In 2013, after years of scraping by on improv and putting on free comedy shows for the joy of it, Amber Ruffin got what she thought might be her big break. “Saturday Night Live” was (finally) looking to add a Black woman to the cast after years without, and flew Ruffin to New York from Los Angeles to try out alongside many other comedians she’d long admired. “I made all these new friends because it was all comedy Black women,” recalls Ruffin, who had previously performed full-time with Second City and Boom Chicago Amsterdam, among others. “We all came to New York on this big fun trip and had a really nice time with each other.” Ruffin was thrilled with her audition (“I thought for sure I was going to get a call any day saying, ‘Ya did it, buddy!’”), and crushed when she narrowly missed out on the slot that instead went to Sasheer Zamata. But the experience nonetheless gave her a taste of the kind of success she could have if she let herself believe in it.
“Once I got a whiff of ‘SNL,’ I was like, ‘Oh, something big could happen for me,’” says Ruffin. “That was the first time I’d even thought such a thing was possible.” Seven years later, Ruffin is taking this interview from her new office at 30 Rock, just a few weeks before the Sept. 25 launch of her own weekly late-night show on Peacock. It’s titled, simply and confidently, “The Amber Ruffin Show.”
That being said, Ruffin notes with a sunny smile and a matter-of-fact shrug, “Late night was never a dream of mine. I watched late night, and I love late night. But you gotta see it to be it, and I didn’t see it. I was like, ‘OK, I hope these white men are having a great time!’ I never assumed that it might ever be me.”
It’s not lost on her that streaming is the Wild West when it comes to talk shows, or that she’s the first Black woman since Robin Thede to get a shot at hosting a show like this. (BET’s “The Rundown With Robin Thede” ran from 2017-18, and then the network abruptly canceled it.) So Ruffin is more than ready to make something new, both out of necessity (due to the pandemic, she won’t have an audience) and because she sees no need to adhere to the typical structure of network late-night shows. For one, airing on Peacock rather than linear television means that she’s not as beholden to considerations like commercial breaks and broadcast network constraints. For another, it’s her show to do with as she pleases, an opportunity she doesn’t intend to waste.
“We don’t have a format,” she laughs — and she means it. While most hosts feel tied to opening monologues, desk pieces and interviews, Ruffin trusts her gut to make every show unique. To be as timely as possible, “The Amber Ruffin Show” will tape Fridays during the day before the episode drops in the evening. She hopes to have an in-studio audience soon, but even then the show won’t have guest interviews. Instead, Ruffin anchors the half-hour with surreal sketches, monologues that show off her sunny charm and sincere attempts to make her audience (especially her Black viewers) feel better during a terrible time. Altogether, “The Amber Ruffin Show” feels like late night meets “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“When you see it as ‘hosting a late-night show,’ you put a bunch of restrictions on it,” she explains. “But once you see it as ‘This is your show that is late at night,’ it becomes this beautiful alive thing — and you can make it whatever you want it to be.”
Ruffin’s confidence in breaking the rules of late night comes from conquering it in her own way first. Even though “SNL” didn’t pan out, her audition caught the attention of Seth Meyers, who reached out shortly afterward to offer Ruffin a writing job in 2014 as he was taking the reins of NBC’s “Late Night” from Jimmy Fallon. In her early days there, Ruffin nervously pitched punchlines that she thought Meyers would like. As it became clearer that he’d allow her more flexibility, however, the self-proclaimed “doofus” (more specifically, a “wear-a-dinosaur-suit, sing-about-baloney [kind of] doofus”) started writing exactly the kind of jokes she wanted to. As she puts it: “Every day I thought, ‘Well, today is the day I get fired, so I gotta go out with a bang.’”
The gambit worked — and landed her prime spots delivering her jokes in front of the camera too. Alongside Jenny Hagel (who’s now head writer of “The Amber Ruffin Show”), Ruffin anchored “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” a pithy back-and-forth that features punchlines about the experiences of lesbians (Hagel) and Black Americans (Ruffin). “I definitely did not know it would fly,” she says of the idea, which Hagel brought to her in the first few months of their working together. “I was like, ‘It’ll make us laugh, but it can’t be on national television!’”
She was, she happily admits, wrong. “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” has since become one of the show’s signature segments that’s accordingly opened more avenues of expression for Ruffin to explore on “Late Night.” One is the solo interlude “Amber Says What” — which lets her monologue at length about news of the day while Meyers barely contains his laughter off-screen. In June, shortly after George Floyd’s death sparked worldwide protests against police brutality, Meyers ceded the opening minutes of four shows to Ruffin so that she could describe a lifetime of frightening encounters with the police in a way the host himself never could. In using these carved-out spaces without compromise, Ruffin has become one of late night’s most recognizable and vital voices.
Ruffin has also found more and more prominent gigs outside her work on “Late Night.” She gave “Drunk History” some of its most memorable moments (look up the way she tells the Carrie Nation story) and hosted the 2018 WGA Awards while also celebrating her nomination with the “Late Night” team. In 2019, she joined the historic writers’ room of HBO’s Emmy-nominated series “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” a treasured collaboration that makes her beam anytime it’s mentioned. And now, in 2020, “The Amber Ruffin Show” has finally given her the chance to be her own extremely enthusiastic boss.
It’s an astonishing trajectory — especially since Ruffin’s initial hiring at “Late Night With Seth Meyers” came with a bevy of headlines proclaiming that she was the first Black woman to write for a network late-night show, period. “It didn’t exactly feel that way,” Ruffin says carefully. “A lot of Black comedy people kind of know one another, so it didn’t feel like I was the ‘only, only, only’ as all those articles made it seem. But yeah, I didn’t have a lot of people I could call.” That stark statistic got a startling in-person illustration at one of Thede’s recent birthday celebrations, when they tried to gather every Black woman involved in late-night comedy for a group dinner. “Maybe we were missing one or two people who live in L.A., but it was like, 10 people,” Ruffin remembers with an exaggerated grimace, “and we were like, ‘Ooh yeah, this isn’t right.’”
Four Emmy nominations and one “Black Lady Sketch Show” later, Ruffin fondly remembers the younger version of herself who was shocked at the idea of getting an “SNL” audition. “The dream was to be able to support myself doing comedy, so the dream’s been accomplished,” she says. “I just did not dream big enough.”