Late night's queen of the Trump takedown gets grilled by the 'Girls' mastermind on her White House Correspondents' Dinner special and the "raging negativity" of politics: "Every time I turn my phone off something terrible happens in the world."
"You don't know how much you mean to me," says Lena Dunham as she opens her arms to embrace Samantha Bee.
For the Girls creator and many more, Bee's weekly late-night TBS program Full Frontal has become, in the Trump era, a tragicomic feminist primal scream. So Dunham, herself a lightning rod and millennial icon — and surrogate for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign — has come to The Hollywood Reporter offices in Manhattan to interview Bee in advance of Bee's April 29 Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner special.
Dunham tells Bee that she has been instructed to say hello from Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer, with whom she is on a text chain. But despite their shared New York City area code and professional milieu, Dunham, 30, and Bee, 47 — a married mother of three children (ages 11, 8 and 6) with husband Jason Jones — have not met until now. "My life is super not fabulous," explains Bee. "I don't really go out or do stuff." Onscreen, however, Bee has done a lot of "stuff." After 12 years on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, in 2015 she left for a deal at TBS that made her the only woman in cable or broadcast late night. (Bee and Jones, also a Daily Show alum, co-executive produce the TBS comedy The Detour, on which Jones stars; he also is an executive producer on Full Frontal.)
Now in its second season, Bee's show reaches 4.3 million viewers an episode, and its host, a Canadian who became an American citizen in 2014, has emerged as one of Trump's most insightful critics ("The president's entire staff appears to treat him like a dangerously strong show chimp that you have to bribe with Diet Pepsi so he won't tear your face off"). Her research-dense yet profanity-laced monologues — she calls it "evidence-based comedy" — have become viral hits and even occasionally manage to shame political hacks into doing the right thing. (A segment about the backlog of rape kits in Georgia led to the passage of a bill requiring DNA testing on all rape kits.)
She sees the Correspondents' Dinner special, airing from D.C. at 10 p.m. on the night of the actual event, as a celebration of the First Amendment. (It's also a fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists or, as Trump calls them, the "enemy of the American people!") "We're not revealing that Vladimir Putin is going to be there," she teases, demurring on show details. But Bee's wit belies the challenge of political comedy in an unpredictable moment: "Every time I turn my phone off, something terrible happens in the world," she tells Dunham. "It's insane."
(For a podcast of the full conversation between Bee and Dunham, click below.)
DUNHAM You go on camera every week and stick it to the man harder than anybody else. You act as if you're explaining something to your blind, deaf and dumb grandfather at Thanksgiving. Are you ever scared? And how did you settle on the Samantha Bee persona, which is, "I'm here to explain this to you f—ing idiots, and if you don't wrap your brain around it, I'm going to explain it again in a different way."
BEE Well, I and the showrunner, Jo [Miller], we are both women of a certain age. I'm 47. She's 50. And the only thing that we truly knew that we wanted to do was really go for it. We just knew that it was a very rare opportunity. And we thought, "Even if we only have six episodes, let's make them the most kick-ass six episodes of television that we could possibly make. Let's make the show that we would want to see, and only cater to our own interests and kick the door in with it." We always knew that we wanted it to be really visceral and so there wasn't too much structure to figuring out how the show would physically look other than I didn't want to go behind a desk. It really flowed naturally from a very instinctive place, and it continues to do that. We were nervous at first, but we were like, "Oh, f— it, we're too old to worry. If it gets canceled, we'll say 'c—' on television, and we'll go be farmers."
DUNHAM Do you think the fact that you had spent so much time in the business, that you had done The Daily Show, gave you a certain kind of DGAF [don't give a f—] attitude?
BEE It absolutely did, because I just know that there's another world out there for me that's equally satisfying. There's something else that I could do that would be fine. And it was just freedom for us. [TBS] actually really trusted us; no one really ever trusted us before. Not to that extent, that's for sure. So it was just not having too many f—s left to give is where it came from.
DUNHAM It happened right around the time that there was this massive conversation about the fact that the only woman talk show host was Kocktails With Khloe on E! How heavily did you feel the weight of that superhero cape?
