Samantha Bee Goes for a Walk

Samantha Bee Goes for a Walk

Initially, the plan was that I’d be talking to Samantha Bee over Zoom in early September. But on the morning of our scheduled interview, I learned there had been a miscommunication — the 53-year-old comedian and commentator wanted to speak over the phone. And she wasn’t going to be sitting still. “I thought for this one I (would) walk and talk,” she tells me as we start. “If I drop into a (dead) zone, I’ll be right back.”

Click right here to get the best of Cracked sent to your inbox.

For the next hour, Bee is in constant motion as she makes her way around New York. She finds walking therapeutic. “I think it just dislodges tension in my brain,” she says. “I do my best thinking while my legs are in motion, mindlessly trying to make my steps for the day.” Occasionally during her outing, she laughs at her multitasking: “Why don’t I just go for a walk (rather than) do an interview on a day that’s 98 degrees? Oh my lord, there’s cicadas in the trees that are just like, ‘Why is she doing this? We can eat her when she expires in front of us.’” At one point, she prepares to take on a hill. “I’m totally out of breath,” she confides. “I’m not crying — this is just me out of breath.”

Her impromptu adventure underlines two things that were already clear: 1) Bee is delightful; and 2) she’s constantly on the go. Since 2003, when most of the world met her on The Daily Show, she has been part of our lives, becoming that show’s longest-running correspondent before departing to host her own show, Full Frontal, in 2015, which was fairly notable for the fact that, hey look, it was a comedy program actually led by a woman. (It was also very funny and sharp, but her gender tended to attract the headlines.) During her Daily Show years, she wrote a memoir, I Know I Am, But What Are You?, in which she detailed her bad-boy boyfriends, Canadian upbringing, sexual awakening and dysfunctional parents. And long before she was famous, she married fellow comedian Jason Jones, with whom she co-created his TBS series The Detour. (Even more impressive, they’re currently raising three teenagers.) 

Full Frontal was canceled last year, which left Bee to decide what she wanted to do as her follow-up. She’s had two answers so far. In the spring, she launched Your Favorite Woman: The Joy of Sex Education, a stage show where she talks about, among other things, reproductive health and women’s rights, topics that have been important to her since The Daily Show. (The next leg of the tour starts September 21st.) And she’s hosting a podcast, Choice Words, in which she interviews filmmakers, politicians and comedians to (as the show’s description puts it) “examine the biggest choices they’ve made in their lives and the ripple effects those decisions have had.” Everyone from Eric André to Greta Gerwig to Amber Ruffin to former White House deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco has been on the podcast, opening up about their defining moments and the path it took for them to get there. 

Naturally, I wanted to ask Bee about crucial choices she herself has made, and as we talked (and she walked), the conversation focused more and more on family, the life she’s made with Jones over the last few decades, and how she’s changed since The Daily Show. One of the things I found striking was that, for this next series of Your Favorite Woman dates, she’s not going to mention Full Frontal — she’s moved on to whatever comes next, not that she necessarily knows what that is. But she’s certain she wants to be honest with her audience — about her being perimenopausal, about her sadness that so much of her TV work is now so hard to find and about the times that her kids’ wisecracks can hurt her feelings. During our interview, the call never dropped — she came through loud and clear.

We’re talking pretty early in the day. Are you a morning person?

I cannot stress how much of a morning person I am. I should have been born in the 1800s. My daily schedule is at peak operational capacity if I wake up at about 5:30 and go to bed at 8:30 — everything other than that is alarming to my system. Not being horizontal by 9 p.m. is a grave error.

The next leg of Your Favorite Woman is about to get started. Are you excited? Anxious? Where’s your head at?

It’s a bunch of different things. I really enjoy doing the show. I don’t find that part stressful at all — I really love the material and I’m really proud of it, so that part is very solid. The only thing that gets me even remotely stressed is, “When does this plane take off and will it land on time?” It’s more traveling schedules that get me stressed. I’m updating the show a little bit, making some tweaks and changes here and there, but that’s all for the greater good. I don’t feel super-stressed about it — I’m excited to do a very enjoyable act.

