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Let Amber Ruffin Be Your Guide

As she launches a late-night show in the middle of an election season.

Amber Ruffin. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC
Amber Ruffin. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC

If you’re a fan of Late Night With Seth Meyers, you’re already familiar with the razor-sharp writing and onscreen charisma of Amber Ruffin. A writer on the show since its inception (and a regular face on the popular segment “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell”), Ruffin was the first-ever Black woman to write for a late-night network talk show in the U.S. Now she’s getting her own talk series, The Amber Ruffin Show, premiering September 25 on NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, Peacock. And because we’re still in a pandemic, she’ll be live from 30 Rock, performing to an empty room.

Ahead of The Amber Ruffin Show launch, Ruffin spoke with Vulture about the challenges of producing a show during a global pandemic, what’s making her laugh at a time like this, and how she’s feeling about being the namesake and host of a brand-new late-night series.

You have a new show coming out — it is literally your show, your first and last name. How does that feel?
It feels crazy, but it also feels like a rumor. It’s not like there’s a building with a room in it with a poster that says that, you know? It’s just me in this kitchen and I’m like, “Well, that’s what I heard I was supposed to do.”

It’s not like you’re going to 30 Rock. You’re going to 30 Your Living Room.
I am going to start going to 30 Rock in a little bit, but it’ll be just me. Because all of our writers are in L.A., we don’t need any space. I have a desk. The end.

So you’re currently in production on the show right now?
I guess you could say that’s true. Yes? We’re having a lot of meetings via Zoom.

What is it like preparing to launch a TV show during a global pandemic?
You do miss the audience. We’re about to launch this whole show with no audience, and we will have never written for an audience. Because I had worked for Seth for six years, when I got Ruffin Show, I looked back and was like, “All these jewels that Seth didn’t like, I’m going to take and do on Ruffin Show,” and there are so many audience bits. Not anymore.

Can you get away with more of what you specifically want to write about as opposed to what the audience might be looking for?
Definitely. I said this to someone else when we started working from home [on Late Night With Seth Meyers]: When there’s an audience, you write the jokes and then you say them to the audience. And they laugh or they don’t laugh, and based on that, you choose your jokes. Now it’s, Do I like it? Does Seth like it? End of list. Seth is a weird person, and so am I. So things have skewed crazy. Which is great because now we see our audience can handle quite a bit of craziness. Things are taking a turn for the weird.

Do you have any goals in terms of what you want to do differently than other late-night shows?
We are going to talk about the news, and we are going to be doofuses, so hopefully it’ll be a nice mix of the two. We will be like, “Well now this crazy thing is the law. Let’s examine what that might look like in a puppet show.” God, it won’t be a puppet show. Sorry I said puppet show. In a song or whatever. So hopefully we will do something like a monologue and maybe that’ll cover the topical news and then maybe a sketch and a song. Girl, I don’t know. Any ideas for structure, please mail them to me.

Have you encountered any challenges in terms of launching a late-night show during a contentious election season?
I love it, but also it doesn’t feel contentious to me. It doesn’t feel like there are these two crazy sides against each other, because I’m a Black person and I don’t know a lot of Trump people. It feels more like us normal folks and then stories you hear from people who know people who are crazy — it’s those two groups. So I can’t imagine someone fixing their face to say to me, “Oh my God, I love Trump so much and I want to talk about that with you.” I would die. Sorry. Actually, I would be perfectly fine because my legs work and I would walk away.

Do you think that having that perspective as a Black woman is going to be a new, fresh thing that people are going to be interested in hearing?
I hope so. I do think we are lucky in the line of work of comedy, as we don’t have a lot of Republicans. They kind of get pushed out because comedians naturally are doofus nerds, and we don’t like people picking on people, and a lot of the time, Republicans are just bullies. Especially now, when they’re like, “We don’t like you; we’re going to put you in a cage. We don’t like you; we’re going to [make] laws so you don’t get married. We don’t like you; you have no control over your own body.” I lost my train of thought. I messed around and got mad.

I think that the Republican, conservative end of comedy is very much based in, like you said, kind of bullying and punching down. I’m sure that there are people who find that very funny. I think it’s just kind of lazy.
It’s like when you are a Black person and anyone says any Black joke ever. I’ve definitely heard an iteration of that, because I’m an adult now and I’ve been Black forever. Do you think that that’s original?

Jenny Hagel, our head writer and also EP, and I, we’re going to take this opportunity to find out new information and evolve, and we don’t ever want to punch down. It doesn’t feel fun or smart. And if we ever do make a crazy mistake, freaking please check me. Text me if you have my number. Tweet at me “That ain’t it.” Let me know, because I don’t want to become the out-of-touch old talk-show host that we have seen, you know what I mean? I don’t want to start pushing people to the margins. I don’t want people to feel like they’re not included in what I’m doing. I want to have a show for everybody, and if it takes a couple of tweets that say “Hey, we don’t say that anymore,” please let me know.

Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with Jenny Hagel?
Yes, dude. Jenny and I met … I don’t even know what year. We met a million years ago at Second City Denver when Second City Denver existed — can you believe it? We wrote a whole show, and at night they would say, “Come in with a sketch and a blackout,” and she would come in the next day with two sketches and three blackouts. Every time, she would have double what she was asked to do, and I caught that a million years ago. A million years go by, and we need to replace Michelle Wolf [as a writer on Late Night], and I say, “You need to hire Jenny Hagel. She lives here. She works like a dog and is kind and nice,” and then we picked up our relationship right where we had left off, and we just had the best time.

