Samantha Bee doesn’t think comedy will take Trump down. She calls her craft “impotent beyond belief” in the face of the daily presidential wrecking ball. But then, the creator and star of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee on TBS thinks preaching to the choir is absolutely fine—moral, even.
“Talking to the people that you agree with is very good,” she tells Washington, DC, Bureau Chief David Corn in an interview for the Mother Jones Podcast recorded onstage at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. “I think it’s important to have as many voices as possible just go, ‘This is wrong. I disagree with this. This is how it should be. We’re not all crazy!”
When she started, Bee felt sure that airing just six episodes would result in the whole show being canceled for being too sharply opinionated. Now she thinks of her weekly Emmy Award–winning (and just renominated) program—in its fifth season despite the pandemic—as “my own little historical record of this age.” It’s become a platform from which she educates, commiserates, and shocks, with a panoply of facts, jokes, and mini-seminars about how the hell we got here and how to fix it. And she couldn’t care less if her critics call her an activist. “Look, when you have a show, you’ve got to do something with it,” she says. “To not use it to do something with it in a time of great distress feels like a huge waste to me. Why wouldn’t you?”
In April 2017, Time magazine named Bee one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But while the nation is “clawing our way onto the beach” for the 2020 election, Bee frames her effectiveness as a comedian in subtler, more personal terms: “I’m excited to just even incrementally try to make a single person’s life a little bit better.”
This interview, recorded in early February before multiple crises swept America, is part of a limited series co-produced by Mother Jones and the Comedy Cellar. Don’t miss Corn’s recent interviews with Debbie Harry and John Leguizamo.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
We’re at the Comedy Cellar. We’re onstage. Have you ever done stand-up?
No, I’m not a stand-up. I did theater. I did sketch comedy. My stagecraft experience is extensive. I just light up the stages, but not the stand-up stages. I don’t do this. This is terrifying, although I’m getting a really warm reception here in this empty room. I like it. I am from Canada. I have a full awareness that I am not a night owl. It’s not the job for me. I get up really early and I go to bed really early. It’s not a lifestyle that I could live.
And yet there you are on late-night TV?
Here I am on late night TV, but we tape it at 6:30 p.m.
No, don’t break the illusion.
Oh, sorry. It flies off the tip of my tongue at 10:29 p.m.
When you started Full Frontal in 2016 there was a lot of buzz about you cracking the boys’ club of late-night TV.
I did. It is a history-making show, for sure. I’m really proud of that.
And has it gone the way you envisioned?
No. It was a great time to launch a show because it was like a fucking clown car of people just fumbling their way across the stage. The world is a different place now. We’re in a presidential election campaign, obviously, and the players are not nearly as fun. People don’t want to make jokes about them at all. It’s a very different world to make a political comedy show, but I accept.
Is that because people are more upset, outraged, angry?
Sure. They should be.
Does that make it harder to do comedy, when the stakes are high?
No, it’s never really a hard job to make comedy. It has its challenges, but it’s still making a comedy show, which is awesome. I definitely lean more into my agita than the boys [of late-night comedy] do, but I have more to be mad about, I think. Point of view is everything. It’s very important to me. I don’t want to do it any other way. I want to have fun, I want to do stupid stuff, but ultimately I do have a lot to say in this climate, so I’m going to say it as long as I have a show and breath in my body.
Is there too much material?
In a previous world, we could’ve planned a show a little further along, but now, as you know, this is the experience of anybody who works in news in any capacity, the day looks so different at the end than it did at the beginning. We basically try to plan for a first act of the show on a Thursday or a Friday and then we throw it all in the trash and figure it out on Tuesday, and then we figure it out again on Wednesday.
Do you think comedy is an effective weapon against Trump, or anyone else?
Absolutely impotent beyond belief. No. It’s not really effective. I doubt that my show changes anybody’s minds about anything, and I’m totally fine with that. I think catharsis is very important, and that’s what I intend to provide. We try to be informational. We try to encourage people to make the change they want to see. We try to encourage people to be active and involved. But that’s about all you can really do.
In some ways, I feel like the show right now is just my own little historical record of this age. I think it’s important to have as many voices as possible just go, “This is wrong. I disagree with this. This is how it should be. We’re not all crazy. This is what real people think and our opinion has value and I stake my claim on this piece of land.” And say it into the air and then that’s it.