BEE I didn't feel it at all. And I actually still don't. I just completely separated myself from all that. I have to in order to be able to live life. People will put a yoke on you whether you like it or not. You really have to be very strict about your vision. You can't make a show for other people. You cannot crowdsource your show.
DUNHAM You have been a frontline voice against Donald Trump from the beginning. And you're also a mom and a person who wants to enjoy your life. How much do you feel that raging negativity that comes at a person, especially a woman, who decides to say "f— you" to a large entity like the American government?
BEE I definitely think about it. I'm definitely careful. It was such a long path to this place, and it was so gradual. With each new thing, the number of people who had heard of the show expanded. So it did happen slowly over time. When I really felt a geyser of hatred was the day after the election — actually, the night of the election. I checked my Twitter mentions, and it was one of the last times I've checked it. I just went off. I just went dark.
DUNHAM The minute that the election happened, I gave my password to someone and said, "If I'm on the floor, begging you like a heroin addict for my passwords, do not give them back to me. I cannot see this stuff."
BEE Yeah, actually my assistant took my phone from me, and she changed my passwords on me, which I really appreciate because it was unbelievable. It was a torrent of hatred. That night, at about 10 o'clock, I could not believe what I was seeing in my mentions. I could not believe it. And the days following the election were very hard. There were a million reasons why it was difficult, and it's been really difficult ever since. That's when I really felt like, "Oh, life has changed here. I don't know what's going to happen now. Everything is on the table. The whole world feels very unpredictable." I will not say that that has changed.
DUNHAM I was out there as a Hillary surrogate, so I was just working my butt off and tap-dancing as fast as I could for this woman whom I have always really believed in. But what I loved is that on the show, you were holding everybody's feet to the fire. You were not going to let comments slide just because the candidate was the person that you wanted to see win.
BEE We looked forward to holding President Hillary Clinton's feet to the fire. We were so excited about that. We thought, "We'll be able to tell a diverse range of stories. This will be so interesting. We're not going to let up on her. We want her to be president." But we don't see anyone as the messiah. It's not like she wouldn't have failures and make terrible mistakes and do things we wouldn't like.
DUNHAM When you put her in the African dashiki, it was one of the great days of my life. I was sitting at home being like, "That graphics department must have a lot of fun. They don't just do it. They do it with flair." So you were psyched to hold everyone accountable.
BEE Of course. I mean, that's our role to play as satirists. But we did think that there would be other stories. We did feel like the world would expand after Election Day. We thought, "We can do all this amazing stuff." And it's not like we can't now. There's an urgency at home right now that we really are feeling very profoundly.
DUNHAM Now, jump ahead, and he wins, and obviously, you have more material than you can even shake a stick at every single week.
BEE Often, it's not funny. I mean, that's the challenge.
DUNHAM It's sad and it's scary. How do you deal with trying to create satire and comedy out of something that has real terror to it?
BEE It's too much. There's too much to talk about. Everything is a potential tragedy. The news is changing so quickly, you think that the show's going to look one way on a Monday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, the whole world has shifted, and everything is different, and you can't tell that story anymore, or everything has just moved on and no one would care. Every time I turn my phone off, something terrible happens in the world. It's insane.
DUNHAM I tweeted something about the TV show Friends, and then everyone was like, "Nice timing. We just dropped a bomb." Do you feel like you could ever untether yourself from the news?
BEE It's funny. I went to Rikers [Island, New York City's main jail] a couple of weeks ago to shoot something that I think will be really good. It was a really interesting experience. But you're not allowed to take your phone in because you can't take glass or anything like that. So they took my phone, and they put it in a lockbox for eight hours. And I felt like I had gone on a Caribbean vacation. I emerged from Rikers, and everyone was like, "Your skin is shining." And it was because I've never been more relaxed. I felt so free just knowing that my phone was safe, but I wasn't allowed to see it or know what was happening in the world.
DUNHAM So Rikers became the most relaxing place you've been in months?
BEE It was the most free I've felt in months.
