“Is there a Mrs. Anti-Gay Crusader in your life?” The reporter sitting across from Palm Beach congressional candidate Ed Heeney seems determined to get her question answered. Heeney, his tropical shirt drenched in sweat, raises his eyebrows. The slender reporter, dirty blonde hair neatly tucked behind her head, a light pink shirt peeking through a traditional black blazer, doesn’t blink. Is she serious? Fortunately for the audience at home, and unfortunately for Heeney, the reporter is The Daily Show‘s Samantha Bee and this is not the news – honest, she swears.
• • •
“Flag size doesn’t matter? Only someone with a really small flag would say that.”
• • •
“All right, let me take a few deep breaths. C’mon Samantha, remember what we learned in theatre.” Bee is in the process of trying to sit her six-months-pregnant frame down in her office at The Daily Show’s studios in New York City. It’s only noon, but Bee has already attended two story meetings and edited part of her field report. With a few spare minutes, Bee sneaks a bite of her spinach salad.
“Every day over here is different,” says Bee in between quick munches. “Sometimes I don’t get outside at all, and just sit in here all day. I’m like a very boring accountant.”
The Toronto-born Bee, 35, is joking. She has to – it’s practically in her contract. She’s one of the “fake correspondents” for the comedy-news television program The Daily Show. Hosted by Jon Stewart, the show uses news footage, interviews and on-the-spot field coverage to satirize American news, pop culture and media. And just for kicks, the show lampoons the Christian right, gun-mongers and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We’ll do anything here to make a joke. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” admits Bee, who, using one of her familiar reporting techniques, once mocked an interview subject by crying like a baby, complaining she had “crapped my pants, and now I’m covered in poo.”
Despite the occasional feces joke, the show, broadcast on the U.S. network Comedy Central and simulcast in Canada on both CTV and the Comedy Network, is a rabid success. As of last year, the show attracted over 1.2 million viewers nightly in the U.S., double the audience of more traditional cable news fare like CNN’s Crossfire. In Canada, an average of 300,000 viewers watch the show every night, regularly trouncing Leno and Letterman.
“Never, not in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined I’d end up here,” says Bee, taking a break from thinking of ways to make Dick Cheney seem even more of a… well, dick. “This all feels a bit too perfect.”
Though Bee is often dumbfounded by her success, The Daily Show is the only place on television where she can get away with her distinctive style of comedy: a potent mix of jackass-meets-cynic sarcasm, casual profanity, fearlessness and an affinity for bodily fluid jokes. It’s not that Bee enjoys making people like Heeney feel uncomfortable on camera; she’s just too damn good at it to do anything else. Best of all, she gets to do it in the name of news – but don’t tell her that.
• • •
“With a tolerant society, low crime rate and free health care, Canada is hell on earth.”
• • •
Growing up in downtown Toronto, the teenage Bee was a self-described “hellcat” who woke up one day and decided to attend the University of Ottawa. After a few semesters spent pursuing a general arts degree, Bee signed up for an acting class as a bird course, and immediately took to performing. Still, she had trouble understanding the basics.
“I didn’t know you had to read the entire script through, so I just read my part,” admits Bee, recalling her first production. “When we were watching the dress rehearsal, I was completely gripped because I honestly didn’t know how the play was going to end.”
After graduating, Bee moved back to Toronto and stumbled through the life of an actress/waitress until discovering the city’s comedy scene. After the all-female troupe The Atomic Fireballs lost a member, Bee joined the cast.
“Sammy had a car, which made her an absolutely essential member of the group,” says Allana Harkin, one of the three other Fireball members. “But she also took writing very seriously. She’s dark and very quick on her feet.”
The group left its mark in Toronto, performing skits where Bee would come out of a change room with massive bushes of pubic hair pasted to her bikini-clad crotch. Between sketch work, Bee filmed a few commercials and worked with her husband, actor-comedian Jason Jones (now a Daily Show correspondent himself). In 2003, The Daily Show held auditions in the city, and soon enough Bee was on her way to cable television glory.
“I remember the great thing about her audition was she wasn’t trying to imitate or play a news anchor,” recalls Kahane Corn, co-executive producer of the show. “She wasn’t mimicking any style. Instead, she spoke with the authority of a real journalist, but still with the comedic sensibility we have to maintain on the show. She nailed it.”
Bee bought a closet-sized apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City and learned to live without her husband, who was stuck in Canada without a green card. Her first big story, a fan favourite about gay penguins, went over so well she quickly became a regular member of the show’s eyebrow-cocked cynics.
“Sam has the ability to disarm her subjects until the very moment they fall in love with her. And that’s when she eats their throats,” says fellow correspondent Rob Corddry. “Sometimes when I’m doing an interview and get lost I think, ‘WWSBD?’ And then I eat someone’s throat.”
Though she remains the only woman in the cast, Bee dismisses any comments that she brings any unique perspectives to the show.
“People keep on saying I bring a brilliant woman’s perspective to the show, or a unique Canadian spin, but I really don’t,” says Bee. “I have some back bacon in my fridge, but that’s it. I just try and make with the funny.”
Instead, Bee is more concerned people think she’s a real journalist with actual insight into the news, rather than the uninformed fan of poop jokes she is.
“Before the show, Sam knew as much about politics as me, and I learned everything from The Daily Show,” admits Harkin, who isn’t the only one confusing the program’s brand of satire with hard journalism.
• • •
“And who would you have voted for if you were on your medication?”
• • •
For the first part of its existence, The Daily Show was just a half hour of bizarre news clips and celebrity interviews that filled the time between Saturday Night Live repeats. All that changed in 1999, when the politically-charged Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host and the show developed a much-needed satirical edge.
“Our first priority is to be funny, though it’s true the show has evolved into other things in people’s minds,” says Corn. “If we’re managing irony or pointing out hypocrisy, we’re always trying to do it in a comedic way. After all, we’re on Comedy Central.”
Media critic and columnist Antonia Zerbisias of The Toronto Star disagrees, saying the show has gone beyond satire and transformed itself into a legitimate news source.
“Though it does satirize the media, it’s actually doing the job of the media, pointing out the bullshit and providing skepticism of the official line,” says Zerbisias. “They can do this because they’re not part of the machinery like CNN, they don’t have to worry about losing White House access.”
Still, Bee says that she only acts like she knows what she’s talking about. “At our best, we’re just having fun. If we make a point along the way, that’s great too.”
Despite the critical praise, Emmy awards and magazine features, Bee would rather just eat her salad and talk about her new queen-sized bed. She doesn’t speculate on the show’s future, or how Stewart’s contract is up in 2008. Instead, she rambles on about Manhattan’s restaurants and how her new home is so “au courant.”
“Please don’t say that I said those words… ugh,” says Bee, before launching into a suspiciously well-rehearsed rant about New York. “Toronto is a fast-paced urban centre, but compared to New York, it’s almost pastoral. It’s so intense here all the time, plus…”
She pauses, trying to hold it in.
“…the whole city smells like pee.”