Samantha Bee cannot escape Donald Trump. He’s trailed her all the way to the Catskills, where she’s with her family enjoying a much-deserved break from filming her late-night TBS hit Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
“I must say, I’m literally spending my vacation in Trump country. There are Trump signs all over,” says a chuckling Bee. “I don’t think anyone watches my show up here, otherwise I would probably be run out of town!”
Full Frontal has, in just its first season, become a bona fide hit—earning solid ratings, critical raves, and an Emmy nod for Outstanding Writing. Viewers have delighted in Bee’s no-bullshit approach—she once called Trump a man “cradling Putin’s sweaty sack”—and remarkable gift of gab, as well as fieldwork, skills she sharpened over the course of her 12 years as a correspondent on The Daily Show.
The Canadian-born Bee (now a U.S. citizen, and married to fellow ex-Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones) is, along with Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver, providing some of the most pointed and downright hilarious commentary during this insane election season, and helping fill the void left by the late-night loss of her mentor, Jon Stewart.
The Daily Beast caught up with Bee by phone during her Catskills break to chat about all things Full Frontal.
You couldn’t have possibly seen Full Frontal catching on this quickly. It usually takes a bit for a show like this to find its groove, but this has been a hit straight out the gate.
I mean, there’s no way—we could not have anticipated that. We just tried to do the show that we liked the most. I will say that many of us have worked together already, so there were some preexisting relationships that made the process move, and the vision was also very clear for the show, so in some ways, we’re getting to do the show we wanted to do and it’s all we really could do. [Laughs] I don’t even know how we’d really adjust the tone of the show, since it’s the only show we could do, so I’m glad it’s really resonated with people!
It seems the weekly format has really benefitted both Full Frontal and Last Week Tonight, versus the daily format that you two were stuck with for years on The Daily Show. It seems like that format has allowed both you and Oliver to craft these lengthy and robust bits that you wouldn’t be able to craft in a daily format.
You’re completely right about that. We thought about it a lot—and even having the show on a Monday at first felt like it was going to hamstring us a little bit. We always knew that we wanted to do the show once a week because we wanted to live our lives, for one thing, and doing field stuff is real important to me. I love it. I get so much pleasure out of going out into the field and talking with people, and I knew that would not be possible for me if we did a show four days a week. You just can’t do it. And it does give us the opportunity to bask in it, be thoughtful, and watch the story evolve over the course of the week. It’s been really helpful for us and made the process a lot more pleasurable. It gives us a nice wave to ride—to see what sticks with us after a week has gone by.
Right, you mentioned the work-life balance, and it seems like if this or Last Week Tonight were daily programs you and John would never see your respective kids.
Exactly. I couldn’t live that way… I wouldn’t shoot that leg for myself. I think I would be completely miserable. I like a little bit of everything—actually, I like a lot of two different things: I like to work a lot and I like to be with my family a lot, and doing a show once a week helps me do both of those things.
How does the work week go on Full Frontal?
It’s weird to start the week with the busiest day of the week—Monday is the busiest day of the week—and then Tuesday is a relief where we don’t really get much done. Wednesday we start to emerge again and think about next Monday’s show, Thursday we get more into it, and then Friday is a very busy day. It’s an interesting workflow that mostly involves people working from home on the weekends, because the stories are constantly moving and changing over the weekends. That’s challenging. It’s nice to have a weekend, but our weekends aren’t super relaxing. And somewhere in there I’m shooting field stuff, too. Can you imagine doing that for four shows a week? No thank you!
You’ve been satirizing politics for quite some time with The Daily Show, but this is a unique year by any stretch of the imagination.
It does feel a little bit special. Right now I’m writing something for next week and as you’re writing and thinking about things you’re going to talk about, it’s occurred to me that there’s no point in writing anything about Donald Trump in advance because he moves the needle so much on a day-to-day basis. What you write right now will not be fresh tomorrow. Each day is a complete reinvention of reality. It’s so uncommonly sad, strange, and impossible to follow. I feel like the ground is moving underneath my feet all the time—and I think everybody feels that way. It’s hard to even analyze what he’s up to because it just changes so much. My god!
