Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Amber Ruffin (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Peacock)

Amber Ruffin on her late-night show and why she doesn’t have time for a hate-watch

Amber Ruffin (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Peacock)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Amber Ruffin is one of the most consummate comedians working today. She’s steadily made her way from improv comedy at Boom Chicago Amsterdam to Late Night With Seth Meyers—where she became the first Black woman to write for a late-night network talk show—to writing for A Black Lady Sketch Show and the late but great Detroiters. Ruffin’s brought all those talents to bear on her own late-night talk show, The Amber Ruffin Show, where she monologues, sings, dances, and parodies with the best of them.

The weekly Peacock series isn’t nearly as focused on topicality as the rest of its late-night cohort, though Ruffin did give two monologues on November 6 to cover the possibility of a Joe Biden win or a Donald Trump win (you could skip the victorious or depressed parts that didn’t apply to your side). But even in the grip of anxiety, The Amber Ruffin Show still turned out an expert musical number in “Catatonic.” Ruffin says she’s been leaning toward more of a variety show format, which will either be bolstered or thwarted by what comes next in 2020 and beyond. But when The A.V. Club spoke with Ruffin by phone on November 9, it was after the election had finally been called for Biden, and people found ways to celebrate in the midst of a pandemic (Ruffin opted for a drum circle). Ahead of The Amber Ruffin Show’s season-one finale, we discussed Ruffin’s late-night contemporaries, her “forgotten” Hillary Clinton sketch, and why she doesn’t believe in hate-watches.

The A.V. Club: Something huge happened this weekend—we got a new president—so I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me while you’re also trying to figure out how to process that news via your show.

Amber Ruffin: Today is too exciting, because it’s our first day of real work after it happened. Are you working in your house?

AVC: Yes, I am.

AR: That’s less exciting, but it’s still pretty exciting.

AVC: It’s interesting, because you recently did an interview with Deadline where you and your collaborator Jenny Hagel talked about the election as being a kind of “comedy cliff.” No one knew if they’d be up for making much comedy or be inspired to put a fun, new show together. What is the mood in your writers room? How are you guys feeling today?

AR: Well, we started our meeting today with just 20 minutes of everyone saying exactly where they were when it happened and what they did for the rest of their day. It was so cute. I think everyone had their own adventure. It’s exciting. I don’t know. We’re excited. Now you just get to choose what you pay attention to or feel happy or sad about. It’s crazy. No one is dictating it. You can choose.

AVC: I know there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we can just take this as a “let’s catch our breath” kind of moment.

AR: Yeah, it feels great. I am not willing to look to the future at all for at least another week. I’m going to stay with this for as long as I can, because, look, what if Trump does something crazy, and he’s like, “If you don’t let me stay president, I’ll blow everything up”? It’s possible. And then he’s our president forever. So we got to enjoy this week. [The Amber Ruffin Show had a blast on November 13. —Ed.]

AVC: Did you hang on to any of the confetti cannons from the first show of November?

AR: No, and what’s wrong with me? [Laughs.] I should have kept them. All day Saturday, I was like, “Man, if I had those confetti cannons instead of wasting them.”

AVC: I actually saw this great video online of you performing with a few people on the street right after they finally confirmed, or somebody was willing to call, the election for Joe Biden.

AR: It was in New York, and we just left the house. Not everyone, but most of us were like, heard the news, opened the window, looked out the window, everyone’s flipping out. We’re like, “I got to go flip out with these people.” And so then we all frigging put on pants and a bra and ran the streets like a wild person. I was out all day. So, so drunk. Came home, took a nap at 6 p.m., went out some more. Just the best. It was the best.

AVC: It’s such a marked difference from the November 6 episode, when we had no idea which way the election would go. You showed this sketch, which you originally wrote in 2016, when so many people were convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win. You didn’t show it then, because Trump won. But you showed it last week as a call to action, to kind of remind people what’s at stake. Did you have any sketch ideas or segment ideas planned around this year’s election that you weren’t able to move forward with for any reason?

AR: [Laughs.] Oh, no. I learned my lesson then. Because I wrote that, I was like, “Well, that jinxed it, and I don’t want to jinx anything ever again.” So I was like, “Hey, if I have an idea, I’m not even going to write it down. I’m just going to hope I remember it.” I was too scared.

AVC: Not every late-night show is super topical or aims to be, though The Amber Ruffin Show is almost inherently political because talk shows are still so rarely hosted by people of color. But from week to week, how do you decide where you’re going to be maybe a little more pointed in your commentary and when you’re just going to do a great musical number?

AR: We just naturally write sketches about what we end up talking about. We also want to do bits that we think are funny, but we want people to be able to watch them and go, “Ugh, I know that’s right.” That’s what we want from people. We want people to watch the show and feel like someone else feels the way they do. I think that’s always our number one goal, to be like, “You are worried and you are right,” or, “You think this is hilarious and you are right,” or, “This makes you sad and you’re right.” Because for a long time, I think you’d watch a lot of topical, newsy comedy shows, and you’d be like, “You’re just kind of saying what has happened. You’re not commenting on the way it makes you feel. And the way it makes you feel is not the way it makes me feel. Well, how are we so far away from each other on this?” So I just kind of wanted to bridge that and maybe be something different people can relate to.

