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Amber Ruffin on Prepping for Drunk History and Why She Loves Her Job

Amber Ruffin on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Photo: Comedy Central

Since 2014, Amber Ruffin has been bringing her extremely specific energy to Late Night With Seth Meyers. Nobody mixes goofy with angry in quite the same way. Especially since Trump was elected, Ruffin has often been the voice of “Shit has been terrible, where have you been?” on Late Night. “The day after the election my colleagues were devastated,” she wrote in InStyle. “But I told them, ‘The world has always been this way for black people. Join the fun!’” Ruffin is currently developing Village Gazette, a pilot presentation for NBC. Written by her and SNL’s Shelly Gossman, the show will focus on Ruffin as the editor of a small-town newspaper. She butts heads with a disgraced journalist looking to expose the dark underbelly of the town that she loves so well.

As a storyteller on Drunk History, Ruffin explores that the world has always been hostile to black people but shows that there’s still humor to be mined from the grotesque racism of old-timey white people. While telling the story of the Little Rock Nine, Ruffin makes time to remind us that the governor of Arkansas at the time had a name that sounds like “fart bus.” This man tacitly condoned the intimidation and/or murder of black children, and his name is a fart joke. The two ideas are both true, but couldn’t be farther apart tonally. You need someone like Ruffin to bring them together. Check out the clip from tonight’s episode above:

Ahead of her return to Drunk History, we chatted with Ruffin about what preparation goes into drunkenly narrating a story on the show, the process of developing her own television series, and why being a late-night writer is the best and most ridiculous job there is.

What is the preparation for telling a story on Drunk History like? Both in terms of memorizing details and just getting your body right?
They will send you information about the story chosen. First they will ask you if you have any stories you would like to tell. And I always say no because I know I can’t do as good a job at finding a good story as their history department can. So I always ask to be given a story.

They send you links to stories, videos if there are some. You can do research on your own. Especially for a story like the Little Rock Nine, it’s a story that you already know about. You can use your memoirs from seventh-grade history and stuff you learned on the internet! So you take time to learn it, and relearn it, and then they call you and ask you to tell the story sober. You tell them the story, and they say, “Be sure to include this,” or, “We don’t need that part.” Usually it’s pretty great the way it is.

It’s funny you said you can use your memory of seventh-grade history, because one of the main things I was taught in history class was that reconciliation between the Little Rock Nine and their white tormentors.
They were on Oprah! It was terrible, man.

That moment was taught to me as like a “racism over” signifier, and in your retelling you say it wasn’t enough. Their apologies weren’t enough.
No. I mean, they were quite terrible. One of the grossest parts of fucking human history was them, foaming at the mouth and screaming. So, you know, fuck them forever. But the fact that they would come ask these people to forgive them, instead of dying quietly? You can’t torment someone and be like, “Hey, we’re on national TV, I want your forgiveness.” No, fuck you. What you should want is to apologize, and then shut up. I just thought that took all the balls in the world, I swear.

Let’s talk about Village Gazette.

What drew you to the setting of a small-time paper?
I don’t know how it ended up being a paper. The process is crazy. I remember it as me pitching a bunch of ideas, and then Seth being like, “What if a disgraced lawyer had to work with you?” And then me being like, “What if it was a newspaper?” That’s how I remember it going, but I could be wrong.

So the germ of the idea was —
Someone is disgraced, and they have to work with me. And I have to, for some reason, pretend that everything is fine.

You’ve said before that ignoring your anger is denying your full humanity, and it sounds like your character in this is ignoring her own anger.
Oh, absolutely. That’s a huge part of it. But people expect other folks to act exactly the way they’d act. You know what I mean? My dad, I’m sure, experiences anger. But I’ve never seen it. I don’t think he’s walking around with bottled-up anger. I just think when he feels angry, it doesn’t look or sound the same as when you or I might feel angry. But I think the character that I’m playing definitely has a tough time expressing her anger. But at the same time, she’s probably a little like my dad, in that she processes it differently.

So what’s the next step? Do you start shooting soon?
Well, what happened is that we got picked up for a pilot presentation, which means we get half of a pilot. So there will be six full 22-minute pilots that they will shoot, and then they’ll show ours seventh. We’ll turn it in just under the wire … [Laughs.] … But it’ll be ten minutes long. It’s a very regular thing that happens. But it just truly makes me laugh. Because they chose six shows, and with each show they chose, we thought Well, it’s not us. It’s not us. And then once they chose six — and we knew they were going to choose six — we thought, That’s the sixth one. It’s not us. Too bad, so sad. Let’s start thinking about next year. Then we got a call that we were getting picked up to pilot, but a pilot presentation. So it makes this very cool underdog vibe that we all kind of feel. Honestly, I think it’s pretty neat.

Do you feel like “very cool underdog vibe” is a through line in the work you’ve done?
[Laughs.] Maybe. I just feel like I’m a very spoiled person. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve had it rough, or that I’ve had a harder time. Even though that’s probably true, depending on how you look at it. Every day I get told, “Hey, we’re going to do this thing that was your idea, and these adults are going to buy clothes for you to wear, and other adults are going to build a set, blah blah blah.” So I don’t know what could happen to me to make me feel like I’m being slighted. I truly don’t. I think that’s what goes back to me being this character, and not being as angry as I should be. Because things are so good, I cannot feel slighted. I don’t have it. Everything I get to do is so ridiculous. I can’t believe I get to do this shit.

Isn’t that the best part of being a writer? All of a sudden, seeing the machinery of sets and costumes and props being set into motion for the silly thing you came up with?
It’s truly the best part. It is truly the best part. People you have never seen in your life call you up and say, “Well, this is what I think about the dinosaur. He’s not realistic enough.” How do you have an opinion about something that I scribbled down on a notepad in the middle of the night? It’s crazy!

Amber Ruffin on Drunk History, Late Night, and Her New Show