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Why Amber Ruffin is late-night comedy’s Trojan horse

The groundbreaking comedy writer and host of Peacock’s ‘The Amber Ruffin Show’ explains what can happen when you think like a performer.

Why Amber Ruffin is late-night comedy’s Trojan horse
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska; Dream job before comedy: Gymnastics coach; Early break: Appeared in a 2012 episode of Key & Peele; Hidden skill: Signing Exact English [Photo: Flo Ngala]

The segments Amber Ruffin performs on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers (‘Amber’s Minute of Fury,’ ‘Amber Says What,’ and ‘Jokes Seth Can’t Tell’) showcase her infectious energy and ability to satirize hot-button issues. They also earned the 42-year-old her own weekly half hour of TV, The Amber Ruffin Show, which debuted last fall on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. She’s using the opportunity to be as off-the-wall as she wants, and she thanks a new generation on social media for that. “I can sneak my weirdness in there, and there’s cover for me because there are people doing weirder things than I am,” she says. She’s also cowriting Broadway’s Some Like It Hot for 2022—and loving it. “When you are in a happy, nice place to create, you go wild.” Here’s how she’s building that environment for others.

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Fast Company: When did you decide that you wanted to have your own show, and how did you begin that process?

Amber Ruffin: I didn’t start sniffing around for other opportunities until I had been at Late Night for like three years and felt like, okay, I’ve cut out a place for myself here. I’m adding to the show. What I want is to have my own show. Can I get good at that here [at Late Night]? If I write up a script [for my own show], I can pass it to [Late Night writer] Jenny [Hagel] who’ll pass it to [another Late Night writer, John] Lutz, and they’ll all go over it. Everyone will take it very seriously and take it home with them and write up notes. That environment is like nowhere else. People taking your creativity seriously is how I got here.

Did you always have a vision for it?

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I still don’t feel like there’s a crafted shape. Sometimes there’ll be two songs on the show. There is no reason for me to be singing one song, much less two. But sometimes there’ll be two funny songs. I’ll be like, “we gotta do them both.” I like to treat us like idea fountains and the fountains go on literally forever.

Are there any lessons from Late Night that you are applying?

Let people be good at the things they are good at. When you let people write exactly what they think would be the funniest thing to go on television, then you get the best out of them. But when you go, “I need A, B, and C,” you don’t necessarily get the best work.

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How has it been writing for both your show and Seth’s?

When you work on a late-night show, 99% of what you write is for the garbage. The goal is to make sure my bosses feel rich with material. When the goal is that, but for yourself, it’s easy. I know exactly what I’m excited to perform. It’s harder to figure out what Seth might want to perform. But for me, I got it.

Have you had to get good at time management?

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A lot of people are like, “I have to figure out when I can get my mind right so that I can be in the headspace to [work].” I do not do that because I started out performing, and there is no headspace. Your feelings don’t matter. So that’s how I come at writing. I write because it has to be done. I don’t write because something occurred to me.

You and Jenny Hagel work together on Late Night, and she’s also the head writer and executive producer on your show. What’s your relationship like?

Jenny and I met around 2006 when we did the Second City, Denver. We did shows almost every night. When they asked for one sketch, she would come in with two. She contributed so much to the show just by doing a little more than she was asked to do. So when Michelle Wolf left Late Night and they were looking for a replacement, they hired Jenny because I told them they had better. Almost everything we turn in, we turn in together. I’ll write something and hand it to her, and she’ll go over it. Or she’ll write something and hand it to me, and I’ll go over it. She has a brain for cleanliness and structure, whereas I need to be reined in a bit, and my structure is lacking, to say the least.

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What qualities did you look for in building your writers room?

I like performers. A performer will think of every last aspect of the sketch. They’re thinking about themselves being onstage, so they feel those dead spots as if they were standing onstage in silence. I don’t know that regular writers have an ear for that.

Amber Does What?: Highlights From Ruffin’s Career

Your show has no studio audience right now because of the pandemic. Has that been difficult?

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I adjusted to it so freaking fast. I possess a very unique ability, and it is when there is no audience, in my brain I go, “if there was an audience here, they would be dying!” After I say every punch line, in my mind, I’m beginning the next joke in a way where it’s like, “all right, everybody calm down. Here’s the next joke.” Because I’m so capable of imagining uproarious laughter for each one of my jokes, I feel zero difference. I feel great. I don’t know if that’s healthy. It’s probably very bad.

How do you feel about platforms like Instagram and TikTok creating a new class of comedians?

I adore social media for this reason. What is funny is [that it’s] evolving at such a quick pace that people can barely keep up with it. I love it because the world is becoming more inclusive and I can’t wait. It is not happening fast enough. I fucking love it. I love seeing something fresh and new because our whole life we’ve been watching the same 20 people run around from sitcom to sitcom. We didn’t ever realize how bored we were.

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May we take a moment and talk about your suits and bow ties? You’re really injecting late night with a distinct style! I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people dressing up as you for Halloween.

Oh my gosh! If there are, I will just lose it. Our wardrobe team for Ruffin Show is the same as for Late Night and Saturday Night Live. They were like, “what do you want?” I was like, “suits and bows. Goodbye!” I’ve known these people for forever, so they know exactly what I’m comfortable with. And just how shiny a suit can be. The answer is never shiny enough.

It’s just nice to see someone dressing cool in late night.

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I’m a Black woman doing a late-night show, so I don’t have the luxury of a misstep. I have to be not only dressed up, but as dressed up as a human can be without being in a ball gown. I want to have a theme song that is a literal late-night theme song. I don’t want to deviate from the formula at all. I want everything to be like late-night shows, but better. And then I’ll just do whatever the fuck I want. And I’ll have earned it because everything else is so beautiful.

You just Trojan horsed your way in.

Yes the fuck I did! Ooh! That’s a nice way to put it.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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