Can anti-Trump satire be too mean?
Can you go too far?
No. God, no. No. You can go so far that you almost get your show canceled, but, basically, ethically, I don’t think so. They’ve done some very odious things, and so I feel pretty confident in my point of view. I think our show’s on the right side of history and I think they’re on the wrong side of history.
Well, speaking of being mean, I’m going to ask you about what happened in 2018.
My show’s not that mean, David. It’s not that mean.
I don’t think what you said was mean, but other people thought that you said something mean about poor Ivanka Trump, when you were talking about the horrific family separation policy at the border and you described her as a “feckless cunt.” That created a gigantic firestorm with people calling for your head and for you to be fired. And I’m wondering, what was it like to be in the middle of all that and what did you learn from that experience?
I learned that I’m a wildly strong person. It was like slowly walking across hot coals. It was really, really challenging, and I came to the other side and I went, “You really can’t break me. That’s good. I’m good. I’m all set.” I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’ve taken a lot of kicks in the teeth, a lot, and that one was pretty tough. But I came out the other side, the show was more popular than ever, and I felt fine.
Did it ever feel like you were actually fighting for your survival?
We were definitely at risk of getting canceled, and we did not. I think the powers-that-be made the right decision, and they did support us and I’m eternally grateful for that because I’ve got a lot of people working for me that I did not want to put out of work because I made a judgment call.
On any other day, I think that joke would’ve been fine. It just struck a nerve and people went wild. People surround Ivanka and treat her as though she is a precious porcelain doll. She does play a very big role in the administration, and so, effective or not, she’s there in the White House. I think that anyone who’s in the White House playing a role like that is subject to scrutiny.
It was a very exciting couple of days in the news cycle. There were a lot of just breathless reports about how debased I was and the conversation around civility. Unfortunately, the conversation about family separation was completely diverted because I said a naughty word on camera, which I had said, by the way, in many episodes. It wasn’t like I hadn’t said that word before—it was just that this one really ignited people.
But the thing that really, really enraged me that I will never forget and absolutely never forgive is the number of valid news outlets that made the whole thing about my civility. What a shame that a conversation about family separation had to be consumed by conversations about this naughty word, and they were having panel discussions about it. I’m like, “You motherfuckers have news shows. You are news outlets. It is your literal job to say, ‘Okay, I acknowledge that thing happened, somebody said a bad word on TV. Now let’s actually talk about family separations.'” It was all about me and my dumb thing, which was fucking nothing, and they made it a story for days when there was something so big to talk about.
I’m a comedy show. I said a bad word in the service of a bigger story. It’s their job to take the conversation back to the actual news item. I will never, ever forgive the people who did that or respect them again. I learned a lot about people. I learned a lot about where they want to put their attention and their focus.
You recently had kinder words for Ivanka.
After the White House passed a bill guaranteeing paid family leave for federal workers, you gave her credit for helping to get this done and you said, “I guess even a Trump has to do something right occasionally.”
I give credit where credit is due. She did push that through. She did fight for it. For what it’s worth. And it’s valuable to people. It makes a difference in people’s lives to not have to struggle with no paid family leave.
And then we announced our own paid family leave policy, which is very robust and I’m very, very proud of it. It certainly beats any other late-night show in terms of family leave. We’re offering 20 weeks of full pay as family leave. If you’re adopting a child, if you’re a same-sex couple, any version of family leave, we offer 20 weeks of full pay—that’s for the primary caregiver, and we also offer, I think, four weeks to a secondary caregiver. It’s quite good.
You announced this on air and you challenged other late-night shows to do the same or better. What’s been the response?
We have heard from a couple of the shows who want to learn more about our policy. Who knows how long a person has a show, but while you’re doing it, you should try to make changes that try to leave the world a little better than when you started. I think it’s good if it encourages other shows to do the same thing, which they absolutely can do. These are shows with enormous budgets.
I’m excited when people have babies. I love babies.
You’ve been promoting protest events back to the Woman’s March. You raise money. You’re explicit about not just supporting the idea that Trump’s a threat but promoting the people doing something on the ground. I’m not going to ask if that’s hard in a comic way but is that something you thought about before you started? For some people, that would be, “Oh that’s crossing a line. She’s an activist, not just a comic getting laughs.”
