Shes about to take her place on the front line of late-night TV and shes ready to rock America to its core. The audacious host of Full Frontal talks Joan Rivers, hate mail and why she refuses to be called mean
The latest promo film for Full Frontal, Samantha Bees new comedy show set to rock late-night TV in America this week starts with a phone on a desk. Bee tells her team triumphantly that theyve had their first fan call, and she wants them all to hear it. She hits the play button and out spews raw hatred calling Bee a disgrace. The crew skips a beat, before erupting into cheers. Someone runs up to a whiteboard and writes a firm ONE in the Hate Calls column.
The Canadian comic has already received a lot of bile from people who dont find her funny. It doesnt bother her one jot. I never read anything anyone writes about me, she says. That frees me a little bit.
As the press has not failed to notice, she will be the only woman with her own late-night network show, hot on the heels of a 12-year stint on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Memorable for her bravura turn as the entire cast of FOX news, The Five, she was also an irreverent interviewer, exposing the ridiculousness of gas companies that call themselves environmentalists or keeping her cool as she listened to ranting pro-lifers refuse to use the word choice, for fear of implying they were pro-choice.
I take a deep breath and ask the question that all reporters simply have to ask her. Do you think that your show would be getting all this attention if you werent Canadian?
She laughs. No one craves more attention than Canadians. And no one gets more attention than Canadians. Im counting on them [the network TBS] being so afraid to cancel the show because of all the Canadians. It would be a diplomatic nightmare. Theyll have to keep the show on forever.
She knows about that other minor pressure, too: her being a woman, which, according to the same people who predicted Donald Trump would take Iowa, is not conducive to good comedy. Even TBS has touted the fact that shes the only woman: in another advert, Bee states that she is done with sausages. Theres no namedropping of her competition, but there are nods to the mild sausage (Jimmy Fallon), the English banger (John Oliver) and the I have no idea what that one is (James Corden).
With Full Frontal, Bee is poised to take Stewarts lead in hitting current affairs head on, but from a firmly feminist perspective. Bee admits she is flummoxed by the question everyone always asks her Why her? Why now? because so many have gone before her. She mentions Joan Rivers and reminds me that her memory goes back far enough to remember a time before Netflix. But why is she the only one today? I dont have a great, pithy answer, she says. Maybe Im the only one stupid enough to do it. I ask her what will be different from the other guys making late-night comedy?
The shows going to be pretty frank and audacious. But Im very comfortable in that place. Perhaps it is this boldness that has led her to put her neck out, which, in an age where young female actors react as if theyve been shot when asked if they are a feminist, is refreshing.
Its part of the air that I breathe, she says. I know that I am a feminist. I know that Im raising my daughters to become feminists. Its hard for me to imagine that people have a problem with that word.
A third advert has shown snippets of Full Frontals investigation into the shortcomings of the US department of veterans affairs. Bee has explored how the thousands of female soldiers returning from active duty are being cared for or not when the VA doesnt even have diagnostic codes for conditions like cervical cancer. The VA is painfully ill-prepared for these women, she says. And the female soldiers are so excited were telling their stories because it gets almost no attention. After the promos such hatred came at me; its as if I was doing a piece that mocked soldiers.
One of the criticisms often levelled at her is that she is mean when she allows people to freely express that women who have abortions are going straight to hell or that gay men should realise they could get all the satisfaction they need from loving Jesus.
I would never say its mean to let someone express their opinion, whether or not I find those opinions heinous, she explains. That doesnt make me the mean one … You dont like the things that are coming out of your mouth, change them.
To create and appreciate satire in a messed-up world, you need a certain level of knowledge. I tell Bee that I have students who hate politics and havent read a book in over a year, which she finds remarkable. Its hard for me to imagine that someone would intentionally cut themselves off, she says. Youre kind of a boring person if you dont know whats going on in the world. What are you going to talk about? Who are you going to talk to other people who are also boring?
Bee got her start in Toronto, and stayed on the comedy scene there for 10 years before getting a break in 2003, when, according to Stewart, he got lost in the time before Sat-Nav and ended up in Canada. He was so taken by her comedy that he loaded her into the boot of his car and carried her across the border, surrounded by Mounties.
Despite her success in the US, Bee insists you can be funny anywhere, and that New York City does not have to be the centre of the circuit. The gift of comedy is that its DIY, she says. We did our comedy in the back of bars, and all we had to do was fill the bar with people who drink. But you do have to love it, because its punishing. Its gruelling to perform, sometimes for a big audience, then for no audience. You have to love comedy the thing itself.
Full Frontal ran blind writing auditions; a revolutionary act in a world where its often who you know that gets you a shot at stardom. As a result, Full Frontal has a writing staff that is 50/50 women and men, and ethnically speaking, decidedly diverse.
Bee says it has shaken up the powers-that-be and its all because she and the shows executive producer Jo Miller consider themselves to be outliers. Theres a huge talent pool out there who arent just thinking of themselves as comedy writers, she says. We dont know how long were going to be here; the least we can do is give people a leg-up.
She reminds me that her job is to tell the stories that dont get told in the world. I cant hold everybodys hand when they watch this show. If they dont get it, they dont get it. They should just go and watch a gardening show.