It turns out Jenny has what I’m missing. I will be like, “I want to put on lederhosen and yodel,” and Jenny will be like, “Those are two different ethnicities.” She’ll clean it up, and she will sometimes iron out why I’m acting like a crazy person. Together, we really do work very quickly. The most exciting part of all of this is when news will happen at 9:45, and we’ll read it and we’ll look at each other and go, “We have to write something.” We only have until 11, when the sketch meeting is, so we’ll run and go, “Hey, we’re going to have something, but we’re going to turn it in at 10:55,” and they go, “Okay.” Then we run back and we type and we pass the keyboard back and forth, or lots of times we will separate, write it out, come back, and marry the two scripts, and it is the best. It has to feel like what it feels like to be in a newsroom, except it’s comedy.

How did you go about assembling your writers’ room? Was there anything specific that you were looking for in the writers you hired?
Yes. I don’t think their deals are closed, so I can’t say who it is. But later I will tell you who it is.

I’m excited.
Luckily, I hosted the Webbys and I hosted the WGAs, so I had already had two teams of writers, so I knew the people I could call and be like, “Here’s two pages of setups,” and they would give me a page of jokes. I keep a deep roster because people ask me all the time if I know any Black comedy writers. Once, a couple years ago, I realized everyone I knew who was on my list had been hired. I was like, Oh my God, I better get out there. So I started to go see comedy shows and stuff, just so I could have a bench of people.

But I chose the people I chose because they are the best. They just so happen to be Black, but they are the best comedy writers that I know. They give me a ton of jokes, and they have these great ideas that are fun and weird and obey the genre of late night real hard or subvert it completely. They really have a crazy range, and they’re younger than me, so that is a plus.

I just want to acknowledge the power you have that your whole list of people you recommended got hired. That’s influence, Amber.
It is just knowing, because I’m not going to recommend someone bad to people. Also, you know who has a long roster is Robin Thede. [She] keeps a spreadsheet. I’ve been talking about this every day for quite a while at this point, but it’s nuts. Robin Thede called a lot of late-night shows and was like, “You need to hire a Black person,” and then they did, and now it’s been a month, two months, since she made these phone calls, and now there’s like four Black people who work in late night who didn’t a minute ago because Robin Thede made a phone call.

When the new swath of Black Lives Matter protests started in late May and early June, you took to Late Night and frankly talked about your experiences with police brutality as a Black woman. How did that come together, and was it difficult or painful for you to have to talk about that?
What happened was it all started, and I thought, Oh my gosh, I have to write something about this. So I wrote a jokey-ish sketchy thing and then the very next day, I looked back at that sketch and I was like, You can’t do that. The tone has changed. So I wrote a rant, a kind of jokey rant that was a little realer, and then a day went by and I looked back at that and I was like, You can’t do that either. So it quickly went from “We have to take this seriously” to “People are spending their mornings crying in bed.” It was so heavy and so terrible.

I am writing a book with my sister. We wrote it already; it’s done. It’s called You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey, because Lacey lives in Omaha, where we’re from, and crazy-racist things keep happening to her. Now, her crazy-racist things are hilarious, hence the book, but then there’s a part of the book where I go, “Okay, I can’t be a part of this book without having a section about the cops and how they’re dangerously lethal,” and then I laid out two or three of those cop stories, so it had been fresh on my mind. So when it came time, I was like, Oh, maybe I’ll just tell this real story. So then I told it, and I thought it was going to go deep in the show, and they were like, “We’re going to open the show with it.” I thought, Oh, wow, that’s bold. But then they did, and it went well, and I said, “Hey, I have a bunch more stories, if you’re ready. We could do this for as long as you have tape.” So we did.

All those stories came out and then on Twitter for, I would say, a solid two months, every day several people would say “Oh my God, I can’t believe this. Is this real? This happened? I can’t believe this happened. This has really opened my eyes to this, that, and the other.” Every day, all day, people would tweet that. I thought, I guess they didn’t know. I was really living in a gross world where I thought they didn’t care. And to an extent, it’s true, but not to the extent I thought. Yeah, they did not know.

In one of the segments, you mention that you feel like it’s your duty to have fun because at any time you could get murdered by the police. So with almost nothing having been done about police brutality since all this started, and being Black in America is seen as just as much of a threat as it was a couple of months ago, how are you having fun right now? How are you finding joy despite all of this?
Girl, I don’t know. I make sure to try to be very grateful. It’s very easy for me to have fun. I’m programmed to have fun, I think. I thought I was going to be a mail carrier. I think I just always thought that, so every day when I wake up and I have a very fun job to go to, it’s shocking.

Does this ever happen to you? Sometimes do you dream so hard for so long that there’s that moment right before you wake up, and you go, Wait, I’m Amber Ruffin? I live in New York City? A television show? That happens to me, I would say, once a month. I get a real deep sleep that’s hard to come out of. And I really, truly have to completely reboot because a minute ago, I was a dragon who lived at the sea, and [then I woke up and], Oh, it’s this. I’m this thing. Oh, okay. I can do it. 

So I really do have a ton of fun, but also I’m the type of person who, if I had been a secretary in Omaha, Nebraska, who did nights at the theater downtown, who every once in a while got to be in a show, I’d be great. I’d be having a great time. In that respect, I do kind of feel like this whole thing is wasted on me, because I was going to have a good time regardless.

*A version of this article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Let Amber Ruffin Be Your Guide