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If she weren’t hosting ‘Full Frontal,’ Samantha Bee could see herself starting a foundation for refugees

“I don’t need to be in front of the camera forever,” Bee says on the latest Recode Decode. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada.”

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Photo of Samantha Bee on the set of her TBS show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
Samantha Bee
Courtesy of TBS

When she filmed the first episode of her late-night comedy show “Full Frontal,” Samantha Bee didn’t expect she’d be doing it for years to come. At the time, TBS had only committed to six episodes and “they can cancel you after one episode,” Bee said on the latest Recode Decode.

“I thought, ‘What I’ll do is I’ll just kick the barn doors in with the first episode of the show and these six precious episodes. And these will be our calling card for future shows,’” Bee recalled. “When we get canceled because it’s too outrageous, we’ll take it somewhere else and do something with it.”

But the show worked, TBS wanted more, and Bee wound up making three whole seasons of “Full Frontal,” with a fourth on the way. She told Recode’s Kara Swisher that these days, she imagines that after the show ends she might not wind up back in front of the camera.

“I could see the next phase of my life being completely different, and just pouring myself into working with refugees,” Bee said. “Oh, geez, this is such a future conversation, but I could, 100 percent. I don’t need to be in front of the camera forever.”

She would still be interested in developing other TV shows that would reflect her perspective on the world, Bee explained, but “I could easily move onto something else, working on creating my own foundation.” And the notion that other celebrities would be less likely to leave the spotlight didn’t faze her.

“Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada,” she said. “I don’t know.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Overcast.

Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of Kara’s conversation with Sam. You can read a full transcript of the interview here.


Bee’s new mobile game, This is Not a Game

Kara Swisher: So one of the things that you’re doing — and we’re going to talk about in the next section — is this app that you’re working on. We met because you’re doing this thing. Can you explain it for everyone? And then in the next section we’ll talk about what you’re doing.

Samantha Bee: Well, the app is a comedic political trivia game with cash prizes. And it’s all ... It’s a civic engagement app that’s actually really funny and I think turned out great. You play a trivia game every day. All of the questions are related to what’s in the news or they’re related to government, but they’re really funny questions in the voice of the show. People win cash prizes.

And hopefully you also with the app will sign up for voting reminders. And we’ll present challenges as we get closer to the midterms, because we learned that a huge part of getting people to vote is getting them to make a plan for voting. So with our app, it’s funny and you win stuff. We sneakily try to deliver some civic engagement.

Gamification. So why did you decide to do this?

Well, I did a piece about gamification. So we ended up doing a piece about this little newspaper in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that was providing excellent ... Anyway, they were doing excellent work in this small town in New Jersey. We ended up meeting an expert in gamification, Gabe Zickerman. I loved him. I had never heard of it before.

You’d never heard of gamification?

No, that’s not my world. I didn’t know anything about it.

Everything is gamified now.

Completely.

Dating.

And now I see that. Now I see it all around me. But I had never heard that. I was the one who was gullibly getting sucked in by gamification.

Yes, you are. That’s the point of it.

Yeah, we learned about that. We applied that to saving this newspaper that really ... They couldn’t pay their own rent. And it was so wildly successful that we ended up paying the rent for this newspaper for a year or more.

And it occurred to me after the fact, I was like, “I wonder if we could make people vote this way,” because we’d heard so many stories from him about applying gamification to tech stuff, China, these amazing stories of success. And I thought, “Even if it didn’t work for the midterms, it would be an interesting journey to try to build something that could potentially influence people to vote.”

And get them to vote. So you went out. You came up to Silicon Valley. You were looking for experts in the field, and you also made a show out of it too.

We made a show out of it. We’ve filmed the entire process from the beginning of even thinking about the game, to the creation of the game. We filmed content after the release of the game because the game has crashed. We filmed ourselves post-crash. And we’ll continue to make content because I really do see it as not just content for the show but a really ... just an interesting learning experience. Is this even possible? Is this something ... I think it’s fascinating, myself.

And why voter ...? Why vote? Just, you want people to vote.

Well, people have to vote. I mean, the stakes are very high. There are lots of people who have known about the stakes of voting for a long, long time, and I think the rest of us are just figuring that out now.

Anything to get them to do it.

Just do it.

Where are you in downloads now?

