Smirking in the Boys’ Room With Samantha Bee


It’s about six weeks before her new late-night show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, is set to air on TBS, and the 46-year-old comedian Samantha Bee is running between editing meetings with her producers, planning an upcoming shoot in Jordan, zipping across the street to Full Frontal’s studio to do a walk-through, and prepping for her first rehearsal in front of network executives. She swears that her stress is under control — except for the fact that she’s stopped getting her period. “I guess I’m doing a good job of pushing the terror onto my innards,” Bee deadpans, “so that I don’t feel it in my brain.” Then she adds, “Whatever pressure I’m feeling I’m internalizing it in a really horrifying way. It’s affecting all of my body chemistry, but that’s fine. I’m comfortable with it there for a while.”

It’s safe to say that none of the advance press around Stephen Colbert’s ascension to The Late Show throne included a menstruation anecdote. Which takes us pretty quickly to one of the more obvious pressures currently screwing with Samantha Bee’s cycle: She will be the first female steward of a late-night satire show. More than that: She’s one of only a tiny handful ever to host a late-night show of any stripe.

Bee’s place in the comedy pantheon doesn’t look quite as unusual as it might have a few years ago, before the collective mainstream realization that women — even unapologetically feminist women — are indeed hilarious. But Bee’s mission is slightly different from that of her peers, including Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Margaret Cho (who once said “I didn’t know if I was going to mention my period onstage, but then I figured if Richard Pryor had a period, he would talk about it”). Where these women perform hilarious eviscerations of sexist culture and socialization — see “Meet Your Second Wife” on Saturday Night Live and “The Last Fuckable Day” on Inside Amy Schumer — Bee is trying to become a (humorous!) feminist voice we trust on topics outside (though certainly relating to) the female condition, like, you know, electoral politics and public policy and global warming and immigration. But to succeed at producing a weekly show that slices headline news to the quick, she must be two things that women are not always embraced for being — very funny and a little angry — and she must be those things while exuding a quality almost never afforded women: authority. It’s quite a bit easier to sound like a hero in a deeper register and like a scold in a higher one, even if you are saying the same kind of words and doing the same kind of job as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or John Oliver.

But Bee is perhaps uniquely equipped to give this kind of role a test drive. She’s a news junkie, an unapologetic feminist; she is direct and sincere and also bitingly funny; in her corner office is a large painting of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin riding a bear, a prop taken from The Detour, a half-hour comedy she co-created with her husband, Jason Jones, planned for later this year. The absurdly silly image seems to reflect some of Bee’s comedic DGAF drive to make her point. When Vanity Fair last year published a photo of all-male late-night hosts, she infamously retweeted the image doctored to include her as a tattooed centaur with laser eyes.

The big bus ads for Full Frontal declare “Watch or you’re sexist.” And she kind of means it. “There are plenty of people who won’t tune in because a woman’s voice bothers their eardrums,” says Bee. “Their ear canals can’t handle the sound of my shrill voice talking at them about a subject. I guess I just don’t really care about those people.”

Full Frontal, which airs beginning February 8, will be heavy on the field segments like those that Bee did so nimbly on The Daily Show. Think of her comedic investigations of the breast-cancer-awareness-pink branding of drill bits for carcinogenic fracking, or child labor on Kentucky tobacco farms, and you’ll get the idea. On the day I’m here, Bee and her colleagues are editing one sketch on the VA’s failure to provide medical treatment for female veterans — for instance, the lack of prosthetic limbs that fit female amputees — and planning a post-Christmas trip to Jordan to interview Syrian-refugee families.

“Parsing the delicate lines” between horror and humor, between outrage and hilarity, Bee says, “seems like an impossible task, but somehow Jo is finding a path through that material.” Jo is Jo Miller, Full Frontal’s showrunner and Bee’s intellectual partner in the creation of the show. Bee calls Miller, whom she also worked with on The Daily Show, “a pit bull … so unflinching and so passionate.” Miller has a master’s of philosophy in medieval history from Cambridge, has worked in IT and construction, and, on the day I’m in the Full Frontal offices, appears at a morning meeting scarfing a tofu dog piled with fragrant sauerkraut. She keeps a cat-litter box full of booze under her desk. The reason for the booze is obvious; the litter box is for the nights she anticipates she’ll be sleeping in the office and will want to have her cat with her. “The cat seems very malleable, very open to experiences,” says Bee.

