An Interview with Samantha Bee
Comedian Talks Finding Humor in Ludicrous Aspects of Society
For more than a decade, comedian Samantha Bee added a female point of view to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s boys’ club. Now, as the host of TBS’s Full Frontal, Bee continues to provide a voice of infuriated rationality in her satiric read of news from around the world. Emmy-nominated and named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2017, Bee has a platform — and she uses it to call bullpucky on the more ludicrous aspects of society, from small-town stages to elite levels of government. I recently spoke over the phone with Bee, who will be in Santa Barbara Thursday, November 9, about her role in late-night news, the president, the #MeToo social-media movement, and how she the finds funny in it all.
Tell me about Full Frontal. Are you “fake news”? Quite the contrary, really. A huge proportion of our staff comes from the world of journalism. We hired a lot of actual journalists when we started the show because the one thing we wanted to do was make sure that … we were being factual. We have an amazing fact-checker, and we fact-check throughout the process to make sure we’re locked down tight. I’m speaking in an inflammatory way, and I don’t want to be wrong about the things that I’m saying.
Do you think of yourself more as a comedian or a newsperson? [Full Frontal] is definitely first and foremost a comedy show. But we’re rooted in reality. We’re making jokes, and comedy is the priority; that’s the only thing that separates us from being strictly activist. And trying to make jokes adds an extra layer of challenge. We’re always walking a line, but we always want to be on the right side of history and the right side of fact.
Full Frontal seems rooted in truth, as opposed to some other “infotainment” shows and personalities. I’m thinking about Alex Jones from Infowars or Megyn Kelly. How is their work different from yours? What’s the balance of truth to entertainment in your work? I think it can be two things at the same time. From my personal perspective, we’re more on the analysis than the hysteria side of things. I think that there’s a cynicism there. People may look at me and say, “You’re so cynical about the world!” But I think the deeper cynicism is in tricking people, and preying on people’s gullibility to make a career for yourself. That’s something I don’t do, and something I would never do.
Our president. How did this happen? Don’t ask me; I tried to make it not happen! I did my best. I did everything I knew how to do. It’s not my fault!
We don’t blame you. We’re just looking for answers. I think we’re past the point of needing to find answers. Now we’re just trying to deal with the fallout. I’ve been asking myself how it happened for a long time. Now I’m like … I acknowledge that it happened. Now what?
Now what, indeed. What’s the next step? I have no clue! And you’re dealing with the NorCal wildfires. We literally have a president now who doesn’t think he’s the president of all America. How do you deal with someone who doesn’t think he’s also the president of California?
You’re the first woman to host a late-night satirical news show, and your TV persona has a strong feminist energy. Have you felt any resistance throughout your career to having a woman in your role? I’ve encountered so much utter resistance to having a career, but not in a way that felt particular to my gender. When you’re in this profession, rejection is par for the course. It’s something you have to process very quickly and eliminate from your psyche, or you won’t survive. So who knows what proportion of rejection has been because of something like, I didn’t fit some impossible beauty standard. I can’t say that I’ve had a specific instance in which someone said, “I’m not into your ‘woman’ stuff.” … I don’t see my feminism as a reaction to some event or a feeling of being persecuted. I see it as a natural part of myself that I want, [for instance], the same pay for men and women for doing the same job. It’s in my DNA, as opposed to being separate from who I am or a reaction to something.
What do you think of crowd-generated awareness campaigns on social media? For instance, #MeToo is women (and men) acknowledging (by tagging) their stories of sexual harassment and assault. I think they’re great. I mean, I would put myself in the #MeToo category. There’s not a single woman in this office that hasn’t had somebody masturbate in front of them. We did a survey. I think I had my first flasher in the 1st grade. I remember it. I came to the school yard and he totally flashed me and played with himself! And no one ran screaming; we just ran and got a teacher, and the teacher chased the guy away. There are people who have had trauma, and there are people like me who’ve just had the routine exposure to people doing crazy things. In the case of something like #MeToo, if it accomplished the task of making people see that more people than they think have experienced harassment, then why not?
Do you think campaigns such as #MeToo or the women coming forward publicly against Harvey Weinstein are creating change? I do, in the sense that I see more people coming forward. It’s still not without risk … What a difficult decision to make! It can be fraught with worry, and I’m sure it’s something people weigh very carefully. But I think increasingly people have grown impatient and are at their wit’s end — and are done protecting people who’ve harassed them. I think it’s totally appropriate and we’re evolving in the right direction. I don’t mean to say that it solves these problems; it certainly doesn’t. I think it’s been brave of the men who’ve been harassed sexually who have come forward, too. I think anything you can do to create a culture in which people are talking about things that are happening — sharing their experience to destigmatize it for others — I don’t see how it could be a bad thing.
We’ve covered some depressing topics. How do you find the comedy in all of this? It’s not always obvious. We have meetings on a daily basis where we’re breaking apart the worst stories and trying to find a way to tell jokes about them. But those are the stories that mean something to us as a staff. Our interests are based in the news … It’s not a pop-culture show. We’re passionate about the stories that we tell, but it’s really challenging to find humor.
What can we look forward to in your Arts & Lectures appearance? We’re going to have a great conversation. I hope it’ll be rollicking … I hope that we can create a feeling that we’re in an intimate space, and yet, in a grand space.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents An Evening with Samantha Bee Thursday, November 9, 8 p.m., at The Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.