Q&A: Samantha Bee goes ‘Full Frontal’ after long ‘Daily Show’ run

Samantha Bee
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

Samantha Bee will bring a much-needed female perspective to the male-dominated world of late-night comedy when her weekly show, “Full Frontal,” debuts Monday on TBS. She’ll also bring the fearlessness that defined her 12 years as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” where she filed reliably hilarious reports on sometimes grim subjects. The 46-year-old Canadian and her husband, fellow “Daily Show” veteran Jason Jones, also created a sitcom called “The Detour,” coming to TBS in April. Bee recently sat down in her midtown office — a space dominated by a nearly life-sized painting of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin — to discuss the “healthy levels of terror” she was experiencing in the run-up to “Full Frontal’s” debut.

“Full Frontal” will feature a lot of field pieces. What is it that you like about these segments?

There’s nothing really that would strike anyone outside of this world as fun, but it is fun to actually go out and talk to people. I always learn something, even if it’s a weird, horrible conversation where people get mad at me. When your gears are really — I know so little about gears that I don’t even know how to describe when they’re working — humming? Spinning? Working? When everything’s kind of coming together, it’s just a fun experience.


Is it difficult to put on your comedy hat doing when you’re doing a report on a heavy topic, like child labor?

No, because we’re not forcing people [to participate]. They know that we’re a comedy show. They just want their story to be told, so it’s not out of left field that we’re going to do a joke with them. But it’s probably a really surreal experience for them. I went to Jordan and went to a cultural orientation session for refugees who are being resettled [in the U.S.]. In that case in particular, I was very cautious about the words that were coming out of my mouth because they’ve been through things that are unimaginable. I wanted to be very cautious not to make really glib jokes with them. I think they all walked away having had a great time and probably wondering what America is all about because this weird lady came out of nowhere on their last day in Jordan.

What makes you able to be so fearless in these situations?

There’s a weird Catholic schoolgirl in me who just wants to do a good job. Half the time I’ll suggest something, then later on I go, “I can’t believe I suggested this. I so don’t want to do it.” Then I just do it. You have to get the story, so you just press the gas pedal and just take a deep breath and go, “Ugh.” If you can feel it down here [points to stomach], way down here in the swamp, you know that you have to ask the question. It does feel terrible, but then everyone’s alive at the end.

There’s a lot of topical comedy on television today. How will you make the show stand out?

I’m not really thinking too much about what other people are doing because I think that we inherently have a unique voice. The people I have around me have unique voices. We have stories we want to tell in our own way. I don’t think we’re going to cross streams with the other shows too much.

Presumably the fact that you’re a woman will automatically help distinguish “Full Frontal.”

I think that’s just natural. Not to say that the show is just going to be wall-to-wall women’s issues, but in general I do tend to go down that path.

Why do you think you were able to last for so long at “The Daily Show”?

When I first arrived there, I was very scared and had that feeling of “I’m a fraud. I shouldn’t be here.” I had that for a long time. So I really made my mind up to be indispensable. That was the word that I kept saying to myself. I was like, “Do what other people won’t. Say what other people won’t say. Be indispensable.”

You and your husband have three kids and two TV shows between you. How do you juggle all that?

When you have three, you just pay less attention to them. That’s the answer. We are always working. Jason had an appendectomy, and he was full-on parenting [three days later]. I spend all my spare moments making spaghetti and meatballs, making sure we have enough muffins for the week. My life would sound so boring if you described it to anyone. When I have stuff in the freezer, I’m completely happy. Like if I know that I have dinner for the whole week, I’m so excited.

Are your kids aware that their parents are on TV?

A little bit, but it doesn’t impress them. I’m still the lady who they yell at to bring them more orange juice.

Tell me about your decision to leave “The Daily Show.” Were you planning your exit before Jon Stewart announced his retirement?

We did not know in advance [that Stewart was leaving]. When he announced, that was the week that they greenlit [“The Detour”]. It all kind of happened at the same time. We knew we’d leave just because it was time for us to leave anyway. We’d been there for a long time. There was a week where we probably felt forlorn and scared, where we went, “What’s the next step? What are we going to do? Hopefully this will get picked up, but there’s no guarantee.” Then, within a very small space of time, everything changed and then the direction was clear.

Was there any part of you that would have stayed at “The Daily Show” as a host?

As I’m sensing the difficulty of putting a show on once a week, I’m really not envious of having to do it four days a week. There’s no mistaking the fact that Jon did it incredibly, but by the end he was exhausted. There’s no part of me that wants to do it four days a week and never was. My family life is the most important thing to me. I think it would’ve destroyed that, so it was not a big consideration.

You’ve made diversity a priority in your staffing. How did that work?

Our writer submissions were done blind, so we didn’t know gender or age or ethnic background. We didn’t know anything about the people. Jo [Miller], our showrunner, did such a huge outreach into women writers and people of color. She was very engaged with the process of getting people who wouldn’t normally see themselves in a writer’s room. Our submissions were 50/50 male-female down the line. Then when we narrowed it down to the second round. It was still 50/50. Neither of us came from a comedy writing background. She wanted to, I think, be very encouraging to people like herself. The efforts paid off. I think we have a really interesting, diverse crowd here.

People still seem so uncomfortable with women in the role of late-night comedy host.

People say horrible things about me. It’s unbelievable. I completely stay out of it. At first I found it funny, and then I found it soul-destroying by, like, minute two. I don’t read anything that anybody says about me. I just can’t. Then I looked at what people say about the other late-night guys and they say horrible things about them too, so I don’t even know that there’s a special type of vitriol reserved for women. I think it’s just a general vitriol.

Are you excited about the election?

I’m excited about it personally because I’m voting for the first time. I got my citizenship in 2014. There’s a really girlie joy in me that I actually get to. I still have a newbie excitement. It’s exciting for me on a very dorky level.

How about as a comedian? There seems to be a lot of potential in it so far.

I mean, Ted Cruz is a terrifying fountain of comedy.

What are your memories of the elections you covered while at “The Daily Show”?

I didn’t enjoy being at the conventions, but I enjoyed the stuff that we got at conventions. Being there is dreadful, just dreadful. It’s physically uncomfortable. You’re just there for so long. There’s no food. Everyone’s tired. People are running around with aborted fetuses on their jackets. It’s a lot to take in. It’s actually just physically challenging more than anything. And you definitely get a sense of the separation between the voters. The voters on the floor versus the upper echelons of the management of parties, who are four floors up having delicious food. It’s pretty disgusting, but that’s what it is.


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