Samantha Bee: I Know I Am, But What Are You?

“I have a knack for penises,” isn’t the kind of confession you’d expect from a memoir penned by Samantha Bee, The Daily Show‘s “Most Senior Correspondent.” But then I Know I Am, But What Are You? isn’t the kind of book you’d expect her to write either. Leaving politics and talk of Jon Stewart & Co. mostly to one side, the collection of humorous essays sheds light on Bee’s unconventional upbringing.

I spoke with the Canadian-born not-news show funnywoman (who is married to fellow Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones) about the topics her book does cover. Speaking by phone from the show’s Manhattan office, Bee tells me about her Granny juice-steeped childhood, her affairs with Jesus and her cat, her rebellious dislike of hot ham, and the repercussions of her exposure to penis-laden literature and videos at an exceedingly young age.

Nicole Powers: Congratulations on the book.

Samantha Bee: Thank you.

NP: The absence of two things surprises me: Politics and The Daily Show. Who knew you had a life outside of those things?

SB: I know, it’s weird right? People are asking me that because they’re interested in The Daily Show, but as I was writing the book I just didn’t get there. I just so didn’t get there. Also, I can’t imagine that it’s a super funny story. You don’t want to read about people’s great successes in life do you? Well, in a comedic way. It doesn’t seem that comedic.

NP: Well, the place you left off career-wise, where you’re bouncing around as a Japanese children’s superhero from Sailor Moon in a live kids show, is pretty funny.

SB: Yes, I really stopped the book before I ever started working as an actor. Like I don’t consider that to be real acting work obviously. There were years before I got to The Daily Show where I was really kind of working and life was quite normal. But no, I just never got there. I don’t know why.

NP: You’re just making us wait for volume two.

SB: Volume two — it’s a trilogy.

NP: And then you’ll make it like Star Wars and write a prequel.

SB: I assume so. Before I was born, when I was just an ovum.

NP: Your book does give us a glimpse behind the confident and collected woman we see on TV. I mean, before reading it, I thought the headshaking you practiced on The Daily Show was a genius comedic device that you’d developed through numerous improv sessions and comedy workshops. But now I realize it’s just a result of you spending a lot of time hanging out with geriatric tutting relatives.

SB: Yes. [laughs] Yes, that’s right. It’s not a really storied history. It’s a very ridiculous history. I’m just glad to be here now — thank god.

NP: Talking of your elder relatives, I’m curious, how long is a “car-length” coat?

SB: Well, it’s a coat that when you sit in a car it just goes to the top of the seat, so it doesn’t get all bunched under you.

NP: So you don’t get a wrinkly bum.

SB: It just goes down to that point at your hip level that you can sit comfortably in a car. It’s really for sitting in cars and looking at the park as it goes by while you sit in the warmth.

NP: Since the book deals so much with your childhood, I guess we should revisit some of it. I have to say you totally stole my boyfriend. I mean, Jesus and I so had a thing going on.

SB: You know, wasn’t Jesus all of our boyfriends? He was everyone’s boyfriend. That’s how they got you to become Catholic. I’m totally convinced they needed you to be attracted to Jesus.

NP: He was the David Cassidy of the Catholic Church.

SB: He really was. Did you have the picture of him with the sacred heart?

NP: I didn’t have that one.

SB: Did you see Jesus of Nazareth? Did you see our beautiful mini-series?

NP: I saw that and I was really into Jesus Christ Superstar too.

SB: Oh right, of course, of course. Well handsome Jesus is a very important part of recruiting young girls to the Catholic faith and keeping them there.

NP: It’s actually amazing that you were recruited by the Catholic Church at all considering your dad was a raging atheist and your mom was into Wicca.

SB: Yes. Completely. And they are very anti-religion to this day. My mother, her Wicca practice was really just an answer to my grandmother’s Catholicism. I mean, she’s always been Wiccan in my memory, but I think it may have started as a rebuttal of my grandmother’s Catholic practice, and it just became something she loved and stuck with all her life, and continues to practice to this day.

NP: How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church now?

SB: I don’t identify with the Catholic Church anymore, so I guess lapsed. There’s still a part of me that’s Catholic, but it’s not a very big part. They’re certainly not doing very much to lure me back.

NP: I also appreciated your declaration that “not liking hot ham doesn’t make you a freak.”

SB: It doesn’t.

NP: It made me feel so much better about myself; I was labeled a “difficult child” by my parents because I didn’t like ham and peas so I share your pain.

SB: You see! I’m so glad to meet a kindred spirit. It is not wrong to be discerning. It doesn’t matter how young you are, sometimes you just don’t like things and that’s OK. And you know what? If you change your mind and you happen to like cold ham, that doesn’t make you difficult to manage, it just means that you are mysterious in my opinion.

NP: It’s taken me many years and lots of therapy to realize that it’s OK to not like ham.

