The interview: Samantha Bee

On her mean Daily Show interviews, stealing cars as a teenager and her wholesome family life

Shaul Schwarz / Getty Images

The former Torontonian and Most Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is famous for her stone-faced, satirical interviews with politicians and self-appointed experts. Samantha Bee, 40, lives in New York City with her husband and fellow cast member Jason Jones and their two young children. Her first book, i know i am, but what are you?, is a collection of personal essays.

Q: On TV, you play a character: Samantha Bee, caustic interviewer. Is the narrator of your book also a character?
A: No, this is really me me. That’s why I feel more nervous about this than anything I’ve ever done.

Q: So you really stole cars with your boyfriend when you were a teenager?
A: Oh my goodness, yes.

Q: How many?
A: I don’t remember every single car, but I’m going to say seven to 10 over a one-year period. I mean, we weren’t running a syndicate. But I was a scary teenager. I put myself in harm’s way a lot, hanging out with the wrong kinds of people, going over to men’s homes—grown men!—just because they asked me to. How nuts is that? But I didn’t see any particular problem with it. Your parents fill your head with terrible stories and you don’t listen to a thing they say.

Q: Are there things in the book that will come as a surprise to your parents?
Definitely. In fact, they haven’t read it, but my stepmom did. She was very surprised to learn that I didn’t do drugs as a teenager.

Q: Why?
A: I acted like a drug addict, for sure. I came in at all hours of the day and night. I was extremely horrible to my parents. There was one point when I got tonsillitis and it was so bad that my throat was closing over, but nobody in my family believed I was sick. They were like, “You see? She’s on the drugs! She can’t even speak she’s so drug-addled!”

Q: As a kid, did your friends and family think you were funny, or just weird?
Weird-slash-funny. My dad is very entertaining, so maybe he was the funny one and I was the sidekick a little bit.

Q: Your childhood seems kind of sad: your parents’ divorce, being raised primarily by your grandmother. Were you laughing at the time or only in retrospect?
No, at the time it felt terrible, but I think angst is kind of symptomatic of being a child. My childhood was certainly not really sad and terrible because the undercurrent was always that I was very loved. My family loved me, definitely. I never didn’t think that, as much as I railed against them at points.

Q: At what point did you decide you wanted to act?
In my mid-20s. I was planning to go to law school, of all things—I had no passion whatsoever for law, I just thought of it as a fallback—and I was at university, kind of meandering through my courses, when I took a theatre class because I thought it was a bird course. It was, “I need a class I can ace—this should be easy.” I ended up auditioning for a play and then I just fell in love. I wanted to be a very serious actor.

Q: Do you still?
No. I don’t think I’m very good at it. [laughs] The world doesn’t see me that way, and there may actually be a reason for that.

Q: Did you always believe you’d make it as an actor?
Not at all. When I left [the University of Ottawa], nobody hired me for years. It was dreadful.

Q: You write about waiting tables and working odd jobs before landing the lead in a travelling stage version of Sailor Moon. Why did you dislike doing children’s theatre?
That show, in particular, was dreadful. All caps: DREADFUL. I felt deeply humiliated every time I set foot on stage. I did other children’s theatre that was not that low on the totem pole, but even then, it’s very gruelling and you don’t get paid much, you don’t interact with the children particularly, you go from cafetorium to cafetorium, and you have to set up the stage—you, yourself—and get changed behind a flap. There’s not a tremendous amount of dignity. But I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t worked diligently to get here, and done a lot of things that are humbling. I think the one thing I did right was not giving myself a plan B, any option to get out of acting. If I’d given myself a plan B, I would not be acting right now.

Q: Now that you’ve made it in the U.S., do Canadians who never gave you the time of day suck up to you?
Absolutely. It’s confusing. I don’t blame people for it, but it hurts my feelings a bit.

Q: How?
It’s not genuine. And there’s one aspect of it that’s sad: sometimes people you knew think of you in a different way, though I’m still the same person with the same history. Sometimes people Facebook me and say [timid voice], “I don’t know if you remember me? But we performed together?” Just because I have a different job doesn’t mean that I don’t have any memories of my past or people I liked.

Q: You’ve said that you’re a homebody, and remarkably, for years, your family has lived in a one-bedroom apartment.
Actually, I’m pregnant with my third child, so we finally moved into a three-bedroom, just this weekend. It will be a big change not to have Piper and Fletcher sharing our bedroom, and we’ll have exactly three months until the new baby comes and we’re sharing again. We are going to do it non-stop for three months, in other words.

Q: How does it make you feel when people say you’re funnier than your husband?
Oh, it feels right. It feels normal.

Q: Seriously, how do you manage the power balance in your marriage when you’re more senior on the show and a bigger star?
I command him. I’m the senior person in our relationship as well, so in every way, I run the show.

Q: Your character on the show is often extremely mean. How do you look people in the eye and ask rude questions?
When I’m about to ask something really difficult, I feel my stomach drop into my vagina. You know that feeling when you’re going to do something really dangerous in traffic? It’s difficult, but you just do it. You feel it in your genitals but you just have to accelerate through the red light.

Q: Do you ever feel, afterwards, “I went too far that time”?
Yes, of course. If the person takes a position on something that I vehemently disagree with, and they are themselves a jerk, and then I’m a jerk to them—I don’t punish myself for that. But I’ve met so many lovely, lovely people and I have to tell you, and this surprises everybody, that 95 per cent of the people I interview emerge feeling quite pleased and happy. If you take a position on something controversial, and you’re willing to say it on television, then you’re taking a risk no matter what. And we don’t misrepresent ourselves, they know exactly where we come from. I also need to say that people reveal things to me all the time that are vastly more damaging than the things we use.

Q: In other words, you’re kind in the editing process?
We have been so kind to some people. We’re just not in the business of ruining people’s lives.

Q: Is it harder to get guests to come on the show, now that you’re better known?
It has always been a challenge to get people to speak passionately about something on camera. I think it’s just slightly more difficult now, and people have a preconceived notion what I’m going to be like.

Q: On first meeting, do people expect you to be mean like your character?
No, most people don’t have any idea I work in TV. I did a ranch dressing commercial, and the doorman at our building said, “Oh my God, you’re in a commercial! I didn’t know you were an actor!” But sometimes if I meet people for a job, a voice-over or something, they get nervous. It could be pleasantly surprising to find out I’m not mean, but maybe also slightly disappointing. When people meet Don Rickles, they want to be zinged by Don Rickles, and maybe there’s a little of that.

Q: Your publicist said you’re shopping for a maternity dress this afternoon. Any special occasion?
I’m going on the Today Show for the first time, on the Kathie Lee hour. I don’t usually do stuff like this, so I have a vague feeling of dread. But I did have a very pleasant interaction with Kathie Lee once, on an airplane. I’d just given birth to my son and there I was with my infant and all this baby gear, and Kathie Lee, unsolicited, kept trying to help me.

Q: Did she know who you were?
I don’t think so. We didn’t talk about television, I didn’t go [pompous voice] “You know, I’m also in the biz.” She was just delightful and generous, so I’m going to try to butter her up with that story. Well, maybe I won’t tell her that I was surprised that she was nice. I’ll skip that part.

Q: Are you ever awestruck when you meet celebrities?
I freak out! [laughs] It’s so dumb. They go to the toilet just like you, they have weird problems—they’re just people, but it’s hard to remember that. It doesn’t happen very often, but people can be nervous about talking to me, and I see how ridiculous it is. People say, “So sorry to disturb you”—but it’s never disturbing to be told that people like you. It’s just so nice to hear that.

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