DUNHAM F—ing incredible. This is a terrible name/situation drop, but my boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff] and I went to the final goodbye party for the Obamas at the White House. They seemed to want to party. And I had to [leave] because I was like, "I can only cry." But [everyone] had to take their phones, put them into little brown paper bags, write their names on them and check them in. And I was like, "Things that I'll never see again: celebrities not staring at their phones and checking their Twitter mentions, [and] this many black and gay people in the White House." I got to give Gloria Estefan a hug and get the f— out of there. But I did have that same feeling, where I was like, "What is so relaxing about this? Oh, everybody's not alerting each other of some horrible news every 15 minutes." ... I never had any real relationship to the idea of being an American citizen until this election. But I've started to think about it deeply since this election. I wondered how much freedom [being a Canadian] gave you as a commentator?
BEE It does lend a certain perspective. I was not a citizen until a couple of years ago. Our children are American-born. So we were in it but not of it for a really long time, working at The Daily Show, and I didn't like that feeling, actually. I felt like if I was going to comment on a place, I should take ownership of it and invest in it. And so getting my citizenship was extremely important. I've kept dual citizenship. And I got dual citizenship for my kids. But it was very significant for me. I cried when they played the [Lee Greenwood] song. I was weepy all day and really, really excited. So I feel like if I'm going to live here and I'm going to pay all those taxes here, I really want to be in it. Like, I just feel like I'm in the thick of it, just in the dirt. My whole family lives in Canada still.
DUNHAM Speaking of The Daily Show, I wanted to ask — because you did amazing work there, but you were in somebody else's vision — what you learned and if you had thoughts about things you wanted to do differently.
BEE I could not be doing this if I hadn't done that, for sure. It really primed the pump. Being there for so long, it allowed me to have the exact career that I wanted to have and at the exact speed that was right for us. It also taught me to lean in to my point of view, especially toward the end, to just take ownership of my point of view, which I could never completely do because it was filtered through Jon's editorial point of view. So having the freedom to do my own thing, it was important for me and important also for Jo to go hard into what we thought, and our point of view is harder. It's more forceful in ways that Jon would never be. I think he's amazing. I think he's brilliant. Our point of view is just — it is different. We've been steeped in womanness for a long time, and we have other shit going on, and we see the world differently.
DUNHAM Now, this event that you're doing, can you tell me a little bit about the origin story and why this, why now, why you?
BEE Well, really, right after the election, we were broken. It was very emotional, especially at the beginning. And we kept coming back to this conversation of, "OK, how are we going to do this show going forward? We're so unhappy. We're just really unhappy, and we have to make a comedy show. So what are the things that we can do? Where can we find the joy that will infuse this show with life? It can't all come from a place of sadness. We have to enjoy this job, otherwise, why are we doing it?" So we were sitting around in my office. It was me and Jo and producer Alison Camillo, and we were just joking, and Newt Gingrich had [said] something really stupid that day like, "Why do we even need a White House press corps?" Our minds wandered to the [White House Correspondents'] Dinner. And we were like, "I wonder if it's even going to happen. Would [Trump] even show up for it? He's marginalizing people. He's going to abolish the White House press corps, perhaps. Who even knows?" And we were like, "I don't think the dinner's going to happen. Why don't we have a dinner just to make sure something happens on the night?"
DUNHAM So what is the biggest goal with the evening in terms of the content, the vibe?
BEE Really the night is intended to be a celebration of the free press, because obviously it's tremendously under attack. It'll be like an extended episode of our show in a different space. We're starting the evening with a bang. And we want to celebrate some cool people who are going to be there. We've invited a lot of people from small news outlets. We want to highlight the work that … lesser-known news outlets and some old newspapers, local newspapers do because it feeds us. We are parasitic. We take from them and make a show.
DUNHAM You're going to be making Full Frontal for a long time. Given the fact that Donald Trump has not yet been impeached, what are your hopes for the next four years? What do you think is the best-case scenario and how can we — people who are reading The Hollywood Reporter, who are in the business — use our voices?
BEE I have no idea.
DUNHAM Yup, great answer.
BEE I really don't know. Personally just as a private, personal citizen, I'm really hoping for some stability. I would love to feel confident that we're not going to war. I don't know what the future holds at all. I am so sorry to not have any answers for you.
