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Samantha Bee: Full Frontal, The Daily Show, and being a woman in the male-dominated landscape of late-night

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Peter Yang

Fans of The Daily Show should consider making a Bee line for TBS as well: The sharp-witted, former, and longest-serving correspondent Samantha Bee, 46, will host her own weekly, current-events-skewering talk show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (Feb. 8, 10:30 p.m.). The 46-year-old Toronto native plans to stand out from the pack — and not just by being the only woman in the late-night talk show landscape.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re obviously different than the other late-night hosts. Do you feel a lot of pressure as the only … Canadian?

SAMANTHA BEE: There’s so much pressure as a Canadian to forge new ground. The Canadians are going to be watching with bated breath. Canadians will silently pressure you. It’s probably true that my Canadianness does put pressure on me: I’m a hard worker with a really Canadian work ethic. Like, I could just as easily work on a potato farm and I would put the same effort into my job.

Between The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight — which is hosted by another Daily Show alum, John Oliver — where does Full Frontal fit in? How will your show be different in voice or subject matter? 

I do feel like just naturally I’m drawn to different kinds of stories. As I reflect on the test show that we performed last [week], the one thing I felt so exceptionally happy about is that it did feel like it actually was different than the other shows. It’s still topical, it’s still taking place on the stage, there are certain similarities but my voice is completely different. I’m just diving deeper into my opinions about things and my passions, and I’m letting myself explore riskier territory than I have in the past.

Can you give us a taste? You’re doing a piece on the VA not being prepared to handle the influx of female soldiers, and you went to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees, right?

We went to the cultural orientation for Syrian refugees that were about to be resettled in the United States, which represents such a slim, slim minority of Syrian refugees. At the end of all of their safety checks which take years, they have to do this four-day class on how to live in America. We attended that class and we tried to help them out a little bit, but then we realized that it’s really Americans who need cultural orientation about Syrians. … There’s also a story brewing among female veterans. Women have been in combat unofficially, but with the doors flung open, [the VA is] just not equipped to handle large numbers of women coming through. Most of their VA hospitals and health clinics don’t have gynecologists. In many of their health care facilities, they don’t have women’s body parts in the computer system. It’s not really a condemnation of the VA, it’s more of a, “Are you prepared to handle this? Do you think that you should maybe update your processes?”… We are also doing a piece about persecuting pregnant women.

What is the mantra of the show? Are you declaring war against injustice?

Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I might unofficially say that. We’re just trying to shine our comedy light on stories that need to be told. But the only weapon we have in our arsenal is our comedy laser, so we’re trying to apply it judiciously.

Do you have a dream-get, holy-grail story?

I do. I can’t tell you what it is because we’re trying to get it. But I can assure you: It would be the most important interview of all time. You know what? If we get this interview, nobody else should ever interview anyone else for the remainder of human history. It would be that good.

What’s the toughest thing about being a woman entering a male-dominated arena? What about that challenge is appealing?

I don’t come from an experience of being really challenged due to my gender. When I lived in Toronto and I did sketch comedy, I did it in all-female sketch troupe. We created shows out of dust, it was such a DIY comedy experience. And then I got hired at The Daily Show, and I did not have a gendered experience. The job was difficult but not because of my gender. I always felt completely listened to. And then TBS swooped in and met me with an offer to create my own show so I haven’t really had that experience where I’ve been on the street, duking it out with men. I think I’ve actually had a very rare experience.

Why is a woman hosting a late-night show such a rare and radical concept? 

I mean, Chelsea [Handler] did it. I’m not the only one who ever did it. But it is more rare, and I don’t really have the answer to that question. I do think there are women who have been offered late-night talk shows and haven’t wanted to do them. There is a quality-of-life issue to doing a [nightly] show and a pleasant life is very difficult to achieve. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it. My life would be destroyed, so doing a show once a week is perfect for me.

You Photoshopped yourself as a studly centaur shooting laser out of your eyes into Vanity Fair‘s all-male late-night hosts photo. Did you ever expect it to go viral?