“We’re breaking apart stories that are not joyful, not funny at all, yet it’s funny,” says Bee. That a lot of these stories will be told through a feminist lens seems obvious to Bee. “I think there’s a lack of those stories. And I love to tell those stories.” And so, while not all the pieces on Full Frontal will be about women or gender or misogyny, it’s fair to say that plenty of them will be. “Those are just the stories I’m interested in.”

Take, for example, the show’s 1-844-4-TROLLZ rape-threat line. Callers hear a recorded message that says, in part: “You have reached the Samantha Bee rape-threat line. No one is here to take your call, but your offer of nonconsensual sex is important to us, so please select from the following menu: To tell me I’m a dumb bitch that needs to be raped, press 1; to tell me you’re going to violate every hole in my idiot lib-tard body, press 2 …To tell me you wouldn’t even rape me because of how old and disgusting I am, press 4 …”

“It’s not a joke for everyone,” Bee says with a small smirk. “This is as dark as satire can probably be. It’s also about the condition of being a woman in this business.” She quickly adds that she knows threats aren’t exclusive to women. “If you go on Facebook and read the comments under something that Kimmel did, it’s also super-hateful,” she says. But when it’s directed at a woman, “there’s a tone change” in the quality of a threat.

Bee knows this kind of humor is a gamble that may or may not pay off. “We’re just going to swing for it. If we only get 13 episodes, we’ll just do the best 13 episodes that we could ever possibly conceive of, and we’re just planning to leave it on the floor.”

Bee recently met Hillary Clinton for the first time, when the presidential candidate was a guest on the same night Bee was appearing on Seth Meyers’s late-night show. “It’s not like we sat down and had a long heart-to-heart,” says Bee. “She was in, like, work mode.” Bee pauses. “Is she ever not in work mode?” Bee, who is from Toronto, recently became a citizen and will be voting for the first time in this presidential election. She looked stricken when I asked whom she plans to vote for. “I probably shouldn’t talk about who I would vote for.” She looks at me intensely, with a kind of eye roll of acknowledgment, and goes on, “I mean … obviously.”

Like Clinton, Bee has been made painfully aware of her “only woman” status. And like Clinton, she knows that her gender is among the things she’s got working for her, even as it works against her in other ways. “I think everybody acknowledged that it was time to have a woman hosting a late-night show,” she says. “That was in the ether, for sure, and was definitely part of why TBS did such a great job of grabbing me.”

That grab came at just the moment that Jon Stewart was breaking up the band by leaving The Daily Show. But Bee and her husband, who is also a Daily alum, had been developing and pitching their own projects for years. Most of them were scripted comedies; TBS bought Full Frontal alongside The Detour, a scripted family comedy starring Jones that the couple shot this summer in Atlanta.

“It wasn’t like we didn’t think we’d take ownership of a show,” says Bee. “It’s that we didn’t think we’d take ownership of this kind of show. We thought we’d be doing something in the scripted vein, just to get out of what we‘d been doing.”

As it turns out, though, she’s thrilled to be in possession of this kind of show. “It was in the back of my mind for a long time to do a show with a heavy field element,” she says. “I get something so deep from people when I talk to them.” Meeting a woman from the VA who’d been through 40 prosthetic men’s legs “was monumental to me. I took away so much from our meeting.”  

She’s also surprised by how much she enjoys being in charge. “I love it, to a surprising degree. In some ways the opportunity defined the ambition.”

On the day I visit, Bee and Miller are fielding questions about the show’s set: its color scheme, its props. “Those things do not come naturally to me,” Bee says. “I don’t know how sets work. I don’t know what I like about them when I look at them, I just know if I like them or I don’t.” When a designer shows off a drawing of the set that includes a hot-pink border, both she and Miller launch into a series of one-liners. “Where’s the martini glass I’m lowered into the set in?” Bee asks, while Miller jokes about breast-cancer branding. When I tell Bee over a later lunch that I can’t quite gauge the seriousness of their objections, she gets straight-faced. “Yeah, that’s not joking: It’s not going to be pink.”

