The Daily Show was supposed to be Samantha Bee's last audition, instead it launched her career
‘I thought, ‘Well, I'll just go out on a high, having auditioned for my most favourite show in the world’’
Samantha Bee wasn't one of those kids who grew up dreaming of being on TV. When she was a teenager, she thought she'd probably be a lawyer.
"I would never have been audacious enough to think, as a child, that there was a future for me in broadcast comedy," she told Tom Power in an interview on Q. "I thought, 'Oh, I'll go to college, I'll do a humanities degree, and then I'll probably go to law school.' I don't think, when I had conceived that career path for myself, that I really knew what a lawyer did. I just knew that I wanted to have a professional job so I can buy a house and have a family and stuff like that."
While at university, she took a theatre course and quickly fell in love with acting. But even then, once she'd set her sights on a career as a performer, she still didn't see herself as a comedian.
"I went to [Toronto theatre school] George Brown [College] because I was like, 'I think I should meet some performers if I'm going to have this really serious acting career where I [do] Shakespeare and [play] people in the throes of insanity," she said. "And no one took me seriously at all. People really only laughed at me when I performed."
She wound up joining The Atomic Fireballs, an all-woman sketch comedy troupe in Toronto, which also featured her friend and future Full Frontal collaborator Allana Harkin. That, in turn, led to her auditioning for The Daily Show. Back in 2003, the then-all male Daily Show was holding auditions in Toronto, specifically looking for women correspondents.
"They didn't have any women on the show," she said. "And they were like, 'We should get one of those for our show. We had one in the past but she's gone now. So we should get another one.…' So they came to Toronto because they had heard that we had some good women. I was not really on their list of good women that they wanted to see, but my agent talked me in there anyway. She was like, 'We've got to round out this day. Can you go in?'"
Bee said that, for her, that audition was meant to be a sort of last hurrah at having a real career in acting. While she still loved sketch comedy, she had more or less decided that she would keep doing it as a hobby and would "just do something else for a living."
"I thought, 'Well, I'll just go out on a high, having auditioned for my most favourite show in the world, and that'll be a great kind of conclusion to this chapter of my life,'" she said.
Instead, something else happened. Most of the other women in the room weren't actually that familiar with the show.
"They were there with, like, crazy costumes," she said. "They were like, 'Do you think these crazy hats work?' I'm like, 'I don't think you should wear the crazy hat. It's not a crazy hat show.' And they were like 'You don't know what you're talking about.'"
Bee, on the other hand, was a superfan. When they handed her a script to read, it was a bit she'd watched Stephen Colbert perform a couple weeks earlier. She wound up getting the role, and eventually spent 12 years on the show before going on to host her own late-night news/comedy show, Full Frontal, which ended in June 2022.
"The show was on for seven seasons," she said. "That was not something that I would have ever dreamed of. We did and said things that no one [else] was doing or saying. We approached the material so audaciously and so boldly."
Bee is the host of this weekend's Canadian Screen Awards. She said that even though she's been based in New York for two decades, she still feels very Canadian.
"It wasn't an acrimonious divorce," she said of her relationship with the country.
The perception of Canadian talent by the rest of the world has changed tremendously over that time, she said, and it's that special talent that she's excited to help celebrate at the CSAs.
"When I started with The Daily Show, everyone was like, 'Oh, Canada…. Everyone's so nice and the streets are so clean,'" she said. "There's more to Canada than clean streets and nice people. We have cultural products that can ignite people, that people can get excited about globally. [Now,] the marketplace is different, people's access to these products is totally different. People can say more than one Canadian name now. You know what I mean? They don't just go, 'Yes, yes. Jim Carrey.' There's more people you should have on your radar. More people, more products, more movies, more TV shows, more of everything."
The full interview with Samantha Bee is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Interview with Samantha Bee produced by Kaitlyn Swan.