AVC: We’ve heard a lot about the challenges of working in late-night television over the last four years, and maybe even more so in 2020 because it feels like from one day to the next anything can happen. Everything can change. But do you think there are any benefits to having launched your show at this time?

AR: The benefits are there is no audience there to not laugh. [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re sad that no one’s there to laugh, but the good side is no one’s there to not laugh. So, yeah, all your good jokes seem a little worse, but all your bad jokes seem frigging great! So it’s a small price to pay. No, I do think an audience makes a different show, though I guess most comedy shows don’t have audiences. And it feels so weird to just deliver hard and to set up punchlines to silence. The only people hearing it are people who heard it before an hour ago. It’s wild.

AVC: Did you have a plan for the season overall, like some things you knew you were going to do, whether it was a segment or a character?

AR: No, I don’t think we had an overarching plan. Our plan is always to have the most fun we could possibly be having, and that’s about it.

AVC: That approach has certainly set your show apart from more topical ones, which you mentioned sometimes just end up reminding you of things instead of engaging with them. You definitely touch on the “events of the day” sometimes, but mostly, it’s an escape. Are there any shows you’ve been watching to just take your mind off things?

AR: What have I been watching? It would be easier for me to tell you what I have not been watching, because, buddy, I saw it all. Watching TV is so frigging load-bearing because you wander through the world, stressed about everything. Then when you get home, you’re like, “Whatever can turn my brain off wins.” It feels extra good to watch late-night comedy because they’re kind of talking you through what you’re feeling and stuff. But also, I don’t want to be thinking about this stuff for three days. I’m going to need you to bake a cake and let me judge the way it tastes based on how it looks. I need that. So, everything is my answer.

AVC: I do think this is a time for people to check out things they might not previously have watched. My sister got me hooked on 90 Day Fiancé.

AR: Ooh, people love that show. I have never really fallen in love with a reality show where it’s, like, just these people living and dealing with each other because I don’t like disliking strangers. I hate it. And I just don’t have any room to dislike anyone else. All my dislike is spoken for. I can’t. I just don’t see how people add more of that to their lives. I can’t.

AVC: Life is much too short for a hate-watch, right?

AR: Yeah. I cannot relate to it. But if you’re talking about a movie and a big fake bad guy, well, that’s fine.

AVC: Along with Jenny, you have this great team of writers on your show: Dewayne Perkins, Shantira Jackson, and Demi Adejuyigbe. What’s the dynamic or vibe like when you get to work on an episode?

AR: The vibe is great because our writers room is really fun because Jenny and I have never stopped talking. Although Jenny’s not in this room with me, she is somewhere talking right now. And so when we get a hold of these writers, we really have to know, “I need to know what happened to you this weekend.” “Oh, my god, this happened. Did you see it?” “Well, what do you feel about it?” That’s how we behave, and so we subject the writers to that quite a bit. But it leads us to yapping and giggling. So we spend a lot of time doing that. Usually, you’re in the room with everyone and something funny happens and you all get used to one another’s humor and all of your humors combine to form this Voltron of super-comedy. We don’t get to do that on Zoom, so we like to spend quite a bit just yapping it up.

AVC: The make-up of your show, from the writers to your co-host, Tarik Davis, is almost unheard of for late-night. Obviously, there is Larry Wilmore’s show, and outside of late-night, we have A Black Lady Sketch Show, but it’s still rare to have a Black-led show on and off screen.

AR: We do have Ziwe [Fumudoh]’s show coming, too, and Sam Jay’s show.

AVC: It is heartening, even though, as you’ve noted in the past, it’s still not enough. I had a similar conversation with Robin Thede this summer, about how Hollywood is starting to catch up, but not nearly fast enough.

AR: Yes. I don’t know when it will feel like enough, but I can tell you it won’t be enough even after Sam and Ziwe get their shows. I will still want more than this, so prepare, everybody.

AVC: We also have to prepare ourselves for the finale of your show. Aside from the relief you’re currently feeling, how different will your approach be to the remaining episodes of the season?

AR: I don’t think we will take a different approach for the remaining episodes because we’re always reacting to the news. And so the news tells us what to do. But I suppose over the course of this run, we’ve learned that we can get away with a lot more than we think. So, I think we’re only ever going to get goofier than we are.

AVC: What’s an example of something you thought wasn’t going to fly and then it did make it to air?

AR: Probably “Gossip,” I think. We did this bit where Tarik and I put on pearls and antique glasses and then dish about the news. I just thought, “This is such a weird thing.” And that, I think, is something our show is edging towards. It’s getting real theater-y, which I love. That’s where we’re going to end up—we’ve always been kind of flirting with doing a variety show, and now we are getting closer and closer to being able to do this, like in a live theater.