The script is projected on a huge screen to Bee’s left. They start at the top.
Part of the team’s job is keeping up the ad hoc, underdog air they’ve cultivated amid bona fide success. “Another massive Bernie slam,” Jones says of a joke about Sanders’ low popularity with African-American voters. “I’m OK with it,” Bee responds. Miller agrees: “They already hate us.”
In fact, it’s almost a measure of Full Frontal‘s success that it has been able to capitalise on its haters. “People love to hate- watch, and we’re cool with that,” Bee had told me. “The more the merrier. There’s one news organisation that transcribes our show every time it airs. It’s a little messed up with spelling errors and a lot of all-caps and stage directions of me that are unflattering, but it’s still a transcript, and that’s a great service for us. That goes in our archives.” After her staff set up 1-844-4-TROLLZ – “Hello, you have reached the Samantha Bee rape-threat line. No one is here to take your call, but your offer of nonconsensual sex is important to us” – a menacing voicemail was featured in a Full Frontal online video, to cheers and popped champagne.
Bee doesn’t read anything that’s written about her: “I’d be scared, probably.” But on some level, she understands having a visceral reaction to someone and their point of view. With her Full Frontal field pieces, in particular, that visceral reaction is not something she tries to hide. “There was a setup to it on The Daily Show, pretending to be something you’re not, and here I’ve completely dropped the artifice,” she says. “There’s no pulling the wool over people’s eyes. I have a point of view, and you can know it. It’s a more fun way for me to do the stories. People don’t freak out.”
Where Bee goes soft is when she truly is puzzled by her subject: interviewing a young African-American man who supports Trump, for instance, or a Super PAC “victim” who donates to one failed candidate after another (“Sometimes the millionaires with the most to give have the most to lose”). Mostly, though, she doesn’t. Where Oliver might throw in a zany analogy, Bee does not waste a chance to turn the knife. During the rewrite, much attention is paid to a short clip from last July in which African-American Rep. Keith Ellison warns a panel of mostly white pundits that maybe, just maybe, Trump could gain enough momentum with voters to make him a political threat. He’s almost laughed off the airwaves. “I know you don’t believe that,” titters George Stephanopoulos. “Sorry to laugh!” adds Maggie Haberman from The New York Times.
“Hahahahahaha,” Bee had guffawed in rehearsal, addressing the pundits frozen on the screen behind her. “Not as sorry as you’ll be in 12 months.”
“I don’t know, I think we need a more outraged sentiment here,” says Jones. “‘It’s your job to prognosticate. You’re fucking terrible!'”
“‘It’s funny ’cause we’re white’?” Miller tries. “‘Hahaha, you suck at your job’?”
“‘Hahaha, you could’ve helped to make this a reality that didn’t happen,'” suggests Bee. “‘You could’ve stopped this, hahaha.'”
A woman sitting next to Bee says, “They give him so much fucking coverage.”
“‘Hahaha, we’ve given him 20 million in free advertising,'” Jones throws out.
“No, how many billions has it been?” asks Miller. She types on her laptop. “Two billion. New York Times. That’s in March!” She types more. “It’s $3 billion now.” She pauses. “‘Hahaha, that’ll never happen unless people like you give him $3 billion in free advertising!'” Bee narrows her eyes and nods.
“It’s been really cathartic for me to do the show,” she had told me, but there are still some things she’s working out. Like the fact that a woman may become president, but that woman is not infallible (“Sometimes we write too far and pull back; sometimes we don’t write far enough”). And that the worse things get for America, the better they stand to get for Bee. Near the end of our time together, I ask if she secretly persuaded Trump to run, just for the priceless material. For a second, she actually looks aggrieved. Then, like any good comedian, she rolls with it. “Yes, I did. It’s been a godsend. It’s been good for us. And I’m just really thankful.” She smiles, but barely.
From issue #778, available now. Main photo: Benjamin Lowy.