Entertainment·The Interview

Samantha Bee on Trump, harassment, life in America and her stinging satire

The politics of Donald Trump and explosive issues like sexual misconduct have changed the tone of late-night shows, and Samantha Bee is gleefully injecting comedic venom into analysis of current events.

Why Bee is gleefully injecting venomous outrage into analysis of current events

Full Frontal host Samantha Bee, centre, sat down with CBC's Rosemary Barton in New York City to talk about her no-holds-barred approach to analyzing current events with a comedic spin. (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The politics of Donald Trump and explosive issues like sexual misconduct have changed the tone of late-night shows, and Samantha Bee is gleefully injecting her own style of satiric venom.

The Toronto native now lives in New York and hosts Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Her comedic voice has thrived in recent months, described as more outrage than funny in the era of Trump.

Rosemary Barton, co-host of CBC's The National, caught up with Bee in her midtown Manhattan office recently to discuss finding humour in topics like Trump's presidency and sexual harassment in the workplace. Bee also had some advice for two young women in Toronto trying to make their way in stand-up comedy.

Watch the interview: 

Canadian comedian Samantha Bee says she feels that U.S. President Donald Trump has been a disgrace to the Oval Office and has no reservations when it comes to doing political satire about him. Bee sat down with Rosemary Barton recently in her midtown Manhattan office to talk about taking jabs at Trump, while speaking out on issues like sexual harassment and free speech in comedy 12:01

Excerpts from Rosemary Barton's interview with Samantha Bee:

CBC News: I know some people who watch your show and The Daily Show, and that's all they do — that's where they get their news.

Bee: Well, we are vampires of the news. Without great journalism we couldn't make the show that we're making.

So we do pay attention to the news — if we're kind of reassembling it for people in a more palatable way or we're providing more analysis, that's a service we're happy to provide. Makes the bitter pill more easy to go down.

'The shows are really a completely collaborative experience, and our shared outrage is what fuels the whole show,' Bee tells Barton. (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

So when you're out there slamming people, even some people that you know, what are you trying to tell the audience? You're obviously trying to make them laugh about it, but what else are you trying to do?

Well, it's not a slam for the sake of slamming.  We make a point with the show and it's very curated.

So I guess it depends on the show and it really depends on the issue.

Certainly we're not going to shy away from talking about people just because we may admire them. It's always more complicated, if you admire a person greatly, to speak about them. But if it's what's happening and if it's current and it makes sense to talk about, then we have an obligation to do that.

Many of the people who work on Full Frontal are former journalists who excel at finding humour in the news, according to Bee. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TBS)

It sounds like journalism, in some ways.

Well, a lot of people here [at the show] are journalists or come from a journalism background, and I think that we're all here together because we are obsessed with the news. And similarly obsessed with comedy. Our two worlds are converging nicely.

There's all the sexual misconduct stuff in the news — every day there's another name. Tell me how that's motivating you, these stories.

It is definitely something we think about as it evolves, just like anybody else. We've done probably more on it than other shows have, because it is the world that we inhabit and these stories are important to us.

Bee speaks onstage during the TBS Comedy Festival 2017 in New York City. She says that doing political commentary with a comedic spin requires her team to be 'fearless.' ( Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TBS)

As a female comedian growing up, did you ever encounter that kind of stuff, this inappropriate sexual behaviour?

Oh my God, of course. But not really in the comedy world, per se.

More in the restaurant world and in the world in general — you know, the world at large … I couldn't name a single woman I've ever spoken to who hasn't encountered it in her life.

In 2017, President Donald Trump refused to attend the traditional White House Correspondents Dinner. Bee instead hosted a 'Not the White House Correspondents Dinner' without him. (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

Do you feel that because you're a woman too, you have to give voice to that in a different way?

I don't feel like I have to. I just feel like I want to, because these are the stories that are interesting to us.

It does seem like outrage is a big part of what fuels your comedy.

Definitely, I think that's true for every single person who works here. I think that's true for all of us.

The shows are really a completely collaborative experience, and our shared outrage is what fuels the whole show.

Bee and her Full Frontal team won the 2017 Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a variety special. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

When you see a colleague like Jimmy Kimmel come out with his baby and make a plea about health care at the beginning of a comedy show, I mean, in some ways Trump must have changed these shows because it's so stunning that [Kimmel] would do that.

He [Trump] is changing the world. He is literally changing the world that we live in. And so I think it's a natural outcropping of that.… 

It's not really what people want any more, for you to go up and do monologue jokes about celebrity antics. I mean, there's probably a huge group of people who do want that, and they have that if that's what they want. That's not what I want, and that's not what I want to do.