Some of your bits have focused on this, but this election does seem like a referendum on women in America: the first female nominee of a major political party going up against arguably the most chauvinistic candidate in American history.
Right. It would somehow feel more real if she was going up against a worthy opponent—it would feel more fitting—but this is fine, too. She’s going up against, like, a 1980s-style chauvinist. She’s going up against a character from the end of Boogie Nights, basically, and here we are reaping the comedy benefits. It’s hardly funny anymore, though. It’s amazing that he says and does such offensive things, and every new day he says something more offensive that you forget about all the offensive things he’s said before it. You can’t even enumerate them.
Of course, it’s also not all that far-fetched that Trump is elected president, which is the spooky scenario looming over the carnival of horrors that is this election season.
The New York Times ran a visualized timeline of when prominent Republicans dropped off the Trump train. It was great to look at—a great reminder in an impactful visual. It made me feel better.
What’s your take on the rise of the “alt-right?” To me, “alt-right” really just stands for “white nationalist,” but now you have the former chief of Breitbart News, an “alt-right” website, running the Trump campaign, and Hillary Clinton delivered a pretty blistering takedown of the “alt-right” in a recent speech.
I’m almost positive we’ll do something about it on the show. It does feel like a story worth telling, and something we could get into. It’s amazing to me. It’s amazing to me the leadership changes that have happened in Trump’s campaign.
You’re on Twitter, as am I, and it seems the “alt-right” are the ones constantly posting hateful things like Nazi memes and what have you.
We definitely live in a trolling culture now. The amount that I get trolled is unbelievable. There’s so much abuse, and so much stuff that goes on. It’s very ugly right now. Very. And it feels very unrestrained in a way that feels new, also. I’m not sure how much goodness it’s putting back in the world—I would say none. I think it’s erasing goodness from the world. You can’t even engage with it on a certain level, because there’s no amount of… I don’t know. It’s an interesting world to live in. I want my children to never go on the internet!
Back to Full Frontal. What’s the secret sauce of the show? You’d mentioned that you and some of the writers had a preexisting bond that helped move things along considerably.
Well, not all of us—a few of us do. But I don’t know if there’s any real secret sauce to it other than we’re pretty likeminded and my showrunner [Jo Miller] and executive producers are incredible. I just think we have the best team in late-night. I am so proud of everybody who works on the show. We’re kind of a small team, but an upstart team—like The Bad News Bears. We’re really scrappy, and really unified, and I think we speak with one voice. We’re on vacation, yes, and we really needed a vacation, but all of us are so excited to go back to work, and I feel that’s really unique. I wake up and can’t believe how lucky I am to work with the people I do.
Full Frontal jokingly had ads reading “Watch or You’re Sexist” before its premiere, but when the show premiered you really were, unfortunately, on an island as the only female host in late-night. Was it difficult for you to shoulder that burden?
You know what? I didn’t. I think we all gave ourselves the freedom to not think about that too much, because how can you, really? It would be too much if you felt you had this weight on your shoulders all the time. At least for me, I like to keep it really small and I think the goal is to do a show for ourselves. We’re doing the show we all want to do just for us, almost, and that keeps it really tight, and then I feel that if we’re enjoying the show internally, hopefully others will go along for the journey with us. I can’t take on the weight of the world—I really can’t. I can only take on the weight of being responsible to all of us.
I understand you became an American citizen a couple years ago. But now that Canada has Trudeau and we have Trump, are you experiencing a little buyer’s remorse?
[Laughs] No. You know, I love Justin Trudeau—there’s no question—but this is the ideal election for me to be casting a vote for the first time. I was so excited to vote in the primary, for sure, but this one is going to feel really, really good for me. Really good. I just can’t wait. I’m really excited. And hopefully, the day after the election, I’ll still want to live here. Hopefully we all won’t be afraid to leave our homes.
You’ve been in the U.S. for over a decade, as has John Oliver, but you both have the perspective of an outsider-looking-in as well as an insider. Do you feel that grants you extra insight into the quirks of our political system?
