It was the Yaasss heard ’round the world. Well, at least ’round Twitter.
Vanity Fair had just published a feature proclaiming that late-night TV is better than ever, illustrating this with a portrait of 10 male hosts—“all of the titans” of late-night television, the magazine tweeted—including Trevor Noah, whose Daily Show hadn’t premiered yet.
Conspicuously missing from the photo shoot and article: a woman.
Specifically, it was missing Samantha Bee, the longest-running Daily Show correspondent of all time and host of TBS’s upcoming late-night show Full Frontal—a gig that will make her the sole woman among these “titans,” until she is joined by Chelsea Handler, whose Netflix show will premiere in 2016, too.
Twitter, the blogosphere—heck—culture-at-large rioted at Bee’s omission. So she fixed it.
“BETTER,” she tweeted, along with a Photoshopped image of her joining the boys’ club… as a centaur with lasers shooting out of her eyes. To date, it’s been retweeted about 4,000 times. Some lucky fans at New York’s Comic-Con this past weekend were gifted the image on a tote bag.
“You know what the strangest part of that story is?” Bee tells me, seated a safe distance away from the geek carnival melee at the annual New York pop culture festival. “I already had a picture of myself as a laser-eyes centaur in my photos. For some reason it was made a lot earlier, and it was just there sitting and waiting.”
Bee was at a pumpkin patch with her kids when someone tweeted her the Vanity Fair photo. “I got so mad I literally sat over by the cider donuts and sent that tweet,” she says. “I was like, ‘I WON’T BE IGNORED!’”
At a time when the lack of a woman on late-night television seems more like an embarrassing and almost willful indecency than it does any sort of Hollywood coincidence—institutional sexism at its most glaring—it was especially affronting for Bee and Handler to be excluded from the photo shoot. “It’s not like it’s an unimaginable mystery who the people are who are going to be on air,” she says.
The Vanity Fair article makes a hapless attempt to explain away their exclusion, a mansplaination that reads more patronizing than anything else, noting that “comedic redress is on its way, in the form of two new shows created from scratch, Samantha Bee’s for TBS and Chelsea Handler’s for Netflix. (Both shows are due in 2016.)”
As mentioned before, Noah’s show was yet to premiere and he was featured, and most know Handler from the long-running show she manned on E! for seven years. And as for the “start from scratch” nonsense—both Conan O’Brien and John Oliver were included after launching new franchises, something both Bee and Handler were set to do. As a defense, it’s bullshit.
“I just felt so tired of it,” Bee says. “It really just came from a place of exhaustion and feeling ignored.”
Even now you can imagine her shooting real lasers from her eyes if she could. “It was just like a big fuck you. Oh, fuck off. Really? Again? What are you doing with this photo spread?” She gestures at my recorder. “You can put that in the article. ‘Fuck off.’ Please, spare me.”
But Bee knows there’s good to come from the whole thing, too. “There was nothing to anticipate,” she says, referring to her decision to send the tweet. “I didn’t understand the wellspring it would tap into. I didn’t understand that so many people felt the same way. So I felt very appreciative of that.”
Plus now, perhaps even more than if she had been included in the Vanity Fair piece, awareness is heightened for Full Frontal.
Back in May, Bee left The Daily Show after 12 years as a senior correspondent, many of those spent working alongside her husband, Jason Jones. An emotional Jon Stewart emceed her farewell, showing a clip package of some of her greatest moments on the show: her interview with Long Islanders who wanted to secede, her reporting at the Occupy Wall Street protests, and, maybe most memorably, a trip to the GOP Convention soon after Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was announced, where she tried (and failed) to get conservatives to use the word “choice.”
And Stewart enthusiastically wished her well on her new adventures at TBS: a sitcom titled The Detour, described as TV-MA raunchy comedy about a family road trip down I-95 that she created and wrote with Jones, and, of course, Full Frontal.
“You know what? I have to come up with a really great origin story for that name,” she says when I bring up that title, Full Frontal. “The truth is we were batting around some really boring names and then one of my best friends who I did comedy with in Canada texted it to me. She was like, ‘Full Frontal. You’re welcome.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ But honestly it was just two girlfriends texting each other.”
Still, a name like that certainly telegraphs some sort of mission. It signals a certain perspective that people should expect. Bee certainly agrees: “Although I’m a very demure person in my actual life, when I’m performing I like to be bold. I like to think bold thoughts. I like to be audacious.”
She’s already living up to that assessment. To call the show’s first promo bold or audacious would be an understatement. Directly confronting the discussion around her status as a woman entering a male-dominated field—addressing it “full frontal,” you might say—Bee tells viewers she doesn’t want her gender to be the sole reason they’re tuning in.
“Watch because of… my nuanced perspective on world events, my repartee with newsmakers from across the ideological spectrum,” she tells the camera. “And of course, these: my 10-pound lady balls.” She hikes up her skirt, does a little shimmy, and down drops some massive testicles.
“I would like to clue you in to the voicemails that TBS has received since launching those lady balls,” she laughs. “I think one person left a message that was like, ‘Your latest promo sexually assaulted my entire family.’”
Aside from inciting a bit of consternation among those settling in for a wholesome family viewing of a Big Bang Theory repeat and getting a ball shot alongside their bazingas instead, the promo confirmed that Bee was down to directly engage in the discussion that thus far seems to have been dominating Full Frontal ahead of its debut: the Lady in Late-Night milestone.
But is there a concern that this talk is threatening to define the series before it even airs?
“Personally I love that people are talking about it, with or without me,” she says. “I feel like change is in the air and that’s exciting. I like the waft of the future.”
As for being this beacon for the women-in-late-night debate, she’s happy to accept the torch, though it’s just one of many she’s holding on the arduous mission of creating her own late-night show. “So I’m not suffocating under the weight of expectation,” she says. “Not at all.”
Content-wise, she is setting out without any agenda, because, she says, the intention of doing something important takes the air out of the comedy.
She envisions her show to be issue-based, just as The Daily Show is, and to feature many out-of-studio segments and interviews, just as she did on The Daily Show. Many of those issues and interviews will be meaningful to a female audience—but also meaningful to a non-female audience, because these are issues that are just plain worth getting passionate about.
“It excites me to be able to shine a light on things that don’t have a lot of light,” she says. “It excites me to look under the covers and see the dirty stuff that’s going on under there.”
Her late-night spelunking comes at an exciting time for Bee, in general.
It’s the first time in 12 years that neither she nor her husband has been employed at Comedy Central, the kind of jarring life change that most couples would equate to detonating a bomb in their lives and familiar routine. Bee admits that leaving The Daily Show to work on Full Frontal and The Detour has been a shift for the couple, but one for which they’ve been laying the groundwork for a while.
“We know that you can’t just have one job forever and do that job until you’re 75 years old, doing man-on-the-street interviews on The Daily Show,” she says. “You have to grow. And for us, growing was creating our own stuff.”
Not that she’s left The Daily Show completely behind. In fact, she recently returned to the show’s studio—for Trevor Noah’s premiere as the new host, no less. She sat in the control room and watched surrounded by her old co-workers; sitting in the audience “would be weird,” she thought. And you know what? She felt great about the whole experience.
“I feel like there’s no way that I could’ve left the show better,” she says. “I closed that chapter of my life on my own volition. It was the best possible way to leave. There were only good feelings.” As for Noah, “I thought he did a really good job. And I did enjoying being there. Those people are all my friends. Everyone there is amazing. They’re fine.” She interrupts herself. “I don’t want to do that anymore. But they’re great! Godspeed.”
And with that, her eye lasers booted back up, she dusted off her hooves, and Samantha Bee galloped off into the distance.