comedy review

All Hail Amber Ruffin

Amber Ruffin on The Amber Ruffin Show. Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

In late February, the late-night host Amber Ruffin kicked off an episode of The Amber Ruffin Show with a short intro. “If you’re watching us for the first time on NBC, welcome!” she said, with her typical your-favorite-theater-camp-counselor enthusiasm. “This is a late-night show! We don’t have guests, but we have sketches, songs, jokes, and margaritas. You’re gonna like it … or else.” She did not snicker or wink as she delivered that threat, her voice dropped into a campy baritone. Like your favorite theater-camp counselor, Ruffin always commits to the bit.

For regular NBC viewers, the host is likely already familiar from her regular appearances on Late Night With Seth Meyers, where she’s been a writer and onscreen personality for several years. Last fall she got her own weekly show that debuted on NBC’s streaming platform Peacock and, in February, NBC decided to also air two episodes of the series in its late-late 1:30 a.m. time slot. Taking over a time slot usually reserved for late-night reruns — and for only two weeks — is not a huge show of confidence. But a regular network picking up a streaming series isn’t nothing, either, and it bodes well for The Amber Ruffin Show that NBCUniversal recently announced that the show’s first-season run on Peacock would be extended at least through September.

That February episode was Ruffin’s first on NBC, and as the intro would suggest, Ruffin does not reinvent the wheel. Hers is a late-night show built on familiar formats. For the monologue, Ruffin mostly sits behind a desk delivering topical punch lines. Many of the segments are tried-and-true late-night bits, selected and adapted for Ruffin’s particular strengths: She does short, serious, John Oliver–esque deep dives into the history of a current news item. She performs silly, satirical songs with Jimmy Fallon–level energy (and much sharper lyrics). The opening monologue in the February episode was set up like a SNL’s Weekend Update, with jokes that were short and fairly light: a couple of Biden-Harris zingers, one on K-Mart closing, and another about the Cherokee line of Jeeps.

Even from the first episodes on Peacock, Ruffin’s host persona was already in place, in all its iterations: her sweet, slightly sly baseline; the heightened camp of her goofiest sketches; the pivot toward directness and exasperation in her political segments. She delights in toggling between the broad and the specific. The streaming service has also been a relatively low-profile place for The Amber Ruffin Show to incubate over the past several months, and Ruffin’s captivating, confident ownership of its tone is surely, at least in part, due to her years writing for Meyers. By the time a few episodes of Amber Ruffin appeared on NBC, it was a fully formed show, avoiding the growing pains of many new late-night series.

Ruffin is also the only Black woman to host a late-night comedy show in 2021, and one on a still painfully short list of people of color to be given hosting positions. One of Ruffin’s breakouts on Late Night was on a running segment called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” where she and fellow writer-performer Jenny Hagel would come out and do jokes that straight, white, male Meyers would never say. Much of The Amber Ruffin Show where Hagel is now head writer — is a demonstration of how great it is to have a voice like Ruffin’s on TV, a testament to how freeing it is for her to have her own platform.

Ruffin tells stories and does characters that Colbert or Fallon or Meyers would likely never think to do, and perspectives on political humor that could be on other late-night shows, but rarely are. She and fellow Late Night writer and performer Jeff Wright did a musical parody called “Now That’s What I Call Spirituals 2021.” Ruffin also has a segment on the need for White History Month, and another on the history of racism in scientific research and its relationship to Black vaccine reticence. But she also gets to play the farcical murder detective, the monologue host, a stereotypical mom, and the most excited anyone on TV has ever been about a musical number. (With the possible exception of James Corden.)

At the end of that February episode’s opening segment, Ruffin announces that there will be one more monologue joke for the night, read aloud by Wright, who was then filling in for Tarik Davis as the show’s sidekick. It’s a real groaner about Biden’s oil-drilling policy that ends with “All’s well that ends wells,” but the point here is not really the monologue. That goofy line is actually a stealthy segue into a harebrained sketch: Jeff is very excited about this opportunity to read his very first monologue joke — then an audience member named Randy, the only person sitting in the otherwise COVID-safe empty theater, steps on Jeff’s punch line.

Jeff is furious; Amber apologizes. Then The Amber Ruffin Show clicks out of nice, unsurprising late-night territory and into a murder-mystery farce: The lights blink out, and when they come up again Randy’s been stabbed with a giant, very fake-looking sword. Jeff pretends to have no idea what happened, and Amber shifts into hapless detective mode, futilely accusing everyone other than the obvious suspect. It is supremely dumb, this sketch. It takes one oddball swerve after another, a series of escalating, preposterous pile-ons with zero underlying message, purpose, or peg except that it is silly to the max.

Hosts like Stephen Colbert or Conan O’Brien tend to play big, broad gags with an undercurrent of knowingness, with line readings and glances at the camera that say, Isn’t this funny?! But Ruffin is in it, from her aghast expression to the distinct change in her intonation and diction that signals that this is a new mode — a character that feels just as authentically Ruffin as when she’s doing Monologue Host or Comedic Song Host or Chitchatting With Her Sidekick Host.

After Ruffin orders Randy’s still-wiggling corpse to be removed from the set, the show continues. There’s a sketch where Ruffin plays Harriet Tubman, another where she sings an ’80s power ballad dedicated to the coronavirus (“I’m still scared of you, baby”), a bit about how to gently convince conservatives to accept transgender people, and, in honor of Black History Month, a closing performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Broadway performer James T. Lane. While Lane sings, Ruffin stands behind him, displaying a series of cue cards with Black History Month commentary. “The number of Black people in Congress is at an all time high,” reads one; “Friends is just a rip-off of Living Single,” reads another.

All of it feels like an extended illustration of one short line that Ruffin delivered earlier in the episode: During her monologue, she talked about movie theaters in New York reopening at 25 percent capacity — “also known as a great crowd for an improv show.” Ruffin then turns to a side camera and sings a ten-second ditty: “Some of these jokes are for you, that much is true. But some of these jokes are just for me!” That’s what makes her show so good.

All Hail Amber Ruffin