Two of America's eminent late-night political comedians met in Newark Saturday to riff on Trump, "The Daily Show" and the recent deluge of sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men.
"Sad! A Happy Evening with Stephen Colbert & Samantha Bee," a fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival at NJPAC, also saw the two former "Daily Show" correspondents reminisce about their careers and tell behind-the-scenes stories about their shows. While this year's fundraiser wasn't as full of cutting angst as last year's, which arrived just after the 2016 election and featured Colbert and John Oliver, it often touched upon some of the troubles of American politics. (Colbert lives in Montclair, and his wife, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, is the president of the film festival's board.)
Bee, 48, host of "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" on TBS, joined "The Daily Show" in 2003 and was the longest serving correspondent in the show's history (and its first non-U.S. citizen correspondent), besting Colbert's record on the show by spending 12 years doing field reports involving topics like the "gay penguins" at the Central Park Zoo (for which she said she spent a horrendous day with a very homophobic man). Her TBS show recently made history, too, becoming the first series nominated for an Emmy in the relatively new variety talk series category that is fronted by a woman. (Her special, "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner," won a writing Emmy.)
Here are some highlights from their conversation:
- Bee's career journey began with a concept all too familiar to residents of the year 2017: fake news. As a child, the future satirist and sketch comedian would host a news broadcast from her kitchen -- with fake news and fake weather reports. She called it "News for Goofs." "Could've gone to 'The Daily Show,' could've gone to Fox News -- either one," mused Colbert, 53. "You're blond."
- "Guys are getting busted for whipping out their d***s," Colbert said, likening the current news cycle of stories of sexual impropriety to hurricane season. "It is a tsunami of penises," Bee said, adding "I'm happy to be alive in this moment, actually. I'm happy to be in a moment where people are being freer with their stories and we don't have to live with shame ... Keeping this going I think is important, for people to know what lies beneath, I think."
- Colbert said Louis C.K. was going to appear on "The Late Show" to promote his movie before news of his sexual misconduct broke. Can you separate the art from the artist, can you listen to a Cosby album in the same way now, he asked? Bee said she couldn't. Alluding to the Variety report that there was a button under Matt Lauer's desk that allowed him to lock his office door from the inside without getting up, she said: "I wish I had a button under my desk and, just like, sexual harassers would fall -- slide into a pit of crocodiles."
- "What does your show do? Colbert asked Bee. "Catharsis," she said. "For me personally and for the people I work with."
- Bee, who used to perform in an all-female sketch comedy troupe called the Atomic Fireballs when she wasn't working at an advertising company, said she was just about to give up on comedy when she auditioned for "The Daily Show." She had been a faithful viewer in her native Canada, where not many knew of the show. "I wanted to do that job because of you," she told Colbert.
- On the constant onslaught of Trump-related news: Bee was a guest on Colbert's "Late Show" when the president fired FBI director James Comey just before the host's monologue. The show had to respond in real-time, adding material as it went along. "We are all getting socked in the stomach all the time, which is great," Bee said.
- Both Bee and Colbert have traveled to Russia for their shows. "We talked to hackers. We talked to Russian trolls," Bee said, even before the 2016 election. They wore disguises and she met the trolls in secret locations, including one mother of two who said she was paid to slam Hillary Clinton on Facebook while pretending to be an American woman. Both late-night hosts said Russian authorities were clearly watching over them during their trips, including one man Colbert said was visible each morning at the hotel's breakfast buffet.
An audience member asked Bee if she would consider helping to organize another protest in the vein of the Women's March on Washington. "I feel like we're due for another one," she said. "The thing about the Women's March was that it was all-enveloping. It was all-encompassing. ... I feel like people should be in the streets about this tax bill, for sure, but I don't know if I should be leading a march." Colbert said he could imagine that if there are no ramifications to any possible Flynn testimony against the president and his family, then that may lead to additional protest.
Bee was asked about a recent tweet in which she proposed a Fantasy Indictment League. Who would be on her team and why? "I'm a little excited to hear the secrets of Jared Kushner -- my very best Elf on the Shelf," she said.
- What does Bee think of Megyn Kelly's move from Fox News to an NBC talk show? "I actually tried to get her on 'Full Frontal,' a lot," she said.
- Rewinding to election night in 2016, Colbert and Bee recalled how they had to quickly reverse course from their planned programming. Bee, who since 2013 has held dual Canadian and American citizenship (yes, she got to vote), had been preparing for the next day's show on election night. "The day started so hopefully," she said. They were going to have a balloon drop and she was going to wear a sequined blazer. "It was terrrrible," she said, of watching Colbert's special on Showtime and watching the results come in. Colbert said he had planned to have an all-male revue peform with "I'm with her" printed on their behinds. He said he gave Clinton a photograph from rehearsal, anyway.
- From the audience: What does Colbert think about the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey and if Gov. Phil Murphy will legalize it? "I've got such a case of glaucoma coming on," he said, referencing how medical marijuana is already legal. "I think he can do it. I can imagine that that's going to happen."
- The question: Is the Trump presidency better or worse than you imagined. The answer: "So much worse!" Bee said. "I could not have imagined. I did not imagine this. It is definitely the Samantha Bee Upside Down. "I don't exactly know how we get back to a good place once he's gone." Colbert: "I think local politics is the way to do it." He continued: "What's nice about Trump is that he's so horrible that it's hip to be nice. Honesty suddenly seems cool." Bee: "Virginia gave me hope." (Referring to the election of Ralph Northam, a Democrat, over Republican Ed Gillespie.)
From the audience: How do you handle comedy in the wake of fake news? Colbert: For me, it's honesty. "That was a turn that happened for me on election night ... For the last 10 minutes of the show, I just talked about whatever is in my head. I (was) determined to never stop doing that." Bee: "It's an interesting time to be doing a comedy show. It's almost like you're not doing a comedy show until the very second you get on the stage."
- On Americans vowing to move to Canada: "Canada's full," said Bee, a Toronto native.
- Would Bee ever move back to Canada? "I'm never leaving this place, I've completely bought into it. My kids are American," she said. "I don't want to comment on this place anymore without being part of the system."
- When asked if he would ever run for political office, Colbert, who launched a joke bid for the presidency in 2007, said he would not. "Talk about heartbreak -- talk about Al Franken," he said, referring to the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against the Minnesota senator, noting how people are now using jokes Franken told as a comedian to criticize him. Colbert said people would do the same for him if he ran for office.
On the use of "salty" language on "Full Frontal": "I think there's a possibility that TBS has maybe never watched the show," Bee said, noting that the show wanted to use footage of an elephant giving birth -- an "elephant vagina," as she called it, but was rebuffed. -- "It is gigantic .. a sight to behold," she said.
The 2018 Montclair Film Festival runs from April 26 to May 6, with Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" on May 4; montclairfilm.org
Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.