The Canadian comedian has replaced Jon Stewart as America’s most trenchant political commentator. Her secret? Not hiding her frustration.
At 46, Samantha Bee likes to say she’s entered her “don’t give a f**k” years. She no longer gives any f**ks about getting along or playing nice or keeping her cool, a fact laid bare on her TBS show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Since its debut in February, Bee has quickly solidified herself as one of the freshest, strongest voices in late night. Average viewership for her weekly show currently tops the average nightly viewership of Conan and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, which was recently canceled. She’s even closing in on her former employer of 12 years, The Daily Show, according to Nielsen.
Where most of Bee’s male peers pad their shows with light, polite jokes and chipper celebrity interviews, Bee goes for the jugular every Monday. Donning tennis shoes and “power blazers” described by adoring bloggers as “patriarchy busting,” Bee stands, feet planted firmly in a power pose, and rants, ruthlessly, unrelentingly, and hilariously.
A segment on workplace sexual harassment called “Samantha Bee’s #ROAR, You-Go-Girl Job Fair for Future Women. Lean In!” is delivered with bitingly perky sarcasm. In a segment on Brexit and immigration, she shouts, “When Britain needs brown people again, they’ll just colonize you!” Bee, who was born in Toronto, refers to Donald Trump as a screaming carrot demon, an orange supremacist, America’s burst appendix, and Casino Mussolini. And she has enough funny epithets at the ready to skewer everything from abortion rights restrictions to Seattle’s controversial sports arena. Whether you agree with her politics or not, Bee has proved that female-focused topics can have wide appeal: More than half of Full Frontal’s viewers, indeed, are men.
Calling from a vacation in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Bee tells Fortune that she and Jo Miller, her show runner, didn’t design Full Frontal to stand out from the competition. It does that naturally, given that she’s one of two women in late-night TV (Chelsea Handler has a show on Netflix), but also because the world is primed for her style of impassioned feminist fury. In an era of raging, angry men like Trump, the “light and polite” shtick offered by network late-night hosts just feels unsatisfying.
“I’m just past the point of caring what people think. I have worked in environments where I felt like I wasn’t myself, and it wasn’t long-lasting.”
Bee is not pointing to the absurdity of it all and shrugging like “What can ya do?” She’s not slipping through the same “I’m just a comedian!” mea culpa trapdoor that Jon Stewart—otherwise an obvious inspiration—often used. She can’t hide her outrage. “We don’t actually know how to make any other type of show, because,” she pauses, letting out a deep sigh, “we feel these frustrations. We need this catharsis.” After the Orlando shooting, Bee forcefully dismissed the entertainment world’s formula of offering “well-meaning words about how we’ll get through this together, how love wins, how love conquers hate.” With shaking hands and a slight waver in her voice, she declared, “F**k it! I am too angry for that. Love does not win unless we start loving each other enough to fix our f**king problems.” To politicians offering “thoughts and prayers,” she demanded, “Stop thinking and do something to improve our society!”
Bee’s intention was always to “fight through the comedy clutter in a strong, clear voice,” she says. But she didn’t realize how “ferocious” Full Frontal’s point of view was until she taped the first one in front of a crowd in February. It was a revelation: “I felt like I was on a journey with the audience, and I felt it just drop into my center so hard. And we all watched and we were going, ‘Oh, my God, that’s it! Hey! Wow!’ ” Bee lets out a big, infectious laugh. “Like, you could look into the audience and see the expressions on their faces. It felt like we all had a moment, and then from there we felt free.” Performing is therapeutic for her: “When I walk away from the show after performing it, I feel great. I feel like I really got it out of my system. It’s very satisfying. Very satisfying.”
That freedom and satisfaction comes after many years of grinding it out. Before breaking into showbiz on The Daily Show, Bee held plenty of bad jobs, from cleaning grease traps at diners to working at an erectile dysfunction clinic. Along the way she molded her personality for situations, a pressure well understood by women in the workplace. “I’ve done a lot of tempering myself for the benefit of other people through the years,” Bee says, “but I’m just past the point of caring what people think. I have worked in environments where I felt like I wasn’t myself, and it wasn’t long-lasting.”
Bee says she’s noticed a shift in the “temperature” around feminist issues, particularly in the workplace. “I think we’re more frank with each other. I think we’re more able to be honest about our experiences,” she says. “Now people are standing up to Roger Ailes. That’s a good thing.”
She’s part of the shift herself, having committed to hiring a diverse workforce. Full Frontal uses blind submissions for writers and actively seeks to hire newcomers to the industry. Bee says she feels an obligation to level the playing field for others, since she and Miller were total outsiders—and relative latecomers—to the entertainment world. “Any access we’ve been granted came from grit, stick-to-itiveness, and determination,” she says, noting that Full Frontal hasn’t solved comedy’s diversity problem yet.
Not that Bee hasn’t had encouragement over the years. She got plenty of helpful guidance when it came to her decision to jump to TBS. (Bee is also executive producer of TBS’s The Detour, which stars her husband, Jason Jones.) The best advice Bee has received, though, came when she was worrying about when to start a family. A friend asked her why she was waiting to live her life. Bee says, “It was such a great moment where I went, ‘Am I waiting for my bosses to give me the okay to live the fullest life that I want to live? This is insane.’ ” Almost on cue, Bee’s three children (ages 6, 8, and 10) interrupt to tell her about the movie they want to watch (Mamma Mia!). “I’m having a conversation right now,” she says to them.
And then, in a comic vibrato, she belts out: “I’m leaning in! I’m leaning in!”
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Smart Sting of Sam Bee.”