So many people downloaded the game on the first day that we had a ... It crashed. And we were so ... Razan Ghalayini, who’s the producer who’s really producing the game with Adam Werbach, the two of us were so sad. We were like, “Oh no, the game crashed.” She just kept getting these emails from people in Silicon Valley who were like, “Congratulations on the crash.”

Oh!

It means we’ve got something there.

What did you learn from your journey in tech?

I’m still learning. I think that we have the kernel of a good idea. I think the voice is very clear in the game. We did try to make it fun. I think we can do an even bigger and broader game for 2020. I think if we keep this and keep making it better, it could be a very interesting side project.

Were you hoping to make money from it?

No. Nobody’s making money from it.

Well, Kim Kardashian did with hers.

She did, but her thing is different. This is a civic engagement app. It did occur to me how many fewer people would download it if I seemed to be personally profiting from it.

Oh, I see.

I think that would be yucky.

The “feckless” controversy

I did a show a little while ago about bots and the use of bots. One of the things that was really interesting, it emerged, was what happened around Roseanne and you on the show when you called Ivanka the name. That blew up like crazy on the internet. A lot of that was bot traffic. The same thing with Roseanne’s, which was interesting. Then it generated a lot of attention. Talk a little bit about that experience, what happened there.

Oh, yes. Well, we did the show. We all high-fived each other. We thought, “Great show, everyone!” We were all very satisfied with the end product.

When that was happening, did anybody go, “Mm, maybe not so much.”

No. I would say it was completely the opposite. It was consistent with the show up until that point, actually.

What you had been doing.

Yep. Which is why we knew nothing. And then overnight ... you know when you — TFW you pick up your phone at four in the morning and it is smoldering because so much has happened in the night? It was that. I don’t even have my Twitter mentions turned on and I could see that we were in for something.

You were trending.

Yes. That was the beginning of a very long week, I would say. Yeah, I learned after the fact that it did begin with bots.

People got involved.

And then people got involved. The bots inflamed people.

That’s right, which is the point.

Yes. And then the people were inflamed.

Yeah, they were inflamed until ...

Sure they were.

... they weren’t because the next thing came along.

The next thing came along.

But how did that feel? A lot of people are subject to these internet, rolling internet ... and it’s usually Twitter. But it’s everywhere else. What is that like now, as a performer? Because before, you do something and maybe ...

Maybe. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe someone writes a little blurb about it.

Some reviewer or a newspaper.

In that instance, I would say it was not a good feeling to be on everyone’s lips. I know even my husband, for example, was just walking into conversations randomly in other cities and people were talking about it, not knowing that he was my husband. It was the talk of the town in many towns for a long time. It was not a good feeling. It was terrible. It was terrible. It was truly an awful week.

What happens then in these things where these things do go like waves, across — and get to these ways it wasn’t before?

Well, I never really had that experience before wherein I walked down the street and many, many people were interacting with me.

Meaning? What were they doing?

Well, there were a lot of high-fives, quite honestly. I don’t live life that way, I don’t walk around as the king of the Upper West Side with people talking to me all the time. I’m really very ...

Head down. Hat on head.

... very, very low key. So that was a different sensation and I definitely felt like, “Oh, this is ...” To be notorious for a second, even in this way, was really unpleasant. It really put me off my game. Then when the president tweets about you, that’s a whole other ...

I was going to get to that.

That is like winged monkeys coming out of the woodwork and they just fly toward you. Feels absolutely terrible. Would I change the past? Absolutely not. I learned a lot about it. I actually learned a lot about myself and my capacity. It felt like walking through fire and I think that I came out on the other side stronger and better for it. Older, by 100 years.

Okay. All right. Well, you look good.

I just live at the bottom of an old oak tree now. I’m just a wizened crone.

Get back to when the president does it, the use of Twitter by him and attacking people personally. He has yet to get to me, but I doubt he ever will.

This is going to sound crazy, but as soon as he tweeted about me, a sense of calm washed over me, actually. I thought, “Okay. That’s good because the president is calling for you to get fired, you can’t really get fired, can you?”

No, you can’t. It’s perfect.

It becomes a First Amendment issue and then that takes it to the stratosphere. I felt a little bit calm from it but it definitely unleashed a lot of badness. A lot of Dementors came into my life for sure, which is really, really negative.

Did you go off Twitter? Did you go off? Because you’re an active ... you use it.