What gives me strength is that the people in my world aren't interested in fripperies. They care about the world.

'The last time I checked we had free speech here,' Bee says. '... As long as we have it, I'm going to feel very free to say things that I want to say.' (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

How do you think your work has changed since Donald Trump became president?

I don't think that my job has changed. I think we would be doing the same basic job if Hillary Clinton was president.

I would imagine that there could be less material to work with, to some degree. But there would still be lots of stories to tell, because I don't actually think that she is the Messiah. She would have been an imperfect leader as well, in a different way.

Certainly I think the world would be much more stable place, so perhaps there would be weeks where we would think, 'My goodness, what could we even possibly tell this week, nothing much is happening. Oh, look at her boring stable leadership. Where is the comedy?'

But it would be nice to struggle for a story to tell for once.

Bee, born in Canada but now living in the U.S., made regular appearances on The Daily Show before landing her own program. (CBC)

You guys have been called sort of the resistance movement in the U.S.

If people in the world want to say that, that's fine. I wouldn't say that about us or myself. I feel like that's a pretty heavy yoke to wear around your neck when you're trying to make a show that's funny with already-challenging material.

I think we're not so self-conscious about it. We're just trying to respond authentically to the things that are really bothering us.

But you have to be a bit fearless.

Yeah, you do. You do for sure. Everyone here is fearless.

I would imagine you still want to respect the Oval Office, democracy, all those things, and I wonder if sometimes you say, 'I shouldn't say that about this guy. He did get duly elected.'

I used to feel that way. But I actually think that the Oval Office needs to work a little harder for my respect. I don't automatically give it over any more.… 

I honestly feel that he [Trump] has been such a disgrace to the office that I actually have no reticence whatsoever to speak truthfully about it.

I mean, the last time I checked we had free speech here. So we'll see how that pans out, but as long as we have it I'm going to feel very free to say things that I want to say.

Canadian comedian Samantha Bee sat down with Rosemary Barton recently in her midtown Manhattan office to discuss U.S. President Donald Trump and the issue of free speech in comedy. 0:47

You're an American citizen, but do you feel that also being Canadian maybe gives you a different ability [to speak about U.S. politics]?

Yeah, I think it does. I'm a dual citizen, but I do have that millimetre of separation. And I think that's effective.

As a Canadian who's also American now living [in the U.S.] and raising your kids here, how has your life changed under Donald Trump? Is there ever a moment where you're not so keen on being here?

I love living here. I mean, I really do. I love the people. I love my life. I like my house. I like where I live. I like my kids' school. It [Trump's presidency] doesn't change our life on a day to day basis.

It's more that it feels like there's just an urgency in the air. I think even the kids feel that, listening to the news all the time. It's just a part of our life, but it's not changing how we do things ... I think the thing that has emerged that is good is that people are aware of the world that they live in.

I think that people are more aware of the handshake agreements we've all been living with for so long that we thought were rules for things and really weren't. 

Turns out that you [as president] don't have to divest yourself of all of your hotels and businesses. Turns out that's not really a rule, that was just a thing that we thought that everyone would do because it was the right thing to do.

Releasing your taxes. Yeah, that's just a nice thing, that was just a nice gesture that is required of no one.

Who knew.

In 2013, Bee was named Canadian comedy person of the year. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

What do you think about Canada these days?

It seems so stable, like a very stable utopia.

My whole family's back in Canada so I'm totally aware of what's going on there, but I've invested in this place. My children were born here. I care about what happens here.

It's not that I don't care about what happens in Canada. I absolutely do. I just think that Canada feels like it doesn't need too much help right now, it feels like it's in a good place.

This place … could use a little more attention.

Bee says she has stayed true to her artistic voice, and urges up-and-coming comedians to do the same if pressured to change. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

We went to Yuk Yuks in Toronto and there were young comedians who had similar questions for you. Hannah Lawrence asks, 'How do you stay true to your voice in a world that's always trying to get you to change ... have you ever changed your voice to accommodate someone else?'

And Juliana Rodriguez asks, 'How do you continue to find your voice in such a male-dominated industry, and navigate your way through issues and connect to women in a way that would be different from a male talk show host?'

Well, I don't come from the stand-up world for sure, but they should never change their [artistic voice].

When you're doing something because you love it — and you do standup because you love it — that's the one thing you really just can't change. You have to be true to the kernel and the nut and the reason why you're doing it in the first place.… 

You cannot give a single sh-t what anybody else says about your "voice." You just can't, because the one thing they cannot take away from you is your talent. That's what's "you" … nurture that against all odds.

It's really hard to do. For sure, it's really hard to do, but … you have to let that little fire burn forever.

About the Author

Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.