But the dressing rooms! Full Frontal’s suites are left over from Bethenny Frankel’s daytime talk show, and Bee describes them as “the absolute stereotype of what you think a Bethenny dressing room would look like: white pleather and mirror tables and little architectural bud vases.” Bee says she wants to put a sign on the doors that reads “I didn’t do this,” but she can’t make any aesthetic changes for a while. “Not in the first 13 episodes,” she says. “You have to wait and be a little bit successful first, and then you get to make those kinds of decisions.”

Bee grew up in Toronto, which is where she met Jones when they were part of a touring regional children’s-theater troupe in 1996. They married in 2001 and now have three children, ages 10, 7, and 5.

She wound up in comedy almost accidentally, after having decided in her 20s “not to go to law school and instead go into the wonderful, lucrative world of acting.” She had a hard time getting parts and was about to give up when she wound up in a four-women sketch-comedy group called the Atomic Fireballs. Comedy felt natural to her, brought her pleasure and confidence. “It was very life defining,” she says of her time with the Fireballs, with whom she remains close. One of her fellow Fireballs, Allana Harkin, with whom she co-wrote the parenting blog “Eating Over the Sink” for Babble, is working with her on Full Frontal, commuting between New York and Toronto, where her kids and husband live.

“Chicks need their chicks,” Harkin tells me as we watch Bee do her walk-through on the empty set.

When The Daily Show came to film in Toronto in 2003, Bee auditioned, got the job, and moved to New York. The first year working for Daily, she says, “was completely terrifying and not great. I was in a new city, my husband wasn’t with me, I didn’t know a soul.” The transition from the friendly Fireballs to the more ruthless world of The Daily Show was also hard.

“It wasn’t weird because they were men,” she says. “It was weird because the pace of it was so fast. We [the Fireballs] laugh now about how much we honored each other’s shit sketches. We’d just sit around and come up with stuff and always perform it, even if we didn’t like it. And nobody in the room ever wanted to say, ‘This isn’t funny. Can we drop this?’ We loved each other.”

Bee recalls sitting in one of her early meetings at The Daily Show. “It was just like killing your babies every five seconds. You’re just throwing out jokes and they’re dying. You put your little idea out there, and people are like, ‘No, that’s not good.’ And then they just move on so fast. And it took a minute to kind of go, ‘Oh, not every idea is precious?’ Which is a great lesson.”

When it was clear that things were working out at Daily, Jones joined Bee in New York, waiting on his working papers and walking the dog. Then he auditioned for The Daily Show and got a job alongside his wife. The two engage in ceaseless professional conversation; Jones is working on Full Frontal even as he’s in edits on The Detour, which Bee also worked on. On the morning I visit, Jones isn’t present but is texting Bee: “You should really retweet my last tweet; it’s a good one.”

Their division of domestic responsibility sounds equally reciprocal. “We don’t think about it too much,” she says. “It’s natural.” This week, while Bee is prepping her show, Jones has been spending time at the kids’ Upper West Side school, talking about their family’s holiday rituals and attending the Christmas concert. “All the parents know: Don’t email me. I’m not getting back to you,” says Bee. “I’m not mentally organized for that stuff; I don’t have the gene that lets you remember birthdays and stuff. He’s very, very good at all of that.”

But she finds the immediate demands of family life offer a reprieve from her work stress. “It’s really helpful,” she says, “to have three kids at home. Because when we go home, we just go straight into chore mode. I’m like a workhorse.”

Bee loves to cook — and bake, even though her kids mysteriously lack a sweet tooth. “It’s astonishing to me. Like, if they never saw a cupcake in their life, if they never saw a cookie … They just don’t care about sweet things.” Extra-maddening, she says, is “I’m great at baking cakes. They are objectively delicious. And then it’s just me and a cake.”