SB: When Jason and I were getting married, Jason made a sarcastic comment to my stepmother about my love for ham. I think it was one of those, “Well, we all know how much Samantha loves ham.” She didn’t understand that he wasn’t saying that I love ham, and so from that moment she served ham just about every time I saw her for about three years. Like ham in the potatoes, ham in the desert, ham ice cream — any place you could tuck in a little ham. She just thought it was so pleasing to me and I felt so terrible.

NP: In the book you talk a little about why you got into acting — the whole well-paid-and-not-really-work aspect — but you don’t say much about why you veered towards comedy.

SB: I really just tripped and fell into comedy. I mean it may seem hard to believe, but I really did. I really wanted to be a very serious actress. I saw myself in a very dramatic way. I thought, “I’m going to be an amazing Lady Macbeth.” That was the direction I wanted to take my career in — and no one ever hired me. Ever. No one ever hired me to do anything serious.

I was receiving a message from the universe. And right around that time I started meeting people who were doing comedy and going to their shows, and it really just kind of occurred to me. I thought, well, how do you do that? I was not familiar at all with the world of sketch or anything. I was a consumer of comedy products. I’ve always loved comedy shows and watching stand up and stuff, but I never really considered it as a career move. It didn’t seem like a very wise choice certainly, and so I really just fell into it. Someone dropped out of something and they asked me to replace someone at the last minute. I did it and I totally connected with it instantly, and then continued doing it.

NP: I have a theory about this. After reading Russell Brand’s autobiography and then yours, I’ve realized you do actually have something in common. You were both exposed to explicit pornography at a young age.

SB: Oh really?

NP: Yeah.

SB: You know I just saw him on The View. Errm, I don’t know why I was watching The View. [laughs] I really don’t have time to watch The View.

NP: There’s an accidental confession.

SB: Yeah. Very revealing. I was watching The View. Oh, my god! Whatever. It’s fine. And he was on, and it must have been so strange for everybody involved… You see how hard he was fighting not to say the word “pussy.” He was really working hard not to work too blue.

NP: Russell was exposed to pornography by his dad and you were by your mom. You did stuff with your Barbie, Ken and G.I. Joe dolls as a kid that as an adult I still don’t know how to do. I underlined all the positions that you wrote about that I needed to look up on the internet – and there were a lot.

SB: It’s funny that you say that because I was at a dinner party with publishers… I’m not really accustomed to going to corporate dinner parties. It’s not really my thing. But anyway, there I was. There were maybe twenty publishers or something like that. It was very fancy and they stopped the action at the dinner party at one point. They were all in their fifties and they were like, “Now tell us, what is bukkake? Nobody here at the table knows what bukkake is.” I was like, “OK, well first of all, that’s what Google is for. I’m not going to discuss it with you at the dinner table.” But then after, I called my mom right away and I was like, “There were twenty adults at a table and they didn’t even know what bukkake was!?” She was like, “What! How could they not know?” And we had a long twenty-minute conversation about it.

NP: Well I work for SuicideGirls and I didn’t know what it was… Then again, your previous work experience included a stint as a penis-clinic intake technician.

SB: Yes, at an erectile dysfunction clinic.

NP: How did this prepare you for your role as Senior Correspondent at The Daily Show?

SB: [laughs] Well it certainly taught me how to interview people… Because these men with erectile dysfunction are so shy about talking about it. Well thirty percent of them, or however many, were probably just jerking off, and many of them just wanted to have an ear to talk to or what-have-you. But for the rest of them, they had genuine problems. It was hard getting them to outline exactly what their problems were. It prepares you for the unexpected — I think that’s probably the best way to think of it.

NP: And I guess it helped you develop a talent for asking ridiculous questions while keeping a straight face.

SB: I believe so. You cannot laugh when someone — let’s say someone you went to high school with — calls one day and reveals himself to you.

NP: No, no, no.

SB: Yes. For many of these men it is the toughest call they will ever have to make, and their problems can be so ridiculous. I mean some of them are real problems and others are not really problems, but you really can’t laugh at somebody as they painfully outline their penis problems to you on the phone.

NP: I can completely see how you could draw on that skill when you’re interviewing high level politicians.

SB: You really can’t afford to blow it because you don’t get a second chance.

NP: Have there been any particularly memorable on camera Daily Show moments during interviews that never made it to the screen for whatever reason?

SB: I did have someone walk out on me once, which I’ll never forget.

NP: Who was that?

SB: I can’t tell you. It was a famous person in the political arena. We never used the footage. We were not allowed to use it. So that is one thing I do remember, and whenever I see that person I give them the evil eye.

NP: It does amaze me that these politicians do open themselves up to ridicule on the show. Because it can very rarely be a good thing when Samantha Bee walks into a room with a microphone. I mean, really?

SB: Well, they usually have to have some kind of…

NP: Delusion?

