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As the race for our next president heats up, one thing has never been more clear: We live in a polarized nation with polarized media pundits, eager to shove their weight around the political arena. It's precisely the environment where The Daily Show thrives—where the news is so ridiculous, not even the comic geniuses at Comedy Central can make it up. And not surprisingly, the show is better than ever, providing sharp media criticism of Sarah Palin reporting and mocking the nation's propensity to put Obama on a pedestal. A large part of The Daily Show's recent success can be attributed to Samantha Bee. Since joining in 2003, Bee has churned out countless stone-faced segments, playing a character eager to coax her interview subjects into saying outlandish, often contradictory things; in one recent bit, she attended the Republican National Convention and asked attendees about the Palin family's decision to keep their baby, but feigning ignorance to try and get her interviewees to call it a choice. Bee continued to contribute throughout her second pregnancy with husband and fellow correspondent Jason Jones; she gave birth to a son in June and the newborn has since made a few on-camera appearances of his own. The A.V. Club recently caught a few minutes with Bee to chat about the show's role in the news, Christopher Hitchens, and her native land up North—with whom Alaska's governor claims to hold close (proximity-related) diplomatic ties.
The A.V. Club: What is your Daily Show origin story? How did you get hooked up?
Samantha Bee: They were looking for a woman and they ended up coming to Canada—Toronto, specifically—and I auditioned for the show. It's a really boring story. But it was exciting to me.
AVC: Were you into politics at all before joining the cast?
SB: Yes, I was. But not like now. I kind of followed the Canadian political system. I know, it's amazing to people that we have a political system, but we do.
AVC: It's not nearly as showy as ours, right?
SB: It's not nearly as showy but they're doing a really good job this year at trying to be showy. There's a prime minister thing going on in Canada. Exciting! I'm not even reading about the U.S. election, I'm just totally involved in the Canadian one.
AVC: So it's a "keeping up with the Joneses" kinda thing.
SB: Well, I think it is. It's sad to say that. But God love 'em for trying. There's no way that they can compete. It's just different, they're on a different stage.
AVC: Why would they want to compete? Our system is very flawed.
SB: Oh, it's so terribly flawed. But so is the Canadian system. I think it's just that they seemed a little humdrum by comparison. They've been trying to spice it up a little bit. There's been a little mudslinging, which is not really typical. And you know, photo-ops with the family. It's just gotten a little cheesier. The showmanship has gone up. I don't think the stakes are all that much higher, but it would appear that way. I think people don't even like Stephen Harper—but I don't want to talk to you about the Canadian system. Nobody wants to read about that. I mean, c'mon! [Laughs.] Who are we kidding?
AVC: Well, okay, let's talk American politics. This election has been pretty ridiculous, with all the surprises and lies. Does it scare you when politics is so comedic, you couldn't make it up if you tried?
SB: The people I really feel sorry for are all the writers out there who wrote these outrageous comedic romps about a grossly unqualified person who goes on to become a Vice Presidential candidate in a hotly contested presidential race. With hilarious results. They must be so bummed.
AVC: This is the second time you've covered an election for The Daily Show. What's different for you personally this time around?
SB: I don't feel intimidated by any of the people I'm talking to or the situations I find myself in. I just try to make my nana proud.
AVC: What about your role as a comedian? Has it become more active, more prominent?
SB: I don't actually agree with that. I don't know that we ever—we, I say we loosely—I don't know that we get up in the morning here at the show and think, "Well, we're going to do something really earth-shattering today. Today we're really gonna blow it up." Speaking for myself, I try to go out there and make jokes with people, so I'm not really thinking about the impact anything I have. If it does resonate with people, that's really great.
AVC: But the show's been getting a lot of attention lately—people are talking about what comedians are doing. Like, just look at the reaction Tina Fey gets when she impersonates Palin on Saturday Night Live.
SB: Yeah. Do you really think that's going to affect or change anything, though? I don't think so. I remember back in 2004 people were like, "How does it feel knowing that you're going to be part of the shifting tide in the political system?" And in the end nothing changed, and we weren't part of anything. And we're not happy anywhere. I think we're kind of hoping, obviously, but it didn't really have a great impact on people. And people were talking about it, but does that really I don't know.
AVC: Isn't that kind of a cop-out though? You say you're not journalists, that you're just a comedy show, but let's say you felt strongly towards one candidate—say, Barack Obama—
SB: Let's say! Let's just say! [Laughs.] If I had to pick between the two; if I had a gun to my head. Let's just say.
AVC: Right. So you rip on McCain more and give Obama supporters more favorable coverage and more guest spots. Sure, you're not being journalists, but you're still making a statement.
