book excerpt

‘There Are People Who Think, Black People Just Aren’t Good at This

Here’s just how racist improv theaters can be, according to Amber Ruffin.

Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Amber Ruffin, host of Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show and frequent Late Night With Seth Meyers scene-stealer, has a new book out now that she co-wrote with her sister Lacey Lamar titled You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey. In the below excerpt — titled “Best Supervisor Ever!” — the sisters look back on times they experienced racism in the workplace. In Lacey’s case, it was a supervisor at an office, but for Amber, it was a well-known improv-comedy theater — it’s Second City, if you need help figuring it out — that dismissed her talent and hard work in an article because she was a funny Black woman in a field dominated by white men. It’s the perfect read following last year’s racial reckonings at comedy theaters during the Black Lives Matter protests — reckonings that are still ongoing today.

Here’s a story about the best supervisor Lacey has ever had. One day, Lacey came in to work talking about a new program that gives African children laptops. It’s a new kind of laptop that can be manufactured for a hundred dollars a pop. A charity made and distributed as many as possible to connect African children to the Internet and give them a voice in the global dialogue. Lacey was talking about how great it was. As she was going on and on about progress and how these children can finally be heard and how interesting it will be to hear their stories, the best supervisor she’s ever had could not stop laughing. Between his giggle fits, he said, “What are African kids gonna do with laptops? What are they gonna do with it? Okay, they’ll learn things, but what will they do with what they learn?” It ended with him saying, “Well, I don’t see the point and I’m against it.” To not understand it is one terrible thing, but to be against it is a second kind of terrible! How can you be against children learning? Two terribles for the price of one? In this economy?

Of all the supervisors Lacey has had in her life, that man said the fewest racist things. The man who said the fewest racist things out loud had the deepest, most stank racist belief just festering in his heart. “I’m against it.”

It’s the quiet ones, y’all.

And, for contrast, here’s a story about one of my bosses!

A million years ago, I used to work at a comedy theater. Throughout my career, I’ve worked at a few. I landed this job as an actor/writer/improviser at this place after having a full-time job writing and performing comedy for, like, five years. I wasn’t green, but none of the jobs I had had were in this city, so to a lot of people I seemed to come out of nowhere. It was the best learning experience and I made some real friends for life while I was there. There was a bar across the street we would drink at almost every night. At that bar, there was a Black bouncer who would always be there, ready to talk shit and give out hugs. He would always tell me how proud he was of me. It was a magical time. Now, when you work at a regular job and someone says something racist to you, you have to do all kinds of special maneuvers, but if you’re a comedian, you can just say, “Say something like that again and see if I don’t break your leg.” Everyone laughs, the idiot gets the point, and you can save face. Only the two of you know you are dead serious. It’s great. And, because most comedy shows want only one Black person, you make the rules for how Black people are treated. No one’s ever going to go, “Well, Marcus lets me call him darkie. He says it’s funny.” That’s the trade-off you make. It may be lonely, but you don’t have to put up with anything like that for the most part.

So we do this show at this theater and it goes really well, so well that the city’s big-deal newspaper does an article on it. It’s gonna be a huge piece in the Sunday edition. We go downtown to the office and take pictures at a studio! Fancy! There are six people in the cast. The person writing the article divides us into two groups to talk to us. We think nothing of it at the time, but the two groups they put us in are:

Group 1: three white people
Group 2: me, the gay guy, and the Hispanic guy

I can’t remember the questions they ask us, but none of them stick out as crazy or suspect at the time. We end the interview and get back to work and forget all about it.

A Sunday or two later, I wake up with a million voice-mails on my phone. I immediately assume someone has died. I listen to the first voice-mail. It’s a guy who works at the theater. I don’t know him very well, but his message is something like, “Hey, man, I’m sorry about the article in the Sunday paper. That’s messed up and if you want me to say something, I will.” Fuck. What in the world does the article say? I get up, get dressed, and walk to the corner store as I listen to the rest of the voice-mails. They all say the same thing. I snatch up the paper and head back to my apartment. I find our article! It’s cool! There are a million pictures of us. The cast looks happy and cute and in love ’cause we are! I read the article and I get to the part everyone’s talking about. It’s a quote from one of my castmates that says:

“When you’re straight and white in the improv community, it takes ten years to get cast in a show. I think Amber’s been here for twelve whole minutes.”

People were livid. And they had a right to be. Look, even right now I’m a million years old, I’ve been doing comedy professionally full-time for more than fifteen years, and people still want to act like I don’t know what I’m doing. I think it makes them feel better about where they are in life if I only ever got anything because I’m Black. Their own mediocrity never crosses their mind.

Frankly, the fact that that guy said that did not shock me or hurt my feelings. At this point, I had known him for a while. I knew who he was and didn’t really care. The fact that he felt that way didn’t bother me in the slightest. At this point, I had been out in the world away from Omaha for quite some time, making my own way in various comedy theaters. He was not the first to say that and would not be the last!

