“It’s been a hard year...s,” Samantha Bee said at the end of her last episode before an August break this past week. “But we’re all still standing, and so is my show.”
The host of Full Frontal did not reference the most challenging part of her year directly, but the implication was clear. For a while there, it looked like Bee might not survive the intense backlash that followed her use of the term “feckless cunt” to describe first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump during a segment about her failure to prevent the president from separating immigrant families at the border.
“It wasn’t a great experience. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience,” Bee tells me by phone this week of that period. “And I was very regretful that that moment really took away from what I was trying to say with the segment.”
Three months later, Bee is once again the only female nominee in the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series category, alongside her fellow former Daily Show correspondents John Oliver and Stephen Colbert as well as Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden and Trevor Noah. In anyone can upset Oliver’s two-year winning streak, it could be her.
The Canadian-born comedian is calling from Vancouver where her husband, fellow Daily Show alum Jason Jones, is currently shooting the fourth season of his TBS sitcom The Detour, on which they share executive producer credit. “People are so physically fit in Vancouver, it’s unbelievable,” she observes as she watches early morning kayakers glide through the water outside her window.
Bee is taking a much-needed break from the weekly grind of her own TBS show following a particularly difficult few months, savoring a few moments of peace before her three children wake up. She’s in a reflective yet hopeful mood, speaking at length about what it was like to have the president himself call for her to be fired and how she has managed to emerge from the “unpleasant” experience stronger than ever.
You ended your last show of the summer by hitting the “reset button” and giving your set a Viking funeral. Does this point to big changes when Full Frontal returns in the fall?
We are getting a new set. We’re getting a refreshing look for the show, for sure. You know, it’s midterm season, it felt like a time for a bit of a refresh for our aesthetic, I would say. So we definitely are doing that. I’m so excited about it, it’s going to be so pretty.
Beyond aesthetics, are there other changes you’re hoping to implement?
No, I love the show, I’m really happy with it. I’m very happy where we are. I think with anything, after two some-odd years you walk on stage and go, it seems small now, maybe we need something bigger. It’s not even really expanding the message of the show, I just think we’re ready for something bigger in that space. I think we’re ready to take up more space in the world and so why not have a set that reflects that?
It does seem like a nice vote of confidence from TBS, especially after the whole Ivanka Trump “c-word” debacle. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you and why you decided to apologize?
It wasn’t a great experience. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience. I will say that the network was incredibly supportive the entire time. It definitely unleashes a different kind of beast into your life when the president specifically tweets about you, so that was a bit new. As a person, it’s helpful for me to keep the show small in my brain. It’s helpful for me to treat it like a day job. For me, I’m always thinking about what the next show is going to be as opposed to what the next year of shows is going to look like. So I guess, for a long time I hadn’t really considered that the show does have a bigger voice now, and a bigger platform. And that platform is only increasing over time. So it was a reckoning on that account. It was definitely unpleasant. It was a real learning experience. I was very surprised. I felt that it was incredibly overblown. Like beyond overblown. And I was very regretful that that moment really took away from what I was trying to say with the segment. And the segment really effectively disappeared, you can’t find it anymore. That’s really a shame, because the subject matter was really important to me. And we circled back to it multiple times after that, but it’s a story that hasn’t gone away yet. I felt like it did a disservice to the [separated] families. Not that we would expect to have a huge impact on them, but I felt that anything that took away from that story, which is so critical and an ongoing story that continues on to this moment, I felt terrible.
Yeah, it’s surreal. I mean, it’s not unprecedented. It’s not like this only happened to me. Eventually, everyone kind of winds up on their radar. And it’s ridiculous. Honestly, it’s the most ridiculous feeling. It’s so unpresidential in every possible way.
So I saw your former boss Jon Stewart speak in San Francisco back in June and he not only defended your commentary but seemed to imply that you shouldn’t have apologized, because nothing will “mollify” the right in these cases. Do you think there is truth to that and how do you weigh that versus your decision to offer up a real apology for what you said?
Well, my apology was very specific, so I’ll just say that. The apology was not offered to the right. It was not offered as a concession to their demands, at all. It was offered in a very specific manner and I don’t regret putting it out there. I think it was the right thing to do. There is literally nothing that I can do to please loud voices on the right and I don’t expect to try anytime soon. It really wasn’t for them. I don’t really care what they think of me. A lot of the loudest voices that came out to speak about me should be embarrassed by their own conduct these days. I could not give a single fuck what they think of me. And why should I? You can’t make a comedy show that pleases everyone, nor should you ever try. You cannot make a decent or good comedy product by assessing everyone’s opinions and going straight down the middle. You have to have a point of view these days.