She’s also an egg obsessive. “I’m so fucking picky about eggs,” she says with immense animation. “At the farmers’ market near where I live, if you don’t get there when they’re unpacking their vegetables, you won’t get the eggs that I like. So I get up on Sunday morning, shivering. And it’s this farmer family, and they’re really super-nice, and every time they see me coming they’re like, ‘Who’s this crazy woman who’s obsessed with our eggs?’”

But with two ascendant careers, two new television shows in pre and post-production, three kids 10 and under, life is not all fresh eggs and baked goods. “I am a waker-upper-in-the-middle-of-the-nighter,” says Bee. “That’s when I feel the abject terror. And when I wake up I really wake up. I read the whole newspaper.”

Late night’s writers’ rooms — strike that, television’s writers’ rooms — are notoriously white pits of testosterone. The Daily Show, which was created by women, Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, has earned quite a bit of ink for the fact that it’s written mostly by men. Bee wanted her show to be different not just by virtue of its host, but when it came to the people penning the words she would say.

Bee and Miller have worked hard to create a diverse production staff, carefully crafting a blind application process to make it more accessible to people who have not traditionally spent any time in writers’ rooms. The result is a writing staff that is 50 percent female and 30 percent nonwhite. It’s a mix of experience levels as well; there is one writer who was previously at Letterman and another whose last job was at the Maryland DMV. “If we don’t do anything else right, we hired incredible people across the board,” says Bee. “Our hiring process was great.”

Diversity is a problem the industry has faced for ages but has had a hard time addressing practically. “There’s a lot of people sitting around in rooms discussing how to make it happen as opposed to just, like, doing it,” Bee says. “Asking: ‘Do you have any 45-year-old-woman friends who you think are really talented who could submit an application to us?’ ‘Do you have any black friends who are great writers who haven’t had a shot?’”

And so the show is also at work on a mentorship program, designed to draw more unlikely suspects into writers’ rooms. “It’s a little bit embryonic,” says Bee, but they’ve hired the playwright Winter Miller to formulate a plan to find the “pockets of people who don’t formally have access to this world, who want to be in this world, who have no idea how to get there, and who demonstrate some skill in some capacity and a passion for it.” Bee imagines bringing mentees into the office, giving them weekly writing assignments and some instruction. “So much of this is about practicing, about steeping yourself in this world, about developing an ear, an ear for writing for someone else’s voice,” she says. “We are going to learn a lot the first time we do it. It may be janky, we don’t know. Or it might be amazing, and you’ll find a diamond in the rough, and then you’ll find a job for that person … and then you start actually seeing the ratios change. That’s the goal.”

If the ratio changed, maybe, in a while, there would be more female faces, beyond even Bee’s, in the inevitable Vanity Fair spread. Though Bee also reflects that the recent all-male photo was likely just a giant case of trolling from the same magazine that published Christopher Hitchens’s assertions on women’s not being funny. “It felt really on purpose to me,” Bee says. “I mean, it was such a big misstep that if feels like a lot of brainpower went into that misstep.”  

Bee pauses. “Did you note that their follow-up photo had Miss Piggy in it?” she says, her eyes flashing. “I mean, trolling times a million, like: Fixed it! Here’s this puppet who’s voiced by a man, who’s a pig with a man’s hand up her ass making her talk. That solves it!”

Bee is finishing her walk-through at the empty studio, which for decades housed the sets for As the World Turns and which Bee now shares with fellow Daily grad John Oliver, who’s been taping his Last Week Tonight there for two seasons. They’ll simply trade out sets between their shows. Being Oliver’s studio roommate is a coincidence, but when they settled on the space, Bee says, “It seemed like a good sign.”

“Sam’s got a huge heart,” says Allana Harkin, her Fireball friend. “I cannot believe how much she has on her plate right now, from okaying tweets to this …” Harkin gestures at Bee, who is standing on a box as lighting guys move around her.

A few minutes later, the two women are looking into the empty seats, where in a few weeks a studio audience will sit, trying to envision them full. “Or maybe nobody will come,” says Bee, speculating about how she could stock the audience with their friends and family.

“It’ll be just like a Fireballs show,” Bee says, sounding pleased at the idea.

 *A version of this article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.