It’s not that the show is extremely topical, but I wondered if you had tinkered at all with the material since you went out in the spring so that it’s relevant to what’s going on in the world right now.

There’s a bit of an update. In the last incarnation of the show, I for a sliver of a second mentioned Full Frontal, the show that no longer is, and I’m taking that out of this show because I think I’ve just moved past it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore in the context of (this new) show. 

Are there (topical) references? There were definitely references in the spring incarnation of the show, but I want to refresh it a little bit. It’s not a topical show, per se, but it is topical because it’s information we’re all talking about all the time in our election season. It’s more just a permanent topic of conversation.

Taking out any mention of Full Frontal — was the thinking, “I don’t need to keep bringing that up”?

Once your show’s been off the air for a year, on some level there’s people in the audience who don’t even know you from that, so you’re explaining to them why they should know who you are and it’s pointless. I don’t need to talk about it in the context of the show — the show stands without it. If people are buying tickets to the show, they already have some information about me, so I think we’re good without it.

It’s the tough thing for performers — you’re proud of what you’ve done before, but you don’t want to seem like you’re clinging to past successes.

I am moving forward, but I don’t have any bad feelings about (Full Frontal). I’m really proud of all that work and people loved it and that’s great, but I can’t talk about it forever. I mean, I can — it’s totally fine to talk about it, and it’s different when you’re doing press and talking about (the) scope of your career. But in the hour-long show, it just felt like a piece of driftwood from the past, so let’s take it out, just chuck it out. 

What is interesting is the live show is a different experience for me, because I’ve never done the same thing twice — in my whole, entire TV career, it’s just never happened. I’ve always moved through material really fast on a literal daily show and then on my own show: “Make this show. Make a whole bunch of content and then never revisit it ever. Never talk about it again.” It’s gone. It’s in the past. It’s available for people to view, but you’re just moving so fast through the news stream, so it speaks to a unique experience to do something more than twice.

How weird was it to think, “Okay, I’m doing this exact show today, and tomorrow, and the day after that”?

In my past, I did theater shows, like plays, but there’s familiarity there. I love the material so much, so it’s very joyful for me to present it in front of totally different audiences. But it’s terrifying, too: I look at the audience before (I) go out like, “Who’s here tonight? What are they thinking? How do we bring them into this material?” 

You’re always going on a journey together — it’s corny to even say those words, but you’re like, “We’re going to take a ride together for a little while. You and I, let’s share an experience.” (Laughs) I really like it but, also, it’s a short show — it’s an hour and 10 minutes, so it’s not like you have to go on a journey forever. We’re partners within a brief moment.

How soon into doing Your Favorite Woman was it clear that this thing was something you were undertaking with the audience?

It’s not new to me because — again, not to be corny about it — but I did try to create that atmosphere in the live-studio experience (for Full Frontal). When we had a live audience and we had roughly 200 people, it was always like that, even though it was being filmed. That’s what I like — I like people to be invested in it, I like them to know that they’re an important part, especially in this type of setting. 

I really like your podcast, and it’s partly because calling it Choice Words feels like such a great callback to one of your best Daily Show segments, where you tried to get people at the 2008 Republican National Convention to say the word “choice.” Did you think, “Wow, that word ‘choice,’ I can’t seem to escape it”?

But you know what? I don’t want to escape it. It feels very full-circle to have called the show Choice Words. Talking about reproductive choice — talking about choice — has been just one of the preeminent efforts of my career. It’s just always been there — I’ve been talking and thinking about it my whole life, and then had the professional opportunity to push that forward. I certainly don’t shy away from it, and it’s just in my DNA now. I don’t want to shake it.

Is it gratifying to reach a point in your career where you think, “Oh, this is why I’m here on this planet — this is what I’m supposed to be doing comedy for”?

I’m certainly not the only person in a performance capacity to talk about (these issues) — I’m not alone out here. But at a certain point I really had to sit back and go, “Okay, the landscape is changing, my (Full Frontal) job is ending. What are the things that I want to take forward with me?” I don’t feel like I need to just say things now to be heard — I don’t really feel any particular pull to just speak about any old thing. I don’t have a schedule — I make my own schedule. I want to speak only about things that I feel the need to speak on. I really had to ask myself, “What is left to say?” I’ve said so much and done so much, so what is left? What is in my heart? What is the message that I want to say that I would say if no one was buying a ticket? If no one was paying to come and see me, what would I be saying? What would I be talking about? 

