A Sit-Down with Satirist Samantha Bee

Samantha Bee is a Canadian-American comedian, political commentator, actress and the queen of late night television. Bee was included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2017, she was given the History Making award by the Women’s Media Center in 2016 and she was the second guest in Drew University’s Forum Speaker Series on last Saturday, October 21.

The Forum was set up as a conversation between Bee and Rebecca Traister, a writer for the New York Magazine that profiled Bee a few years back. Before Traister herself got to ask Bee any questions, the Acorn’s News Editor, Colleen Dabrowski, spoke to Bee. The interview encompassed Bee’s show “Full Frontal”, how to keep oneself sane in this crazy 24-hour media cycle and advice for both young woman trailblazing in male-dominated areas and theater students.

Colleen Dabrowski: You’re a political satirist that uses what you call “evidence-based comedy”. How would you describe comedy’s role in the political realm?

Samantha Bee: I don’t know that it really has a role in the political realm. You can rail against the system and you can rail against things as much as you want, but people don’t necessarily listen. I think that comedy plays a role in the culture, in terms of providing opportunities for catharsis. That is an important role. I think that has really high value. But I wouldn’t say that I’m influencing anything in the political realm. If I was, I would be very, very happy.

CD: You said that the title of your show “Full Frontal” represents an attitude. What attitude does the show embody and should people take on a “full frontal” attitude?

SB: Well, when we started the show, because the process of developing a show, you’re so many months out from actually doing the thing which is the show. You have to come up with a name for the show before the show –– long before the show exists, you have to trademark all the names and get your logo ready, it’s really kind of backwards. But I did always know that I wanted the show to be bold and to feel really audacious. And I think that the name really reflects that. And so in some ways we landed on a name and then tried to stay true to the name. Does that make sense?

CD: Yeah, it does. In this day and age, the free press suffers near-daily attacks. One way that you combatted this was the Not The White House Correspondents Dinner. What are some other ways we, as American citizens and members of media outlets, can combat this trend of media silencing?

SB: They keep attempting to silence the media. You just have to be so diligent about the voices that would seek to silence the media.There seems to be this great desire to suppress certain voices. There’s really a concerted effort underway to limit and threaten people’s access and that has certainly happened in the past as well, but we do have a President that is at war with the media. Although he uses it to great effect. It’s just about vigilance. It’s just about calling them out. The world has also evolved; there are so many places to get your news, so many opportunities for people to gather and talk and dig up information, there’s no way that they would be successful in this endeavor. It’s just that they talk about it. Because it’s not like people go home and watch one of two news networks and get all their information from that. The flow of information is open and accessible. Now we have to be careful that the information we get is correct. That’s the job that we have to take on. How would they suppress our access? It’s impossible. The genie is out of the bottle.

CD: I have a question about accuracy in your information. Just producing one episode of your show involves a ton of research. How do you make sure that the information you’re putting forward is accurate?

SB: Well, we have a really big research team and they’re not only fact-checking, they’re journalists. We have many journalists in our research department and they’re amazing, they’ve achieved so much, they pitch so many stories for our show and they do follow their passions as journalists, too, so a lot of the stories we do on our show really come from our research department. They’ll latch on to a story and dig and dig and dig and then present that as a story that would be something we might want to cover. A lot of that stuff really comes from the journalists who work with us. Of course we’re constantly, vigilantly fact-checking at the same time. That’s just how we make the show. We’re gonna make jokes, we’re gonna be bold, we’re gonna use profane language, we’re gonna say all these things and make comedy. We want to make sure that at the very bare-minimum the bones of the story are correct and the things we are saying are factual. It’s essential.

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Collen Dabrowski interviews Samantha Bee in the Simon Forum. Photo credits: Julien Hryshko

CD: Absolutely. I know you’ve talked about it a lot, but you work in a male-dominated field and are currently the only female who has your sort of platform besides Chelsea Handler on Netflix.

SB: Sarah Silverman just started her show and Robin Thede also started a show called “The Run Down” which, I think premiered two weeks ago. The space is opening up a little bit, there’s a little bit of breathing room.

CD: That’s awesome! What has your experience been making your way in a male-dominated field and what advice do you have for young women trying to do the same?

SB: My advice is to find a kernel of something that you really love. That’s my main advice, is to kind of latch on to the thing you feel passionately about because that, your love for something, can take you on a very unexpected journey. I was always a news junkie and I did comedy. And I would not have known that those worlds would intersect and become a career, all I really knew was that I loved doing comedy and would always do it no matter what. So you can kind of start there and go. I think my career grew from that place so it grew out of something that I love. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that the trajectory is really clear. It’s certainly not easy. And you don’t always think “well I’m a performer here, I’ll definitely be a performer 25 years from now” that’s not necessarily the case, but maybe you’ll work peripherally within that industry or find another passion to go down, but it is great to start from a place where you actually like the thing you’re doing, as opposed to focusing on a very specific end goal. I feel like if I had pursued one end goal I’d be an attorney right now and not doing what I do, for sure.

CD: That’s good advice! Drew has a really great theater program and a sizeable population of our students are interested in theater and that sort of work, what advice could you offer them as they move forward?