No. God, no. I think the moment you expect something to go viral, it immediately dies a horrible death. [Laughs] There’s no way to predict anything like that. There’s no way to even really hope for it. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised and I felt really vindicated. It made me feel really supported and happy to see how much it resonated with people.

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Jason Jones, your husband, has been outspoken about his shock that you weren’t asked to succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. How surprised were you, and knowing what you’re doing now at TBS, do you feel a little bit differently about it with some distance?

I was not surprised, and I also didn’t really … care? [Laughs] I have the same feeling about it now that I did then. This is a plum opportunity for me. This is much more suited to me, creating something from the ground up, so it’s challenging in a totally different way. They both would have been extremely challenging positions to be in, but this is challenging in a way that excites me, more than taking over someone’s legacy, which presents a lot of challenges and is a great opportunity and all of that — this is just better suited to me.

Why weren’t you surprised? 

I don’t know. When Jon announced that he was leaving, we were already at TBS, we had been developing a show [The Detour, created by Bee and husband Jason Jones, debuting later this year] for quite a while there. We had shot the pilot and we were so proud of it, and we had enjoyed that experience so much in the scripted realm. It was a great collaboration with TBS, so when Jon announced that he was leaving, I wasn’t really in that headspace, to be perfectly honest with you. I was working on something else that I was extremely proud of and excited about … and that all converged at the same time. Jon announced, then they picked up The Detour, and then they offered me my own show, so it all happened kind of blindingly fast in just the perfect way that you could never plan or expect. 

Speaking of TBS, what did they say to you when they offered you a show? How blanche was this carte?

I know that you probably hear a lot of spin in the job that you do, but it was one of the, if not the most satisfying collaborative experiences of my life. They just were such fans of my entire work and we had such a good relationship during the filming of The Detour, it felt so natural. They have been incredibly supportive of following my lead and helping build the type of show that I want to do. They’re really letting us find our own voice, they expect us to find our own voice. … I don’t even know why they’re leaving us to our own devices. [Laughs] It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe they’re planning something behind the scenes, I’m not sure. It’s a little bit too good to be true.

Jason stars in The Detour about a family vacation road trip. What’s the most common note that you give him?

Sometimes he’ll take a joke to its absolute limit. He will go through the wall with his humor, and every once in awhile I have to remind him that we want to people to watch the show [Laughs] and he should find a medium place to take the joke even though it’s really funny. … First of all, we give each other notes, and we both hate the fact that we give each other notes. They’re painful experiences but we do it from time and time. 

Did he give you advice for Full Frontal?

It’s so funny because I give him the note to sometimes dial it back and he’ll give me the note to push it further and we’re both right. He’s excellent at ramping it up and I’m great at dialing it to where I think it needs to be, so somewhere in there is a good balance. That’s our yin and yang. 

What do you watch in late-night?

I don’t really watch late-night television. Am I supposed to? I mean, I do check if something sort of emerges. … At 9 o’clock I fall asleep immediately. I watch things the next day — that’s so bad. I’m not supposed to say that!

What about an infomercial?

There’s a pressure cooker infomercial that my children love so much. It’s a pressure cooker that converts everything to slime, and then in the television commercial they just pour these pressure cookers full of slop onto a serving platter, and it’s just like the contents of a cow’s stomach. It’s insane. It’s so unappetizing. So we do watch that. You know what I just started watching? Black Mirror. Oh my God. That’s how I relax: Documentaries about Nazis and a look at our inevitable doom at the hands of our technology.

How is on-air Samantha Bee different than the off-air one? Is the on-air one a fantasy version in which you can say and ask whatever you want?

I think about that from time to time. The person on camera is a version of me, but it’s a much yellier version. It’s just a louder version of me. We did this test show, it was loud and pretty raucous, and then I got home and I put on a housedress and I made banana muffins for my kids. That’s the dichotomy. I walk off the stage, eyelashes come off, hair goes in a ponytail, and I’m just a slave to my children basically. 

So to know the real you, I should just turn down the volume on the television by 50 percent?

Probably 90 percent.

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