And the answer is, I really would be talking about our bodies, sex education, women’s health — these are the issues that mean the most to me. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to say that they mean the most — lots of issues mean something to me — but this is the area where I just feel called to speak about it. 

Is there anything left to say after the show? I really don’t know, but for now this is what I want to focus on. It feels just important and critical. I’m turning 54 in the fall, and I entered perimenopause and that’s a whole other stage of life. It’s mysterious and fucked-up, and so I want to talk about it. I just want us to live our lives without shame and speak the truth about ourselves in a way that feels even risky on stage to do, and I really don’t care. All that is left is to speak from the heart, and that is what I’m doing in a comedy way.

When you’re working on something that you want to talk to an audience about, does it come from being angry and then trying to figure out how to make it funny?

They often come at the same time, but they don’t always. They often come in the form of just a long blurt on a page — most of these things come out of a state of feeling humiliated in some way, such as giving birth to your first child and wearing a puppy pad to contain all of the fluids after. It’s like a folded-up dog pad — it’s not fair, and we all share this experience because that’s the reality, and it’s so dumb that you have to laugh at it. The fact that that’s still done in hospitals 20 years after I had my first child is so absurd — how can you not call it out? How can you not call out feeling like your body was ripped in half — now you’re being taught to fold a puppy pad from to stick into these disposable underwear in a hospital? Not only do you have to be ripped apart physically, but now you have to stand before your peers, your spouse, yourself (in front of) a mirror, and see yourself shattered. (Laughs) There’s no more dignified way? You’re like, “I’m a goddess. I made life. I ejected it from my body. But somehow you still have to make me feel super-shitty after? You also didn’t tell me that my feet were going to swell up to the size of Shrek. Can somebody tell us anything?” 

Society very much tells women after they give birth, “Smile! This is the happiest day of your life! Don’t ever forget!”

It’s so obliterating — it’s the best day of your life and the most obliterating day of your life. And, for some people, it’s the absolute rock-bottom day of their life. It’s huge, and it’s worth talking about in a comedy way — I think it’s funny and ridiculous. I mean, the number of women that I talked to who are my age who are just entering this (perimenopause) zone where we were just never told, literally, anything about it at all — we’re all just looking around going, “I think I’m the only one who’s experiencing this.” Meanwhile, the killer whales are taking down boats off the coast of Argentina — I feel like it’s just us and killer whales that experience menopause. 

I know women in the same situation — they learn more from each other than from their doctors.

Often, if you have a younger doctor — like a doctor who’s 10 years your junior — (they) receive almost no instruction on the subject of menopause in medical school. We did research, and it’s one hour out of the entirety of medical school. (That’s) the last fucking third of your life, hopefully, but everyone’s like, “I don't know, I think my mom just lived in a cave for eight years, and then when she came out, she had gray hair?” I’m like, “Shit, you got two paths: You can (be) Suzanne Somers or you can just become a crone.” There has to be a middle ground — there has to be.

This reminds me of the Inside Amy Schumer bit about women’s last fuckable day. Just that sense of feeling invisible at a certain age.

Just try to get someone to wait on you in a store. Oh my god, you’re translucent — no one even sees you. It’s an incredible experience.

At least you’re famous. Doesn’t that help at all?

It really depends. Forget about it in Urban Outfitters. Maybe I’ll get some attention at a Saks.

In interviews, you’ve discussed how you emotionally dealt with the end of Full Frontal. But what about the day-to-day reality after the show? Guys grow depression beards after a major life change. Did you do anything radical?

I kept it together. In fact, I probably groomed more than usual because I ingested the patriarchy for so long: “I better get my nails done!”

I think, physically, I just tried to stay active — where my brain really unspools is if I’m not exercising or moving. I recall being on about 30,000 Zoom calls after the show ended, and then I don’t think that much in my schedule changed. I definitely gave myself over to my children’s schedules — not that I didn’t before, because I definitely was in service to them before, but in a really extra way. I was just attending to their schedule and driving them places, so I probably put 30,000 miles on my car getting them to their various social appointments, and that remains true today.