That was always a big part of what your show was from the start and I’m sure TBS knew what they were getting into with you when they hired you to do this show. When I saw you at the "For Your Consideration" event in Los Angeles the week before that episode aired, you were talking about the “free and creative landscape” at TBS. Then shortly after there were reports that TBS would be taking a more active role in overseeing the show. Was there any truth to that? Have things changed in terms of the network’s role since then?
No, not at all. Of course there’s always a lot of talk about everything, but I have a very good, longstanding relationship with the network. I speak to them all the time. We have an excellent relationship. So it’s not as though this event has caused them to like put the screws to us or look at the show through a different lens. It’s not at all like that. They’ve stood behind the show from the very beginning, since the first episode and they stand behind it now. They understand that they have to trust in our talent and they have to trust in our point of view and they’ve always been excellent with that. They have always provided us with a free and creative landscape. This was an astonishing event for them as well, so we’ve all learned.
Between the backlash to your comments and the reaction to Michelle Wolf after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, do you think the right is more eager to be outraged by female comedians than they are by your male late-night counterparts?
Well, gender is always a part of it. Gender always plays a big part in the language people use to describe us, for sure, definitely. Is there additional outrage because we’re women? I think there’s additional outrage because of the subject matter we both choose to cover, there’s no question.
Speaking of Michelle Wolf, it seemed like progress was being made in terms of the late-night gender gap, but in the last couple of weeks Netflix canceled Wolf’s show and BET canceled Robin Thede’s show. What do you make of that? Is it concerning?
I find it very disheartening, actually. I’m really, really sad about it. Because those women are amazing, their shows were great. I do think that whichever network nabs them up next will be very lucky. I assume that other networks are fighting to rehire them. If I was a network executive that’s what I’d be doing, trying to get them to come them to me and make a show, no question. And you have to take time as a network to develop things. If it’s not working for you in the time slot or whatever, you have to give a show more than 10 episodes to find its legs. It’s brutal. Shows need time to find their audience and they need adequate advertising. They need adequate promotional pushes to make that happen, it’s just a fact. You can’t just plunk something down, leave it alone and expect it to grow. It’s impossible.
You’ve been fortunate in that regard that TBS has given you so much promotion and time to grow.
Yeah, it’s essential. You don’t build an audience overnight, you don’t build an audience in three months. You just don’t, you can’t, it takes a really long time. And you have to have a vision for the future in order to be able to do it properly and I think that that was lacking in both of those cases. I’m not sure why. I’m sure that they will land somewhere and that it will work at a different place. I’m positive of that. There’s no way that you could take that many talented people and set them adrift and have them not find an island to climb up on and make something even better.
You mentioned the subject matter that you choose to cover and it seems like you are tackling larger systemic issues like misogyny and racism more than getting caught up in the scandal of the moment. For instance, I noticed you didn’t mention Omarosa on last week’s show when that was the biggest story of the week. Was that a conscious decision to let that one go?
That’s the luxury, in a way, of having a show once a week. We don’t really have to. If something is very well covered, and that was very well covered by other people, you don’t always have to catch the story of the day. Which is good, because if everybody else is covering it, you don’t need to turn your lens to it necessarily. Sometimes you feel like you do or you have something additional to day, and sometimes you simply don’t.
In terms of when the show returns in the fall, I know you’re very committed to the midterms and have the game app that you are developing. What are some of the ways you are refocusing your effects on that important election that’s coming up?
We are putting a lot of attention on our gamification app. We’ll be launching it our first show back. And I could not be more excited about it. We’ve worked so hard on it. It is really, truly a labor of love and it’s super-fun and I think when people see it they will be very surprised. I mean, it’s taken us over a year to build, from start to finish. So whether it moves the needle or not remains to be seen. I have no idea, it really is a giant social experiment. The couple of months leading up to the midterms will be very important, I hope it’s on people’s minds. It obviously won’t be all that we’ll do, but it’ll be a big part of what we do. We have a lot of stuff planned that I don’t want to tell you about yet.
Finally, are they going to let you present at the Emmys?
I don’t know! Maybe, I might, I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. It will surprise you to learn how last-minute these things are. It surprises me. I’ll just have my fingers crossed. But Matt, why not me? Why not me... she said, laughing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.