I don’t know if it gives me any special insight anymore. It’s funny, because I brought one of my old comedy partners to work on the show and it’s her first election down here and first time living here, and she’s so amazed by the process that I’m seeing myself in her—how wide-eyed I was when I came here in 2003 and then went to all the conventions in 2004. It’s really funny watching her and seeing myself in her, but I don’t feel like it gives me special insight anymore. It feels great to be in it and of it. It makes me feel better to comment on what’s happening but also have a stake in the outcome. A lot of people on Twitter tell me to go back to Canada. A lot. And it makes me feel really, really good to know that they can’t just say that to me now. The deportation squad is not going to come to my door and take me away under the cover of darkness.
Does Jon Stewart act as a consigliere for you and the show at all? Is he someone you sometimes call to use as a sounding board?
No. Not at all, actually. He’s completely stayed out of it. He did a cold open with us that was really fun, but he’s not a part of the constitution process at all. It’s been really nice receiving his kudos, though! He’s been really supportive and that’s been really nice. It’s given me a really good feeling.
For your first six years on The Daily Show, from 2003-2009, you were the only female correspondent. What was that experience like for you, navigating all the testosterone? Well, you know, testosterone doesn’t exactly rage through the halls of The Daily Show. [Laughs] It was a pretty normal experience. It was quite levelheaded. It wasn’t something I thought about too much because there were so many women working behind the scenes—creatively and as producers on the show—so I didn’t feel lonely, made great friends, and learned so much. It was a good experience. I never thought about my gender when I worked there, I really didn’t, but I did think about making myself absolutely essential to the show, and I really just worked so hard to do it. No job is secure in the television world, so you have to make yourself essential.
And correct me if I’m wrong, but you weren’t offered The Daily Show hosting gig when Jon stepped down—although I read that you weren’t interested in it anyway.
Yeah, the world’s kind of merged. Everything happened so quickly when TBS stepped in and offered me this opportunity, because I had already been working with TBS—we had already been working on our other show, The Detour—so when Jon announced, I think it lit a fire under them to offer me my own show. And they did, and they made such a compelling case. It was a no-brainer for me to create my own thing. Both Jason [Jones] and I knew that when we left The Daily Show, which we definitely planned to do, that we’d leave because we wanted to put our own name on something and create our own thing.
How do you think Trevor Noah is doing as host of The Daily Show so far? I know it’s pretty early and he’s stepped into a maelstrom of an election year.
I think he’s doing great. He’s a really nice guy, and there’s a tremendous amount of love between our two shows. It’s really difficult to take over someone else’s legacy and make it your own, and I think he’s successfully doing that. It’s been a challenge, but it would be a challenge for anyone to step into those shoes, and he’s doing a great job. I feel nothing but total support.
There’s also a lot of love between Full Frontal and The Nightly Show. We spoke to Larry Wilmore recently who mentioned the bottles you sent over to their writers’ room when news broke of the cancellation. Do you feel The Nightly Show team got a raw deal from Comedy Central, having their show canceled months before the election is over?
We were all really sad when we heard. We were all really sad. It did feel a bit premature to cut them off right before what I think would have been a really lively area to riff on right before the election. I don’t know enough about the inner workings of what was going on at Comedy Central to comment more on it, but I was very sad to see them go. It felt abrupt from an outsider’s perspective looking in, for sure. We knew that wine was in order, so we made that happen.
What’s it been like working at TBS? They’re a network that skewed much older before Conan O’Brien and now you brought over a new demographic.
They’ve been—I’ve said it before, but it’s really true—incredible. They’ve been such great producing partners because they’ve stayed out of our way creatively; they’ve let us create the show we want to create even though, at the beginning, none of us really knew what it would actually look like. We had this show in our imaginations so nobody ever knows what it’s going to be until you perform it for the first time and put it into the world. They’ve demonstrated so much faith in us, it’s remarkable. I feel they really took a chance on us. And it’s been so beneficial to us to be on a network that is kind of rebuilding. They’re trying to rebuild their brand, so it’s the perfect place for us to be: starting something new at a place that’s trying to reinvent itself. It’s a great situation for us to be in.