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Samantha Bee Reckons With Being a Boss

Samantha Bee. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Getty Images

When Samantha Bee was doing press for the launch of Full Frontal in early 2016, she and her producers vowed to “kick the barn doors in.” Pretty quickly into the show’s run, it was clear what she meant: If the show was talking about something that made them angry, they were going to be angry. And it became a refuge for those who didn’t find men calmly sitting behind a desk cathartic. But now, five years later, as the show is in its sixth season, it is undeniably in the barn; it is established. And Bee is still trying to figure out what that means and how to build a show, both on camera and off, that lives up to its ideals.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Bee talks about people’s relationship to political comedy, learning how to be a boss, reckoning with life after Trump, and accepting being established. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Do you think about why people want comedy to be saving the world? What does it say about our culture that comedians, rightfully or wrongfully, are seen as important?
I don’t know. Everyone’s looking for an easy answer. I know that the whole time I was at The Daily Show, the big conversation before Trump in the world of political comedy was “I get my news from The Daily Show.” “I get my news from you. Why do you deny that this is true?” We all spent all of our days going, “You didn’t get your news from this show. You didn’t. This is not fucking true. Like, you think you did. And you heard the news differently because it resonated differently, because it’s delivered differently. But if you didn’t know the story, if you weren’t familiar with the players, if you knew nothing, you wouldn’t find any of these jokes funny.”

And by the way — and I think this is not talked about enough, so I’ll say it — we cannot do our jobs without journalists. We cannot do it. If we don’t have all the Frontline clips, we can’t fucking make our show the way that we make it. We are just taking from the real news and synthesizing it in a different way.

People never did really get their news from The Daily Show. It got broken down differently, and you felt like a sane person. And that’s part of the catharsis, so that’s great. But if you were watching The Daily Show and you were like, “What is Iraq? Is that something? Where is that? What is happening?,” your experience of the show would’ve been bananas.

Sometimes some ask “What has your show done to make the world better?,” hoping you’ll make some grand statement about satire, and instead you’ll mention your family-leave policy, which you announced in January 2020. You talked about how it was the most generous of the late-night shows. Why does that stand up as much, if not more, than the stuff that you’ve done on the show?
First of all, it really was just practical. A producer on the show got pregnant. We were like, Holy shit. I was like, “Wait a minute, did we have a family-leave policy? What is it?” And then we realized that it didn’t exist; we hadn’t been called to create one. I remembered my leave at The Daily Show was not … I’m originally from Canada, where people get a year — like a full year. I don’t know what the pay scale is, but it’s like a full year at 66 percent of your pay, or something like that, from most employers. It’s just codified in Canada; you just come to expect that you’ll have that year with your child.

So, I was like, We have to make the best policy. We just have to have the best policy. We have to be a leader, not just compete against the other shows. Let’s win the competition. What would be helpful? What would I have wanted? Given that it’s America and you’re not going to get a year — we all know that that’s crazy — but I would have wanted six months. I needed that time; I wasn’t ready to go back. My job was generous about giving me however much time I needed off, but actually, I couldn’t afford to stay off work for as long as I wanted to.

You can do all of these big things and calls to action and stuff like that in the world, but they’re not really within your control. But one of the things that we could do was control our own happiness, like within the organization. Our family-leave policy is 20 full paid weeks, which is five months. But if you incorporate all of our breaks — which, we have very scheduled breaks — it actually is six months of fully paid leave, which is great. The reason I challenged all the other shows is because they should have it too. We work in television. We’re not neurosurgeons. We should want to do this. We should have the freedom and flexibility, and we should enjoy our jobs and feel supported to do them.

We did put it in place. I don’t know if other shows adopted that. I really, really don’t know. And if they do, that’s great.

Do you feel like you have a different approach to being a boss than other late-night shows?
I do. I do think that I am different. I am really quite involved in a different way. I am involved in the creative part of the show, but I’m also pretty spiritually connected too. I am aware of the problems we have as a company, the successes that we have as a company. I am constantly tweaking our processes and constantly thinking about managing the staff. I’m very involved in that in one way that is really humbling. And, yeah, it’s by choice. No place I’ve ever worked before has had that.

I’m not sitting before you claiming to know everything about my workplace. I really can’t. But I probably know more about the ins and outs of my workplace than most other people in my position. I will say that. And that is by design. I think it’s really important, because I just do.

I learn from it. It’s incredibly humbling, because when you’re doing something wrong, or you’ve made a choice, or you’ve allowed a choice to be made without your knowledge that affects people’s lives, it’s very hard to correct that. And not every decision is easy. You have to make hard decisions based on how the workplace is affected by this thing that you’re being called to do. It’s actually very, very challenging, and it really can be very painful. I don’t think that I’m particularly good at management naturally, and it’s hard to learn on the job, but I’m always trying really hard to do the right thing. If you’re not in the trenches a little bit or just dealing with the nitty gritty of it, I don’t know what you’re doing.

That’s a bad, long answer, but it takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy. And if you don’t do it, I don’t know, I guess you reap what you sow. If you don’t do it, you’ll be blindsided when there’s big problems, like big interior structural problems. I’d rather know about the problems and work diligently to fix them or make things better, or maybe not fix them, but have a pretty fucking good reason for not fixing it. I can’t make the workplace delightful for everyone all the time. It’s still work, and you still have to hate somebody and not get along with your coworkers somewhat. I can’t fix those things, but as we go, I try to do the right thing.

When you started, you would say your goal was to “kick the barn door open.” Now, five years later, you’re here. You’re in the barn. How does that feel? Does that change how you approach things?
You’re totally right. It actually took five full years, five full seasons to go, Oh, we’re very established. We’re part of the pantheon of established shows now. And then you go into your sixth season and you’re like, Okay, now it’s real. Now we have a show. That is bananas. But it’s true. It took me five seasons to go, This was for the history books, and now we can breathe. Actually, that’s crazy. Articulating this is very therapeutic. We are in the barn, and I don’t think that it has changed my approach to the show. But I do maybe feel more comfortable in my own skin.

That transition from upstart show to establishment show takes a long time. It’s a mental thing, because you feel like you’re always swimming upstream. In comedy, you’re always in there, fighting and clawing and elbowing and trying to make a space for yourself. And so you carry that energy forward, and then suddenly you employ all these people. You have to be professional enough to be a person who is, to the best of your ability, leading a large group of people. You have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do — all-hands meetings where everyone’s like, “What are we going to do next? We’re in crisis.” And you’re like, “Hi, everyone. I’m normal. I think we’re going to be just fine.” A lot of things that don’t feel like upstart things.

You have to just fake it to make it, in a way. But I’m not like, “Hey, man, I don’t know what’s happening here. I’m just like you. I’m struggling in here.” You do have a show with your name on it. Like, that’s pretty great. You can be grateful. You can be thankful. You can be a professional.

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Samantha Bee Reckons With Being a Boss