SB: It’s bad advice, but I really never gave myself a plan B to speak of. I mean, that’s terrible advice that no one should take. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know exactly what you’re doing in your industry, but I just feel like everyone tells you that a career in theater is impossible. So many people frame a theatrical career or a career in the arts as something so unachievable, but it’s very achievable to work in the field of the arts and theater. There are so many jobs available! If it’s gonna be someone else, why won’t it be you? I think the career of your dreams is more achievable now than ever. I got really melancholy thinking every acting class I ever took someone came into the acting class and started it by going: “You will never do this. You will not be successful. Get over it!”

CD: “…Now let’s begin class!”

SB: I mean, yeah! The introduction to so many of my acting classes was just a guru would come in and tell us we were all garbage and that we would never make it. And that was like the ‘tough love’ part of the acting class where you were supposed to confront disappointment. It just happened so many times!

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Collen Dabrowski interviews Samantha Bee in the Simon Forum. Photo credits: Julien Hryshko

CD: “Full Frontal” has a hiring process that promotes diversity. If I’m not mistaken, you have the most diverse staff of any late night show. Why is diversity something you put such an emphasis on? What does diversity bring to your show?

SB: You can sort of imagine that we just sit around and pat ourselves on the back all the time, but it’s not like that. It benefits any workplace to have different perspectives on something. We didn’t pursue having a diverse workplace to be able to say “Hey, we have a diverse workplace!”. We pursued having a diverse workplace so that we could learn from a variety of different people of different backgrounds. And that makes our show better in a very ephemeral way that we don’t even have to think about. It’s just great for us, that one of our producers grew up in Mexico City so when I go to Mexico City next week she knows her way around. She speaks the language, she knows her way around. That lets us do stories that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do if we didn’t take those things seriously. It just makes the show better because it makes everything better!

CD: OK, really good answer! Political satire late night shows are really popular. Why do you think that is and what makes “Full Frontal” stand out from the rest?

SB: When I was in my twenties “The Daily Show” was my favorite show. I loved Jon Stewart. I worshipped him, for sure. So I appreciate why people like shows like my show and “The Daily Show”. Because you like to break the events of the day or the events of the week down with who you think are like-minded people. Sometimes it’s enough to just go “I’m not the only person who feels this way”. It makes you feel like you are part of a community of something. It can release tension in your life. It is cathartic. It’s nice to be able to laugh about things you think are dumb! CD: Yes, it is! Sort of along that same vein, every day you deal with things in the news, whether they’re depressing or infuriating–

SB: They’re always depressing! They’re all depressing now!

CD: Yeah! I’m the News Editor–

SB: Are you??

CD: Yeah! And that’s what we do, we go to the office and we scream for about an hour and then we do our work.

SB: Yeah, it’s brutal!

CD: So how do you compartmentalize? How do you still put on a good show even if you want to cry?

SB: We come together as a staff. It’s a really communal experience in our offices, actually. I feel like we have really assembled the best team for sure.

CD: And that makes a difference.

SB: That makes a big difference, for sure! It makes a difference to want to go to work with the people you work with. There’s a feeling of community there. There’s not just one human being making the show, it really is such a shared endeavor and I feel that every minute of every day. It’s one person delivering the work of 65 people. I think that makes it a lot better.

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Collen Dabrowski interviews Samantha Bee in the Simon Forum. Photo credits: Julien Hryshko

CD: Going back to “The Daily Show”, that’s where a lot of people saw you for the first time. How did that experience prepare you for hosting your own show and what’s your fondest memory?

SB: That’s so funny! It’s definitely different to work for someone else, but just observing the making of a TV show for 12 years–cause my part that I had to play grew and grew over time. I really felt that, over time, being in such an observer’s capacity was very eye-opening. And just kind of watching the machine, watching the sausage get made, over the long course of my time there was essential. Nothing really prepares you for taking the full weight of a whole show onto your shoulders. I watched Jon do it for a long, long time and so that was very helpful. And it was also helpful in a sense that I got to grow into a point of view over time. You know what I mean?

CD: Yes. You have a very extensive work history. You’ve done producing, writing, acting, TV…everything. What medium has been your favorite and what work has been the most rewarding?

SB: For sure doing this has been the most rewarding. There’s no question. This has been the steepest learning curve of anything I’ve ever done.It’s all the things that you think it is, but there’s also a whole other world that you would not imagine. Which is that it’s a business. There’s the producing of the show and making of the show, performing on the show, doing press for the show, and stuff like that. But there’s this other half of the job which is just from the business perspective, keeping the business afloat. And kind of handling what’s happening in the office and being thrust into the position of being a boss. It’s such an unexpected challenge. It’s not something that I gave any thought to before taking this on. That you actually have people in your office that have concerns and they want to change things or they have a problem or they have whatever and you need to do all this stuff while you’re also keeping everything else managed. You’re either doing it well or you’re doing it poorly. Sometimes both at the same time! And I have learned a tremendous amount from that. I think from that I’ve probably learned the They don’t teach you that part when you’re at theater school!

CD: They just tell you you suck.

SB: Yeah! They tell you you suck and then you do alright and then you go “Ha ha, ha ha–I’m  not coming to your reunion!”

CD: So take that!

SB: Yeah!

 

 

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