Samantha Bee only has four episodes of her weekly late-night program — Full Frontal With Samantha Bee — under her belt, but the Canadian comedienne has already carved out a spot as the “fierce, fiery” feminist voice of late night. Those who followed her work on The Daily Show, where she spent 12 years as a correspondent, will be unsurprised to see her tackling issues like sexist dress codes and anti-abortion Republicans. And those unfamiliar with the host’s ideology will get the gist from the theme song, Peaches’ “Boys Wanna Be Her” — the lyric “You’ve got them all by the balls” pretty much sums up the show’s sensibility in a nutshell.
Bee, whose new show airs Mondays at 10:30 on TBS, has also been heralded as “the host furious liberals need right now” and “the true successor to Jon Stewart,” and it’s easy to see why. Full Frontal premiered during one of the most important, and bizarre, presidential elections in modern political history, and she’s deftly deployed what she calls her “comedy laser” on the proceedings — for instance wiping barf from the camera lens after Donald Trump bragged about his penis at a recent GOP debate, and holding a funeral for the Republican Party. The show also makes good use of the field-segment muscles that she developed at The Daily Show, sending Bee and others on the road to interview Syrian refugees on America’s incredibly tough screening process, and to report a Werner Herzog-style documentary on Jeb Bush’s pathetic campaign.
Rolling Stone recently chatted with Bee about covering this election — as a new American citizen, no less — her thoughts on Trump and Hillary Clinton, and how she’s busting up the late-night boys’ club.
Let’s start with this wild election, especially the literal dick-measuring contest on the Republican side. Do you see it more as a wonderful gift for comedy, or a terrible nightmare for America?
It’s both of those things. It is a gift to a show that is launching in the realm of political comedy. But it is awful for the country. We’re going to survive it. It is survivable. I’m not sure how yet, but I think we’ll overcome. But it certainly feels very urgent right now.
By the way, you’ve put in your order for Trump Steaks, right? Because those are going to sell out. You’re gonna want to put in a biiiig order for a side of cattle from Trump Steaks.
So what’s your bet for November?
I wish I knew! I certainly hope it goes one way over the other. But I’m not so sure it will. You can never be 100 percent confident about the future, of course, but I am a little worried.
Who do you hope wins?
I don’t think I should say. I mean, I think it’s a little obvious? But I don’t think I should say.
You know, this is my first time voting, because I just got my U.S. citizenship. And I’m giddy about being able to cast a vote, finally. I’m overly excited about it. For everybody else, it’s so run-of-the-mill, but I’m going to wear my little sticker and be very proud – for whatever difference it makes in New York. Of course, I’ve gone to register in all the states. You’re supposed to do that, right?
Breitbart.com is going to love that.
“I think it’s very dismissive to assume people are just voting [for Hillary] with their vaginas. But, you know, we’re all very used to being dismissed, so it sort of makes sense.”
Do you think approaching this election from a comedic standpoint is resonating more with folks than straight journalism? Should I be worried about my job?
Oh, I am so not coming for your job. My job is not possible if you don’t do your job. We need you as a launch pad for the things that we do. Don’t ever stop what you’re doing, because without you, I’m nothing.
Are you worried about running out of ways to describe Donald Trump?
We have an ongoing file. It’s constantly refillable. It’s enjoyable – it’s almost like a parlor game. The list will only continue to grow, and get better, stronger, fatter.
Trump is known for saying sexist stuff about women. What do you think he’d say about you if given the chance? Or has he gotten the chance?
No, he has not. I think I’m too small-potatoes for Trump to notice. If he did, well, his usual MO is to pretend you don’t exist – like this is the first time he’s ever heard of you. His technique is to try to make you feel small and irrelevant, like you were never in his line of sight before, and you’re going to get really famous now that he’s talking about you. I’m happy if we never cross paths in any way. And I don’t expect we will. But you never know. What if he hand-delivers my Trump Steaks?
When I met him last summer, he called me “tall and beautiful.” I feel like I got off easy, but also that’s a pretty inappropriate thing to say to a journalist you’ve just met.
Did you just blossom as a person when he said that? Uh, yeah, I’d say that’s wildly inappropriate. But that’s also his MO: Flattery is something he uses to soften people.
You’re a native Canadian. What’s your advice for Americans threatening to move there if Trump wins?
It’s not as easy as you think to move to Canada, guys! You can’t just up and do it. Canadians are protective of the utopia they’ve created above our northern border. But you can stay with my friend Alana — she’s got an extra room. She’s taking applications. That’s my advice.
How do you feel about how Hillary is running this race? She’s running much more as the potential first woman president and talking about gender a lot more this time around.
Listen, I don’t want to reveal myself to be in the tank one way or the other, but I think she’s so qualified. It’s been astonishing to me to witness how many reasonable people wouldn’t vote for her — for various reasons, but I think there is an undercurrent of sexism there. That has been disheartening. [On the show,] we’re going to start to dig in on Hillary, and I’m really looking forward to it, because there’s a lot of catharsis that needs to happen on that front. There’s so much to unpack on the subject of Hillary. And I’m perfectly happy to go there.
Do you identify with her, even a little bit? On a different scale, you’re both breaking up boys’ clubs.
Not really. She’s just been doing way bigger things for longer. In the Venn diagram, I guess there’s a sliver of commonality, but I don’t think of it that way.
I do compare myself to Jesus, though. Is that fair? I do completely see myself as a Jesus-like figure.
