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

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

By Rachel Fershleiser

“I think my Dad has written about seventy eleven ‘anonymous’ positive reviews online by now. It’s possible that he is the only person on Earth who has actually purchased the audio book, just so that he can hear about himself as he reads about himself.”

It’s hard not to be jealous of Samantha Bee. As a correspondent for The Daily Show, she writes, performs, and humiliates hypocrites, plus works with Jon Stewart as well as her own hot husband, whom she met in the touring company of a live-action Sailor Moon musical. I know, right!? Plus, she’s raising happy, normal-seeming kids, and found enough time to herself to write a brand new book.

Here’s the saving grace: That book, I Know I Am, But What Are You?, is an honest and in-your-face account of how not-awesome everything was for a long, long time. The early chapters of Bee’s memoir provide ammunition for those convinced that a strange and unhappy childhood is the surest path to comedic success. Her early employment, from working in a frame shop to answering phone calls about erectile dysfunction, wasn’t much more glamorous.

Perhaps it was her romantic crush on Jesus Christ, time as a car thief, or knack for getting flashed by complete strangers that got her where she is today. Or maybe it’s just the outrageous humor with which she recounts her formative years, and just about everything else.

Samantha Bee generously stole some free time from her book tour to give us surprisingly earnest answers to our questions about the writing life. Read on for parenting advice, blog recommendations, and her one big tip for getting a book written.

Photo by Deborah Feingold

Photo by Deborah Feingold

Have you always considered yourself a writer, or are you more of a performer who wrote a book? When a stranger asks what you do, what do you say?
I have been writing for years now, though not always in a professional capacity (i.e. I did it for zero dollars and no glory whatsoever for an awfully long time). Interestingly though, only since the book was published do I feel totally justified in answering the question ‘what do you do’ with ‘I’m an actor and a writer’.

Did you contemplate writing more of a narrative autobiography, or was it always so episodic? How did you choose which anecdotes were defining enough?

I have to say that I didn’t really approach the book with a clearly mapped out sense of which stories I was going to write about. I allowed the ideas to grab me randomly, and then I put them on a list and allowed myself to contemplate them for a while. Then I just sort of started writing, and crossed my fingers that the choices I made would add up to a coherent whole.

Did you let anyone read the manuscript before going to press? You’re fairly harsh in your satirizing of family members–were you worried about their reaction?

No, I did not let anyone read the manuscript before going to press. I was really just shy about it, more than anything. In fact, I was very embarrassed when I actually had to send out the uncorrected proof because as I went over it, there were many small changes I knew I wanted to make and several spelling errors, which really bothered me. Because I am a nerd.

I was slightly nervous when my family read it for the first time, but I felt confident that they would come around to it once they got over the other-worldliness of seeing themselves in print. Which they did. I think my Dad has written about seventy eleven ‘anonymous’ positive reviews online by now. It’s possible that he is the only person on Earth who has actually purchased the audio book, just so that he can hear about himself as he reads about himself.

How old will your kids have to be before you let them read it?

I don’t plan to assign a specific age to the undertaking. When they are ready and eager to read it, then that is probably the right age for them. I don’t plan on reading it TO them as a set of bedtime stories, however, if that’s what you’re wondering.

You write about a lot of awful jobs you had, and admit you have a dream job now–how did you make that transition? Was there a “big break” moment?
There was definitely a “big break” moment, in the form of ‘getting hired by The Daily Show’. When I got the call from my agent I was busy working part time screwing up my friend’s bookkeeping at his printing company. I hung up the phone, walked into a meeting he was having, quit on the spot, and went out for a sour apple martini. After that I shivered non-stop for about two weeks, and then moved to New York.

Between family and a thriving career, when did you find the time to write this book? Do you have writing rituals–a time of day, special place, necessary beverage or snack, etc?
I really don’t know where I found the time. I must have been doing a piss poor job of mothering for about a year or so, because that’s approximately how long it took me to write the book.

Actually, the one thing I am very good at is compartmentalizing. On weekends, I would say to Jason, for example, I need ninety minutes to myself (or whatever), and then I would hide from the children and work diligently for that exact period of time, no more, no less, and generate whatever I could. Once I walked away from the manuscript, I genuinely dropped it from my mind and went straight back into parenting mode. I don’t tend to obsess over things.

There were no particular rituals to speak of, but the one thing was, I bought myself the lightest laptop I could find. I knew I would end up toting it everywhere I went and that anything over a couple of pounds would strain my back. I wrote at the hair salon, in the airport, in the waiting room at the gynecologist. Wherever I could catch twenty minutes to myself.

Are there memoirists, essayist, or humorists who inspired you when you were working on this book?

Actually, I specifically tried to erase them all from my brain, so as not to feel invaded by feelings of inadequacy. If I was cutting an album, for example, I’d probably try to steer clear from the music of the Beatles for a while.

I do remember a specific moment as a child, when my mother lent me her copy of “Mommie Dearest”. I was only a kid, it was in hardcover at the time, maybe it was 1978, and my mother just rolled her eyes at me, as if she knew I would write about her sometime in the future. She has signed all her cards and letters to me as “Mommie Dearest” ever since then.

What person, living or dead, would you most like to read a new memoir by?

I’d like to read Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of me.

Writer, tv show, or any other medium–who or what never fails to make you laugh?

The website Cake Wrecks makes me laugh every time I visit it, without fail. Other peoples’ spelling errors thrill me more than I should probably ever admit (see: answer number three. I told you I was a nerd!). But spelling errors on a hideously decorated celebratory cake? I mean, that’s like heroin to me.

Finally, Samantha Bee, what is your Six-Word Memoir?

Jason and our children saved me. (not at all funny, but completely true)

BUY I Know I Am, But What Are You?

READ an excerpt at The Takeaway

WATCH a video exclusive on The Daily Show’s website

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