Sometimes, people step away from the limelight to spend more time with their family, and the family ends up not being so happy about that. How did your kids handle it?

I have always just so been in their lives. But they’re definitely like, “I think we can take the subway by ourselves now — we’re 18.” I’ve had to let go there.

The podcast discusses moments when different notable figures had to make an important choice. You have three teeangers — their choices aren’t theoretical, they’re your kids. How do you navigate the choices they have to make in their lives?

I used to think that when they were babies that I was at my absolute chugging maximum: “I’ll never work harder than this. I have my job, I’m grocery shopping, I’m making all the dinners — I’m taking care of these three kids and getting them to school. I’ll never work harder.” But, actually, when they become teenagers, you work just as hard — it’s just a different type of work. It’s emotional work — it’s helping them navigate the emotions of growing up and detaching and figuring out who they want to be in life, and the stakes of their problems are higher. My daughter’s going to college next year, so we’re navigating that process together. 

Can I just say: They’re so smart. They’re so with it, and I feel like this upcoming generation, at least from my own perspective, they just have much more knowledge about everything. We live in a city — we’ve grown up around all kinds of different people — and they just know so much more than I knew when I was growing up. I feel very confident in their abilities. They’re talking about reproductive choice — (in) elementary school, it was something they all talked about — so they’re way ahead of some things. They’re going to be fine. 

Have they read your memoir, I Know I Am, But What Are You? You’re very honest about your sexual adventures when you were young. 

They have not read my book, but not because I kept it from them — they’re just biologically not interested in your life before they were born, which I think is normal and probably good. 

The book is there — they could read it. They’ll be disgusted by it. They probably should read it. They’ll be horrified by the content, so I’m curious. I’m sure I’ll know when they’ve read it because they will give me a look that will let me know they read the book. (Laughs) They’re also so up in their own business, they really don’t acknowledge anything before our family existed. They’re like, “Wait, you and daddy dated?” I’m like, “Do you think we’re brother and sister who grew up together?” And they’re like, “Well, I guess I never thought about it before.” I’m like, “Yeah, well, think about it. Yes, we dated. Yes, we had other boyfriends and girlfriends before we met each other. Probably too many of them.”

You write in the book about how you didn’t have the best upbringing. Is it a point of pride that you and Jason Jones have been married so long and that you’re raising three good kids in a stable home?

That’s a really good question, which I don’t often think about, but I do feel like my one unimpeachable area is I never feel self-conscious about my parenting. I don’t check in with others about it. Same with Jason — we just are organically aligned, which we’re very lucky about, (in that) we don’t really care for other people’s thoughts or advice on our parenting.  

If you’re online, there are lots of people over the years who’ve been like, “Wow, you’re a terrible mother.” I don’t ingest that at all because, even though I most certainly make parenting errors, I really am always doing the very best as possible for me to do for them. That’s not flawless and I talk about that with them — I say, “I am doing the best job I can do for you, and this is what it is,” and they’re like, “Got it.” We’re very honest about whatever limitations we’re experiencing. We’re emotional people — we’re very frank with them. “It’s the best we can do” — what else is there? 

Is that how you approach your comedy as well? “I’m just gonna do my best each night”?

I love that you made that connection — you just made that connection for me because I think that’s what I try to do in all things. When I know that I haven’t done my best, it bothers me if I feel like I’ve left something on the table. I don’t easily forget it if I didn’t give something my best effort, and that really goes back to the first jobs I ever did. It’s just… Catholic schools are bullshit, but I’m still trying to get those gold stars. I’m haunted by the moments where I didn’t do something with my whole heart. That’s maybe the metric or part of the checklist for the next however many years that I work or live — I only want to do things that I can do with my full heart because everything else is just unsatisfying.

So, when do you feel like you didn’t give it your all?

There’ve been times where there was too many things happening at once, and so you can’t give everything you have to any one thing. You can’t give enough of yourself to people in your life because there’s so many things that are needed from you to make this other operation move forward, and those moments are haunting. 