SB: Well, I feel like, in some ways, they are using us as much as we’re using them. They never don’t have a reason for doing anything. I think that’s it. I think they feel like they are going to get the upper hand and they’re going to use us in an efficient way. And they’re so cocky. I mean, they believe in themselves.

NP: Also, I think that some think if they go on The Daily Show they’ll be perceived as being young and hip. But most of the time people that think like that just come off as the fuddy-duddy uncle that tragically embarrasses himself at a kid’s party.

SB: Well, I don’t want to say that they’ll never get their point across. We certainly want people to continue coming to us, and maybe one day one of them will get their point across. You could be the next one sir or madam.

NP: I understand you were the first woman hired by The Daily Show.

SB: That’s not exactly true, there’s been women before me.

NP: But you were the first full-time, long-termer.

SB: Well, Nancy Walls [who is married to Steve Carell] was there for a while, and there were some others. I’ve definitely been there the longest, but there were lots of women before me. And we have a new one now. We’re just staring a female correspondent as we speak.

NP: How exciting. What’s her name?

SB: Her name is Olivia Munn. She was on a network called G4.

NP: It surprises me, on screen there are so many men, but you’ve gone on record as saying it’s a very female-friendly environment for you

SB: It really is. I could not do it without their [support]. You know, we’re expecting our third child now, and there’s no way that that would have been possible without the support of everyone here at the show — especially Jon. I bring my babies everywhere I go. The last round of conventions I had just had Fletcher. Actually he was born just six weeks prior to the conventions, and I brought him and I brought my daughter [Piper]. We were all ensconced in this big hotel room. They just could not have made it more easy to be a working mother, and I treasure them for that. It surprises a lot of people to hear that actually, but I mean to dispel the rumors that this place is a boy’s club — no boy’s club would let you do that. I’m not whipping out my boobs in front of everyone and breastfeeding, but I have been on field shoots and pumped in the van filled with cameramen. I’ve done it. I’ll do it again. I’m about to do it again. I don’t care. It’s good.

NP: It must help that your husband, Jason Jones, is also on The Daily Show. You sort of have his ‘n’ hers jobs don’t you?

SB: We do. We’re such nerds. Our desks are right beside each other. We have lots of kids stuff in here. People think we’re lunatics.

NP: Matching photos of each other on your desks?

SB: Yes. We wear noise-canceling headphones so we can’t hear each other, but other than that it’s quite nice.

NP: Yet the most passionate sex scene in your book is between you and your cat.

SB: I know. Have you ever been molested by a cat?

NP: I’ve never had any kind of sex with a cat, consensual or otherwise.

SB: I’m glad, because nobody should have to go through that. I’m just glad he wasn’t a mountain lion or something like that because he could have killed me. I had that cat for twenty years. He only just died in June last year. It was very, very sad. He was with me for twenty years. We were lovers for twenty years.

NP: Again, I have a theory. I know what went wrong.

SB: What went wrong?

NP: You didn’t teach your cat your safe word.

SB: I didn’t. I didn’t know how to say my safe word in cat language.

NP: Is you safe word still “horseballs?”

SB: Of course.

NP: I have to ask why?

SB: [laughs] It’s a term of endearment that relates to my husband.

NP: That put a very interesting image in my mind. Thank you!

SB: I apologize.

NP: [laughs] I’ll never be able to look at him on The Daily Show in the same way again.

SB: His body is so out there, it’s probably the one part that you haven’t been entertained by.

NP: It’s one of a couple of parts that The Daily Show has yet to expose and exploit.

SB: Exactly.

NP: So what’s in store next for Samantha Bee?

SB: Well, I need to push this baby out of my body in early August. Then I think I’m going to take about six or eight weeks off, not too long because the mid-term elections are coming up. So we’ll be pitter-patter let’s skedadder. We’re literally rounding up the whole family, all three children, and I think we’re traveling with the show. I’ll be wearing a Baby Bjorn trying to interview people with a baby on my chest.

NP: It’s good that you planned ahead so you can push it out before the elections. Do you always procreate around the election cycle?

SB: Thank god my body seems to agree with my plans. It doesn’t always work that way, but in this case it’s been quite good. It’s behaved very, very well.

NP: Your body is just naturally in sync with the political calendar.

SB: Yes. We’re in synchronicity.

NP: A key qualification for The Daily Show.

SB: It is actually. We’ll see how Olivia works out on that account, her body — can she sync herself up?

NP: So last question: What don’t we know about you that we should?

SB: Don’t you know everything now? Hmnn, gee, I’ll ask Jason, he’s right here.

[talks to Jason off phone]

Other than the fact I beat Jason up? Oh, that I’m doing this interview without any pants on.

NP: I do all my interviews without pants on.

SB: It’s so freeing.

NP: It really is. A little breeze and stimulation down there, it helps the brain work.

SB: You need to let your lady parts breathe.

This interview was first published by SuicideGirls in June 15, 2010.