So I thought, Well, that sucks, but it’s not that bad. It’s just one guy. Then I read the rest of the article. The whole article was about diversity. They had segregated us to talk to us about diversity. What a shitty theater for allowing them to do that to us, what a shitty paper for allowing one of their people to do that to us, and mostly what a horrible conniving person that turd of a reporter must be. I hope they find this and understand the fact that they are a bad human being. Before I was done reading the article, I would read a quote from the owner of the theater that would send me into a white-hot state of rage forever:

“I know some casts over the years have not been happy about the emphasis on diversity. There’s a feeling that the most talented improviser should get the job, period. But it’s also about content. It’s also about being truthful to the community you live in. Someone who isn’t the best improviser may have a lot to say.”

This sent me into a white-hot rage. Look, that one guy saying that one idiotic thing that negates my talent is fine. People know him. They know he’s liable to say anything. Also, his feeling like that was a secret only to white people. I would’ve had money on him saying that out loud to my face by then. Hey, whatever it takes to make yourself feel better. But the owner of the theater in an article about whether or not he should have hired the only two minorities in the goddamn show? This insinuates that we aren’t talented! This is also something people love to do. They love to act like there were no Black people good enough. No one wants to be like, “Hmmm. I’ve never met a Black person I thought was actually good enough to be in my little show. Maybe I’m a piece-of-shit racist who can’t relate to anything a Black person says, judges them before they’ve said it, and thinks Black people are funny only as stereotypes, but when they’re stereotypes, I look down on them.” Honestly, I know this sounds crazy, but there are people who think, Black people just aren’t good at this. About, like, a ton of stuff. But COMEDY? We literally use it to survive. I’m doing it RIGHT NOW.

Anyway, my boss had shown his whole ass and would need to pay.

I call Mom, Lacey, and Angie and ask them how to handle this butthole of a situation. I don’t want to, but I’m going to have to talk to this guy. That day I get two important phone calls that make me feel a lot better. One is from the lady who was in this cast before I replaced her. I made the decision to take this job, in part, based on the fact that they actually told me I would be in the cast with her. But when I got there, it turned out I had replaced her. She called me and encouraged me and talked to me about the kind of place it was and their blind spots and what they had done to her. She gave me a lot of talking points. She really helped me out.

Photo: Publisher

The other call was from our director, who was almost as mad as I was. He assured me that the owner of the theater who said all those things in the paper wasn’t even in the room when I was hired. The director also had never heard of that owner being a part of casting a show—ever. He had no hand in the casting whatsoever. He told me, “I cast you because you’re great. You got the job because you were the best person for the job.” This really made me feel a lot better. I reach back in my mind and conjure up this conversation whenever I’ve let someone get to me. Now there’s nothing left to do but go have a talk with the owner. I have my talking points and I’m going to be calm and get through to him. I know it’s not my job, but a lot of Black kids are about to come after me and I need to do what I can while I have some leverage to make sure they’re treated right. I would do this for the children. Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard once said: “Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children.”

I go into his office for our meeting. My heart is beating a mile a minute. I’m nervous and ashamed and mad. He starts by immediately apologizing for what he said. I feel myself start to calm down. He goes on about the history of the theater and all their outreach programs. Outreach programs? Does this man think I’m here to pat him on the back for his work with the Black community? He must see my eyebrows change shape because he starts talking about how last year he was in a really bad place, and how hard his life was a year ago and how he’s struggling to keep it together. He’s trying to get me to pity him. What the fuck does that have to do with what we are talking about? That fucking tears it. I do not need to hear why this man needs my sympathy. And how dare he make this about him and his feelings? All this fool had to say was “I’m a crazy poop and I’ll try to not be.” But he tried to get me to feel SORRY for him, and in that moment, all the talking points my mom and my sisters told me slipped my mind and I fucking lost it. Y’all. I went insane. I start yelling and go on for a while. I’m screaming. Among the many insane things I yell at my boss are “Do you know how many people think that this theater only hires minorities to fill a quota? From now on, as long as this theater exists, they can have that thought, look to the owner of the theater for affirmation, and you’re dumb enough to have given it to them! You’re creating a bunch of white men who feel threatened by my mere existence!” (We didn’t have the word incels then.)

Anyway, say what you want about this man, but he let me cuss him up one side and down the other. He apologized again, and even though I cussed out my boss, I kept my job. I live in the exact opposite world as Lacey.

Ooh! Side story. Once, another Black actress at that theater was asked out to lunch by the owner and he started the lunch by saying, “So! How’s your family in Omaha?” She said, that’s Amber Ruffin. Not me. She excused herself, went to the bathroom and cried, sucked it up, came back, and was a delight to be around. The two of them had a fun lunch. Now, did he think she was me? Who’s to say? But he definitely did.

Excerpted from the book You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. Copyright © 2021 by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

‘They Act Like There Were No Black People Good Enough’