I put every job up against a checklist of things. Is it a financial opportunity? — which I consider an opportunity for my family to put things in place for my children. Is there a growth opportunity? Is this a challenge that’s very interesting that I will love to do? It can just be something very simple, but if it represents a challenge or something that I've been afraid to tackle. And then another criteria is: Does it advance my family’s goals in some way? 

The checklist is pretty short, but each different pocket is really meaningful, and I feel like if an opportunity doesn’t meet at least two out of those three checkmarks, I won’t do it, because we’re here for a finite amount of time. Got to make the most of it. 

Full Frontal going away was sad, but what I’m really struck by is, nothing’s coming to replace it. Forget diversity in the late-night talk-show world: Those shows in general are just vanishing from the lineup. You were there at the end of that era.

They’re just going away, and I do find that disturbing — that does not bode well for the future of entertainment. I feel like things are going to go away because of the double strike — things that we didn’t even know were coming down the pipeline. 

I’ve been reading a lot of stories about the (content) libraries that are just being taken out of commission — because these huge conglomerate companies don’t want to pay residuals for great content, they’re just eradicating them. I find this chilling — it doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s a big body of work for my husband and for me — (The Daily Show) is a fucking great show and no one can watch it. There is no place. That’s nuts to me. It’s like it never existed. There’s the compression of the industry and this consolidation — all the companies are being run by accountants, basically. They have their own agenda to please shareholders, and the overall effect of that is that we have less and less content — less and less of everything to choose from. We’re being sold this idea that we have more to choose from, when we have dramatically less.

I can’t even imagine what a loss that is for you. It’s so hard to find official Daily Show clips — a lot of that stuff you made is, essentially, gone.

It’s okay, but it is a bummer. Look, I would really love to tell my children about how famous I was at one time, but they’re not going to believe me soon. (Laughs) They’re just going to think I was this lady who showed up in their house and was married to her brother. 

Many comedians come up through stand-up. That was not your path.

I love stand-up — I love watching all different people do it. But for me, we spoke about what a (morning person) I am, and (stand-up) is just an unsustainable lifestyle for (someone like me). If there was only that avenue for me to go down, I would never have become a performer, because the lifestyle would be so antithetical to me. That’s just been the way it has always been, so I admire and really appreciate stand-ups. But it’s not a path I would’ve taken under any circumstances.

Is there something lonely about not working your way up through the clubs? You don’t have that group of comics that you share a bond with because you were all in the trenches together at the same time.

I did sketch comedy for a long time in Toronto, and so we have all of those bonds and those friendships, but they were in a different country. They translated a little bit — some of them came down here, so we continued those relationships — but we didn’t come out of the Groundlings. My husband and I both are from Canada, so we don’t have those deep networks. We have, on some level, been a bit of an island. Our careers were shaped very differently — we traveled a lot to the middle of the country. We weren’t big “event” people — we didn’t go to things. The work was immersive. It was great, great work that took us to all four corners of the United States all the time, but we did not really build those deep networks of people who we came up with, and we do think about that. It is sad, but we don’t dwell on it.

Speaking of corny, I would say it’s sorta sweet that you and Jason had each other.

It’s a partnership. It’s sometimes a writing partnership, sometimes it’s just a relationship partnership, but a true partnership and a joint venture, which was true even in Canada before we moved down here. We always approached it like a family business, like the Von Trapp family. (Laughs) We were just the Von Trapp family of two, and then we expanded, and then we put our children to work in a choir.

Do you two have a similar sense of humor? Are there things you disagree about in terms of what’s funny?

We don’t share everything down the line — he likes stuff that I don’t find funny, and I like stuff that’s not his thing. But in general, we find the same things funny — primarily, we just love to laugh at ourselves and each other. 

Because my children are also very funny now, there are days where I’m like, “Nobody can make fun of me today, so I’m just letting you all know, please don’t. If I drop something or I look stupid or I do something dumb, I can’t take it today, so nobody’s making fun of me today.” And everyone goes, “Okay, for today, you get a pass.”