Not a lot, I actually don’t use it that much. I’m a very active observer. I am always on Twitter, but not always interacting with it. I keep my mentions off. I’ve done that for years and that’s out of self-preservation. It’s smart.

I did an interview with Lena Dunham. She did the same thing. She gets killed on social media.

Just killed.

She was reading it for a long time.

Yeah, you really have to stop. It’s a discipline. It really is just a discipline of total restraint. I’m actually very good at it. Thanks. That’s my special skill.

Restraint.

Restraint. I don’t read what people say about me and that is very good to do that.

So what was the result? Did it pull you back? One of these things that I’m watching is people when it happens. People complain about Twitter. I feel if you say something controversial, you’re just going to have to live with what happens now because the reaction is so vast and so ...

It’s fast. It will always come up in a Google search about me, which is kind of a bad feeling. I felt sad for my kids in school. People were talking about it in school. Ultimately, it changed the way that I think of the show for sure, a little ...

So how did it do that? Does it hold you back then, because your show is ...

No.

Because I noticed recently, no.

No, no, no, no. It doesn’t hold me back, but it changed my perspective of the show. I guess prior to that, I really do keep everything very small in my brain. I’m a lady who grew up in Canada. I tend to keep the show on a very weekly basis. I’m always spinning wheels and efforting toward making a show. We make the show. That’s great. I put it on a shelf. Start thinking about the next one.

It just occurred to me in this moment, “Okay, we actually are a part of the national conversation.” It is different now. We’re not an upstart show anymore. We’ve been doing this for years now. Now we are established.

What you say matters.

Now we’re established. What we say has more consequence, slightly more. It doesn’t change the way that we approach the show. It really just changed my inner psychology.

How does that manifest then?

I think that if anything ... I’m discovering these words as I’m saying them, actually, I haven’t really thought about it a lot.

Good, even better.

I think that it has given me more confidence. Does that … ? It makes no sense.

No, explain it.

It makes me understand that it’s really okay to take up more space in the world. It really is okay. So, we changed our title credits to reflect that.

Such as, explain.

In the first iteration of our title credits, I’m a tiny person standing up and there are giants all around. In this iteration of the title credits, I’m the giant observing the world, from a different perspective.

Tell me about that idea, because I did a really great interview with Jill Soloway where she was talking about the “male gaze” and taking up space. She actually physically got up and did a male stance, which was really interesting because then you saw it physically, taking up space and being the observer rather than the observed. That’s essentially one of the many feminist things we can talk about. It really made me think about the idea of taking up space and what’s happening, you were just talking about that idea. Cecile Richards was talking about the idea of the rage that is upsetting people or the taking up space or the confidence that women are having.

I guess I understand that the show has a different function now. I fully understand that ... I’ve spoken about it before, but now it’s just in my bones. I get it now. It’s a cathartic experience for us at the show and we are giving voice to people who don’t have their own shows to speak out. People who don’t have a platform. I just feel more free to speak. If anything I just feel ...

So it made you more so, rather than ...

Yeah, more so, I would say. I will probably not use that word again. I found it was ...

Was that a mistake, that word?

I don’t think it was a mistake because I learned a lot from it, actually. I understand it was hurtful for a lot of people in our audience and I get that. I take that on board. I understand that. I own that.

The future of entertainment and comedy

When you started in entertainment, it was pretty set: There was Hollywood, there was ...

Yes, it was very inaccessible to me.

Yeah, yeah. They didn’t welcome you with open arms?

Didn’t welcome me with open arms.

You know, last night America Ferrara was onstage at this event and someone said “Has Hollywood changed, for example?” And she said “What is that? Because I never got into Hollywood. What is Hollywood? It’s not a thing. It’s not a group of six people in a room making decisions.”

I’m also very disconnected from that world because we do our show in New York City and I live in New York City and that’s just a different vibe, entirely.

Absolutely.

So, I don’t sashay around to Hollywood parties.

You don’t sashay?

And just like know everybody. I don’t come into a Hollywood party and just like sparkle everyone to death with my repartee.

“Hey Jennifer Lawrence, hey girl, how you doin’?”

“Finger guns! What’s up?!”

“Hey Larry David, what’s up?!”

That’s just really not my world at all.

When you look at all the Internet companies coming in with the money, like Amazon and Netflix and others — and I was interviewing Jane Lynch the other day about this, like she said she doesn’t even think about it, whoever buys her stuff, she’s fine.