DUNHAM No. That was basically just me coming to you as, like, a fetus and begging you for help.
BEE Do you know [Russian political activist] Masha Gessen? We've had her on the show a couple of times. She's so smart. She's incredible, and she is probably the only person who has said anything helpful to me that made me feel better or made me understand this process. And what she said was, "In the months and years to come, you have to draw a line for yourself. The things you will accept, and the things you will not accept, and you, for yourself, can never cross that line. You can never compromise your values even if you seem like the craziest person in the world, even if you seem like the hysteric in the room. If no one wants to invite you to their parties anymore because you're such a drag because they can't change your opinion on things, it's really OK. You should never cross your own line." And that was very helpful to me because I feel like the reality we will be faced with increasingly will be compromise.
DUNHAM The amount of people I know who started out full of rage and now are like, "You know what, I'll take a meeting with Ivanka just in case I can get her to say …"
BEE It's hard when the sun starts shining, the blossoms are on the trees, people start to get OK with things they would never be OK with before.
DUNHAM My boyfriend said to me that if he ever had the opportunity to see Jared Kushner and Ivanka, he would scream "shame" in their face over and over. I just said I didn't think [that would be] the most helpful thing — that he should maybe write an op-ed instead of screaming "shame" — because then he would look crazy, and they'd look cool. That's what we don't want. As somebody who's covering the next four years, what's the greatest responsibility you feel?
BEE You know, I tend not to feel a lot of responsibility. It's probably a bad thing. I really only feel a responsibility to do the best show possible. To do a show that is correctly researched and on point that pleases us. That's the role that we play in this. We do our thing. It's a very niche thing, and we do it the best we can, and I think that's my responsibility right now. And to raise my children right.
DUNHAM This is the first election and the first government where we've started holding celebrities accountable for either speaking or not speaking. After the election, instead of rage at Donald Trump, I had, like, two weeks where all my rage was directed at every female movie star who never said anything. It was psychotic. I was just full of hot rage and finally, Jenni [Konner, Girls' co-creator] had to point out to me, "You know, the problem isn't female movie stars who didn't talk about Hillary Clinton. You need to f—ing chill out." But I wonder what you think the responsibility of public figures and entertainers is in a moment like this?
BEE If you have a platform and there's something that you want to say, certainly you should not be ashamed to say it. It's a gift and an opportunity to be able to reach people with your voice. And I don't think that people should be intimidated by their own opinions, and if they want to speak, I don't think that they should be shamed for that. They will be. Of course. It's not what everyone got in this business for.
DUNHAM No. Some people just want to dance.
BEE Some people just should be allowed to dance, and I think that's fine, too. I don't think that I originally got into this business to do this thing that I'm doing now. I just wanted to play, like, Lady Macbeth on stage or something.
DUNHAM You can still do it!
BEE No. Those days are gone. I don't want to do that anymore. But you know, that's why it's a really weird trajectory to get from where I thought I would be to where I am now. It's not for everyone. I get that.
DUNHAM Do you feel like you employ the stuff that you use as a trained actor in what you do now? Do you feel connected to that part of yourself?
BEE I've never felt more disconnected. No. Well, I mean, yeah, comfort on stage.
DUNHAM But you're not going deep method when you're on? You're not digging into memories of your grandmother …
BEE Oh, I'll do that next time. You'll be wowed. A tour de force.
DUNHAM Even if you don't feel that you're doing a great service to our nation, you should know that every woman feels protected by and grateful for you.
BEE You know, I mean, I think it sounds a little bad that I don't take responsibility, but I will say this: I feel so appreciative when people come up to me and they love the show. It's completely heartwarming, especially young girls and old ladies. For some reason, at the two ends of the spectrum, it's heavenly.
DUNHAM For me, it's old ladies and gay teenage boys.
BEE Yeah, gay teenage boys, too.
DUNHAM Gay teenage boys, that's who I want to connect to. That's who I feel I am inside. But thank you from the bottom of the hearts of all of us.
BEE My God. Jeez, thank you. I just started to sweat. I just got knee sweats.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.