You talked about your family being honest with one another. That seems like a good example — you let each other know when the teasing gets to be too much.

I definitely had to sit everybody down and go, “We have to have some clear lines. We have to have some clear boundaries. If you have transgressed a boundary with somebody, that person is allowed to say, ‘You have come up to the edge of what I can take today, and you have to stop,’ and then you have to respect that boundary.” 

All of these pacts are broken all the time, but then we struggle our way back to it, because these children are savages. No one can take you down like the Bee-Jones child, I can tell you that. They could destroy us so easily, and they just haven’t quite realized it yet.

You long idolized Betty White. Did you ever meet her?

No, we never did — or if we did, I don’t remember it because I’m (almost) 54 and I don’t remember a lot of cool things. I did meet Carol Burnett — it was just monumental to me. I cried in front of her and she was like, “What?” (Laughs) And that was fine — I think a lot of people do. I really was not coherent. She did not need to pick up the pieces of my broken soul. I should have been able to say one smart thing, but it was impossible.

What made you so good at nailing people in those Daily Show remotes?

It’s learning how to draw people out to state what they think is true. It just so happened that usually what they thought was true was pretty odious to me, but they truly believed those things. What used to and continues to really get me, and this is the real sticking point for me, is like, “Okay, when people see the world a different way than I do, that’s totally fine, but if you want to warp the whole world and change the world so that I have to live under your conditions that you find acceptable, that’s when I balk. That is when I take severe offense.” My life’s work is in that venue. 

I also wondered if there was a part of you that viewed it like an interrogation, where you made them feel comfortable enough that they trapped themselves with their own words.

Well, if it’s their own words, then it’s not a trap — it’s the way they think and feel. I do think as The Daily Show evolved over time — and we started to punch up more as opposed to punching sideways or down — (that) was when I really preferred the work. We were really punching up to power to people who are not necessarily very powerful, but to people who were fighting to change the laws and fighting to make life harder for people like us — or people who didn’t believe that the world should be the way that they wanted to see it.

It was very satisfying work, but I would never say I trapped them. I didn’t trap them, and I didn’t take their words out of context really. I was just like, “Here’s your position — we’re going to come and interview you.” And I always would say, “I’m from a comedy show — I want you to say what you truly believe. If you truly believe something, you should stand behind that thing that you believe, and I’m going to ask you questions about it, and you can take it.” And they would all go, “You’re right, I am cool — my ideas are great!”

You’re right, “trapped” isn't the right word. It was more that you got them to say the quiet part out loud.

Yeah, and often they hated it. They hated it so much because when you play their opinions back to them, they’re like, “Oh, wait, this doesn’t look as good as it sounded in my head. Why is everybody in my life mad at me now? I thought everyone agreed that we should be able to pay people $2-an-hour minimum wage. No one else feels that way?!?!”

In your book, you mentioned that The Daily Show gave you a “license to fuck with people a little bit.” Do you still like to do that? Or has that gone away?

That did go away. I don’t fuck with people too much now. I don’t want to do that — that’s just with maturity. My husband still likes to fuck with people. I do not — I definitely am the un-fucker. (Laughs) I’m the one who ruins all of his best-laid joke plans. I can’t … the tension…

My children were trying to convince their grandmother, Jason’s mother, that the food at Chick-fil-A was bat meat — she did not believe them, but they really built a case for how Chick-fil-A was 99 percent bat meat. She started to believe it, and then she started to question her own worldview and everything she knows about everything — I could see her making the shift and turning to me in desperation or guidance, and it went too far, so I had to stop everybody. I was like, “This is painful. I can’t allow this misinformation in this car — I need to release your grandmother from this bullshit.” 

So, in some ways, they’re all too good at it, and I am too uncomfortable now. I want her to be happy — I just want her to eat her Chick-fil-A sandwich. However you feel about them politically, if she wants a Chick-fil-A sandwich, she’s earned the right to go get one, and I just want her to feel okay with it.

It’s funny: I was just thinking, “Samantha Bee would not be cool with her mother-in-law eating Chick-fil-A.” But you didn’t want to see her be tormented.

I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. I can’t be that person.

Scroll down for the next article


Forgot Password?