SB: I don't think it works that way, though. I'm not part of the booking-of-the-guests procedure but John McCain has been on our show like a million times. Only now he's not doing our show. I wouldn't think it's because our show's not asking him to be on. I'm betting he has an open invitation to come back. I mean, I'm sure they'd want President Bush to come on the show. And Dick Cheney. I mean, that would be huge. Our shows can't afford to tell anybody not to come on. [Laughs.] We want great guests. [Chewing] Sorry, I took a bite of my sandwich when I said that. I almost killed my child yesterday by accident so I'm like nourishing myself.
AVC: What do you mean?
SB: My husband and I dropped our baby from a great height yesterday. We had the scare of our lives, it was just terrible.
AVC: What was the situation?
SB: Parental negligence. [Laughs.] It was terrible. We put him on this bouncy sitter on our kitchen counter and he decided spontaneously that he wanted to roll onto the floor. Anyway, that doesn't really have anything to do with why I took a bite of the sandwich. [Laughs.] I'm just constantly eating. Since then I haven't stopped eating.
AVC: Moving on, both comedy and politics are notoriously men's worlds, but there has been a lot of attention recently in both arenas paid to women who are breaking in. And at least in comedy, the slant seems to be, "Check it out! Women in comedy," like in that Vanity Fair piece a few months back—
SB: Right. Don't you think Christopher Hitchens is so retro though? I mean, he kind of evokes the smell of fine tobacco and shag rugs and chrome, glass all over the place, pink walls. He evokes the '80s to me. [Pauses.] I shouldn't say that. He's much grosser than that.
AVC: Well were you surprised with the way he treated that story?
SB: No, I'm actually not at all surprised. But I've talked to a lot of other women in the field of comedy and none of us feel like being a woman has been a barrier to success in our lives. I can't claim to feel like I've been under some man's thumb in comedy. I've sort of always done my own thing for better or worse, and have been lucky enough to be able to perform ever since. So I'm not surprised by all the articles, but I don't know if it's necessarily true. It's not like we haven't been around.
AVC: On IMDB, all your Daily Show stuff is listed under 'self.'
SB: I know, I know!
AVC: So how much of yourself is in your correspondence work?
SB: It's really funny, isn't it? I call it a character, if that's not too ridiculous. I don't think I'm very much like the person I am on the show. I'm certainly not as ambitious; no, that's not true, I'm kind of ambitious. In a nice way. But there's a part of me. A lot of me. There's a lot of what I think is funny.
AVC: Who is that person you're trying to create?
SB: Oh my god, you're making me go to such a deep, dark place. Hopefully just a funny, dour, evil side of myself that has no other way to express itself. I don't model it after anyone in particular. Who would be like that? [Laughs.] Who? I wouldn't want to meet that person. I wouldn't want to be interviewed by that person, I can tell you that.
AVC: Now that you have a higher profile on The Daily Show, how do you keep your interviewees on task? Don't they know they're being mocked?
SB: It's very disconcerting to have a camera shoved in your face. It's really discombobulating. If you're the least bit nervous you forget what you just said, you can't find your way through, you can't follow the logic of your own statements sometimes. It's a weird sensation. And I think that really helps to lock people in place.
AVC: What are the nuts and bolts of creating a segment? Do you know going in roughly how it's going to turn out?
SB: We roughly know. We try to go at it with a point of view, to see it through a certain lens. It helps find a point of focus. If you don't, it's very, very difficult to get anything worth saving. We definitely sometimes get stuff that's different that we were expecting. I mean, that's part of the joy and the terror of interviewing real, live people. Sometimes they come along the journey with you, and most of the time they don't.
AVC: What do you do when an interview's not going well?
SB: Sometimes they really just don't go well, which is difficult. It's a difficult feeling. But sometimes you're just interviewing someone and you're thinking the entire time, How can I get through this really quickly? Because I know this isn't gonna make it. This person is either too long-winded or deathly boring, or they don't have the point of view that supports what you're trying to do in the piece. Or often people misrepresent themselves on the phone—what they're willing to say to you then, they're not willing to say in person.
AVC: Do you ever have to break character and say, "Listen, you said you were gonna talk to me about this."
SB: Yeah. But that's something that regular reporters definitely do all the time.
AVC: But as you've said, you're not a journalist.
SB: No, not at all. [Laughs.] Not at all. [Pause.] But you have to find people who think that, you know, hair-braiding should be outlawed on South Carolina's beaches. And you take it from there. Sometimes things go perfectly. Not often.
AVC: You've worked with your husband for quite some time. How often does work come home with you?
SB: You know, it never does. We have two children. When we go home we are all about changing diapers and going to Whole Foods and doing laundry, and like sweeping cat fur off the floor. We're actually doing a field piece together next week for the first time in a while. But if we brought it home with us we would go crazy. What would happen? The sex would be mind-blowing. It is at work, anyway. And that's fine.
AVC: After traveling the country and speaking to so many people, answer this: Why can't we all just get along?
SB: Oh my God. Do you really want to get along with the other half? What are you gonna talk about? You don't have anything in common. I can't solve these issues myself. I can't even keep my child from rolling off a kitchen counter.