Right.

Do you imagine that’s gonna change the way things are, more accessibility for voices like yours? Or do you not ...

I think it’s a good thing. I actually think that is a very forward and positive direction.

More people.

To have more people with money, more people with ... And listen, we have to get people interested in other voices; we have to bring more people into the party, we have to actually walk the walk of hiring interesting people and new voices and people who don’t come with a giant resume.

Right.

You have to be creative and reach into different places to find people, for sure.

Right. Right.

Otherwise it will be same, same, same.

Same, same, same.

But, to me, that’s a very positive... I couldn’t have imagined starting out at 27 looking at ... Like I would never have looked at the big networks that existed and gone, “That will be me one day. People will be talking about my latest ...” You know?

Show.

Yeah. Never.

So, do you feel that it’s open more or not?

I do feel like it’s open more. I mean, certainly, I did comedy forever, actually with one of the producers of my show, Allana Harkin, we did comedy for years in Toronto, and if YouTube had existed when we were doing our comedy, it would’ve been a completely different experience.

So, I want to finish up talking about where comedy is now. Comics, well, you have Bill Cosby being sent to prison.

Perp-walked.

Yeah. Got perp-walked out, you’ve got Louis CK, you’ve got Norm Macdonald defending Louis CK, what is the comedy world now? It’s gotten so dead serious.

I’m not really a part of it. I’m not a part of any secret society, if it does exist.

Right.

And I haven’t really been invited to it.

Yes you are. At times.

When I started “The Daily Show,” and my husband, when we were working there, we were very aware that we just didn’t know anybody. We don’t know a lot of comedians, we just didn’t grow up in that, because we were working in Canada. We don’t have those relationships from when, “Remember the early days at the Groundlings, when we were all together and we lived in a two-bedroom apartment?” We don’t have any of that. So we’ve always felt a little bit like we were an island. Not to say that I don’t have pleasant interactions.

Right.

Sure, I’ve met more people now and it’s great, but I’m not really beholden to anybody because it’s not my world, in a way. It’s weird to be ... I’m just kind of on the fringes of this world, a little bit.

To just go off and do this thing.

To go off and do this thing, and it’s not the thing that I ... Doing a comedy show is great, I love it, I love the people that I work with. I give it over to them completely. But, it’s not the only thing in my life, and it’s not the last thing I’ll ever do.

That sounds rather healthy.

And I could walk away from it and be fine.

So, two last things: What do you think are the key topics you have to cover on your show now? You obviously focus a lot on #MeToo, you focus on ... And that’s solved, apparently.

Yeah, we did it. Guys, we did it. I wouldn’t say that there’s any ... It’s not like we have subject matter that we go, “One day, we’ll cover this.” These women’s issues are very important to me, because that’s who I am, but also I would also say immigrant issues are very important to me, personally. That’s just a personal and ...

The Puerto Rican stuff. The state, that that’s a part of this country, was some of the strongest factual ...

Oh, thank you.

I was surprised by how moving it was.

Thank you. I would say that the refugee situation is very compelling to me personally. These are just my personal passions. I could see the next phase of my life being completely different, and just pouring myself into ...

Such as? That’s what I was gonna ask you.

Into working with refugees.

Really?

Is a very easy place that I could imagine my life going. It’s a really easy direction for me to imagine.

And not being in entertainment?

For sure. Oh, geez, this is such a future conversation, but I could, 100 percent. I don’t need to be in front of the camera forever. I would love to put shows in place that I love the subject matter, I’ll definitely move in that direction of development for sure, but I could easily move onto something else, working on creating my own foundation.

Very few celebrities say that.

Oh, it’s great. I think it’s good. Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada. I don’t know.

Do you like being a celebrity? Because you are, really.

Yeah, it’s nice. There’s perks, for sure.

Such as?

Let me think about the perks. I kind of have good clothes. I like my clothes. What else? I guess I was a decent dresser before, I always wore blazers, so there’s really nothing new there.

Your blazer.

Yeah, there’s really new there.

Your blazer game is excellent.

It’s excellent, but it always was pretty good.

Was it?

People are very nice to you. People are nice to you even when they don’t need to be. They just are, generally. You can usually get a restaurant reservation. Not always.

Good being in the handsome bubble or whatever.

A little bit. I don’t take full advantage of it, that’s for sure.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.