I guess you could say that, but I don’t really care. I still make a funny comedy show. It’s not a show that’s pure activism and I do get that there’s a fine line between those things, but I think that when we’ve done that, we’ve done it in just the right way, and we’ve walked that line correctly, every time, and we’ve folded it into the bigger narrative of the show and made it really seamless. When you have a show, you’ve got to do something with it. You have this big platform and you’re directly addressing your audience. It’s not like doing a sitcom or a police procedural. We’re interacting with our audiences every time we perform the show. To not use it to do something with it in a time of great distress feels like a huge waste to me.
What aggravates you most about the media?
I mostly love it. I mostly love it because how can I make my show unless you do your work? I can’t make my show without real investigative journalism happening on the ground, and that’s really hard work. It’s fine for me to sit back and go, “Oh, you should’ve done this and you should’ve done that,” but really I can’t make my show without Frontline doing their work. John Oliver can’t make his show without Frontline doing their work. We all use all the footage that they sweat blood for and get paid 12 cents for.
You’ve joked on the show about a civil war coming after the 2020 election. But results aside, where do you think the country will be at that point?
I can’t imagine, but blood just started to trickle out of my nose the moment you started talking about it. It’s scary. I don’t think it’s going to be great. I don’t have the answer. I’m a shrieking harpy. What are you talking about? I don’t have the answer to how we get back to phony pleasantries. I don’t know.
Do you fear that we’ve reached a point of no return?
No. It could get much worse. Don’t you worry. In a year, we’ll look back on this this and go, “Oh, remember when? Remember when we were like, ‘Is this rock bottom?’ He went so much further down.”
Do you see yourself being one of these late-night hosts who stick around for decades and decades if possible?
God no. No thank you. I’m not that much of a media whore. I like being on TV, but it doesn’t define me as a person. I’ve got a lot of TV projects that I’m working on that I can’t really talk about, but I’m trying to make all kinds of TV happen, for sure. Yes, I like being on camera, but I also like being behind the camera. I like it all.
I can totally handle it. I’m ready. Do you know that I’m a beekeeper? How on-brand. How ridiculous. It started recently. Well, my mom used to do it when I was a kid. She dabbled in bees, and then I was like “I want to do that too.” I love honey and I eat it constantly, so I got my own beehive, and that’s a meditation, trust me.
How many bees does Samantha Bee have?
50,000. That’s one hive. I’m very calm around them and they’re very calm around me and we’re all in a mediation together. It’s quite nice.
Samantha, there’s one question I like to ask all of our guests, who tend to be very successful and accomplished: What’s been your biggest failure?
I’ve had lots and lots of failures, lots of times when I was not confident, when I didn’t ask for what I needed, but I actually don’t reflect on my life in terms of successes and failures. Is it too much. I’m staring into my beehive and getting mellow. I think of them more as setbacks than failures. I definitely learned something from them, so I don’t really regret them. When I was a teenager, I committed a spree of crimes, and I’m not proud of that. That’s one thing I wish that I hadn’t done.
Can you tell us more?
It was carjacking, stealing cars, with my boyfriend. It always seems like I’m trying to tell a cool story about the cool kid I was, but I don’t feel cool about it. I don’t think it was a great chapter of my life. I was really turning into not a great person, and I probably could’ve skipped that stage of my life. It was brief, maybe two years. I got over it when I was 17.
We didn’t send them to chop shops or anything, but we just used them as our car and would abandon it somewhere. Of course we would steal the stereo and sell that and then have wild parties, but that was a failure. I talk to my kids about it and I’m very honest about it, and they’re so shocked.
I remember the fork in the road where I woke up one day and went, “What am I doing? What is this? Where are we going here?” and I completely took the other path. I dropped everything from that life. Overnight, I was like “We are not dating anymore. These are not my friends. I’m taking a different tack. I’m going back to the good little Catholic girl I used to be.” And that was very meaningful, but I think that if I was going to erase or change one part of my life, I probably didn’t need that one.
It was a failure of my character at the time to be so transactional, and I’ve taken a lot of care, from the age of 16, to try to be thoughtful and generous and give back and repair that. I don’t know. It all folds into the same person.
Can you still hot-wire a car?
No, cars are different now.