Fair enough. But you at least feel for her when it comes to hateful comments, right? You set up that “rape threatline” in the fall to direct the violent notes you were getting.
Do you know, we’ve mostly gotten compliments on that rape threatline — which is bullshit. We set it up for a purpose, and people are really not delivering! People have been sending us nice thoughts on there. It’s very disappointing. I feel like the trolls maybe didn’t catch the number. I should put it back out there. [It’s 1-844-4-TROLLZ. -Ed.]
We’ve talked about setting up a compliments hotline, because if we set up a line specifically to receive people’s accolades, then we would for sure get rape threats. I think we just went about it the wrong way.
“It’s not as easy as you think to move to Canada, guys! You can’t just up and do it. But you can stay with my friend Alana — she’s got an extra room. She’s taking applications.”
What do you think about this idea that women who support Hillary are voting with their vaginas or their uteruses?
I don’t actually think that thoughtful people are voting with their vaginas. I think there’s more substance to Hillary than the fact that we have some shared body parts. I think there’s complexity there. I think it’s very dismissive to assume people are just voting with their vaginas. But, you know, we’re all very used to being dismissed, so it sort of makes sense.
What voice are you bringing to late night that wasn’t there before?
Well, people who watch the show are concerned that I’m very angry all the time! And I’m actually not. The show channels my frustrations into a nice 21-minute catharsis, and then I’m pretty chill the rest of the time.
I’m not sure I can really define our voice, but it comes from a very gut level, a very visceral place. We always wanted to do the show from a really authentic place deep down inside our bellies, and we are 100 percent doing that. And I think we’re attacking subjects that aren’t widely talked about in the late-night sphere, and we’re speaking about them differently than other people would be inclined to, or be able to really.
On this show, because it’s coming directly from the source, I don’t have to couch things in the way that I maybe once did. I’m not filtering my point of view through someone else’s point of view, which is incredibly liberating. I’m not having to pussyfoot around things that I don’t feel like pussyfooting around.
And by that you mean on The Daily Show, your point of view was filtered through Jon Stewart’s, right?
Yeah, I mean his voice was the editorial voice of The Daily Show. We were all working through his point of view on the show. We were very free there, and we were very able to express ourselves, but it was not a direct line. [Full Frontal] is a direct line of communication to my inner brain.
When people were asking us what [the show] was going to be, there were a lot of questions about, “How’s it going to be different?” And it was so hard to define. We knew we were going to do things differently, but all we really wanted to say was, “Just wait and see. It’s going to be different, because we are different. For a million different reasons, it’s going to be a different show, and you’ll see why when you see it.” I think it is quite unique.
You’ve never been afraid to tackle heavy issues like abortion and sexual harassment. Where do you even start in trying to make people laugh about those sorts of things?
It’s an ongoing conversation in our office. There are times when a story means a lot to us, but there’s just absolutely no way to comedically tell that story. Sometimes there’s no way to apply your comedy laser to the story – there’s no happy result, or the subject matter is too impossible. We wanted to do a story about the broken child-welfare system in Mississippi. It’s a great story, but so devastating. Any way you slice the story, it’s incredibly sad, and there’s no upside to it. We don’t know how to apply a satirical lens to it yet.
You’ve made a real effort to hire a diverse staff. What’s your takeaway from that experience? Is a lack of diversity in writers’ rooms or elsewhere a sign of laziness?
I don’t actually think it’s pure laziness. I feel like right now we’re at the beginning of a conversation. It’s not like we fixed the diversity problem with the efforts that we’ve made on the show, but we are trying to further the conversation and do better — for instance, we’re setting up a mentorship program here. We figured when we started this endeavor, maybe we’ll only have 13 episodes — let’s do our best to be inclusive. Myself and [Full Frontal executive producer] Jo Miller, we both feel as we came up that we were kind of outliers; we weren’t natural fits for comedy. And we made our way into it, and now that we’re here, we intend to open up the experience for others who wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do so. We’re just trying to make progress, to push the ball forward. If we could do one little thing, maybe we can advance that conversation a bit.
Who are your role models?
I’ve always loved female comics. There was never any reason for me not to believe a career in comedy was possible, from the television shows I watched as a kid. I mean, I never thought it was possible for me, and I never even really wanted it until much later in life. But I took a lot away from Carol Burnett, Catherine O’Hara, Joan Rivers — who was the hardest working woman in show business. And Jon Stewart was an amazing mentor. His work ethic is incredible. You know the kind of people who don’t sit back on their laurels? I really do admire people who have a tenacious work ethic. And I admire my husband [former Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones] — he’s like that.
Do you find it cool or annoying that people are focused so much on you being a woman in the late-night world right now?
Well, I don’t really read anything about myself. So I’m aware of it, but in a vague way. I try to keep my head down and eyes forward — clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. I mean, I understand why people focus on it. There’s really no one doing what we’re doing right now. But there will be others. And then I will be able to share that responsibility with others. It’d be nice, to have a little club. We can get jackets. You can be part of our club, too. We can be like the Pink Ladies. You have no idea how badly I want that.
Can we get Jessica Williams a show next (assuming that’s something she’d want to do)?
I know! Wouldn’t that be great? She’s lovely. She’s a great talent.
How do you feel things are going a month in?
I’m having so much fun. It’s so satisfying to me. I only ever wanted to do this show if I knew it could be a fun and enjoyable experience, and it really is. We’ve built this great team of people, and I’m so proud of what we’re doing. And I feel like every Monday we leave it all on the floor. That’s all I wanted to do.
And I could never do it four days a week. Never.