Joining the writing staff of someone else’s late-night comedy show is not typically the fastest way to further your own performing career, but then again, Amber Ruffin is not your typical television writer.
Since the 2014 debut of “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” she has become one of the most recognizable contributors to that NBC program, writing for its host and appearing in her own recurring segments like “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” and “Amber Says What.”
Ruffin, who has also written for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and “Detroiters” (which she also appeared on) and has been featured on programs like “Drunk History,” now has even more airtime to fill: She’s the star of her own late-night series, “The Amber Ruffin Show,” which debuts Friday on NBC’s Peacock streaming service.
It’s an opportunity that Ruffin, 41, was still wrapping her head around during a Zoom call earlier this month, as she contemplated the prospects of creating a TV show during a pandemic and admired the spacious work space she had only recently returned to at NBC’s headquarters on Rockefeller Plaza.
“When I was here six months ago, I was in an office with 12 other people,” Ruffin said. “Now I’m in this big thing, by myself.” She added: “There’s more people at my house: two, me and my husband. I just sit in this room that’s basically the size of my apartment, but I’m the only person in here. It’s very strange.”
Ruffin spoke about the trajectory that has led her to “The Amber Ruffin Show” and how, amid widespread protests and a fraught national debate over racism in law enforcement, she used her “Late Night” platform to share personal stories of her encounters with police. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Did you do anything for fun this summer?
I mean, I ate. [Laughs.] The way I eat is recreational. Me and my husband like to get a rental car and drive around, so we did that. That might be our favorite thing to do. Lucky, because it’s the only thing you can do, really.
Comedy has taken you to Chicago, Amsterdam, Denver and now New York. But you grew up in Omaha — how did that experience shape you?
It’s the baseline in my mind, because it’s the first place I lived and the longest I ever lived anywhere. But it is not a normal place to be.
Did you find it homogeneous?
The word you’re looking for is white. [Laughs.] I just wrote a book with my sister Lacey called “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey,” and we wrote down all of the crazy, racist stories that happened to her. They’re just the funny ones, and it’s a whole book. And that’s Omaha.
What brought your parents there?
They were both in the Air Force, and they got stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, right outside Omaha, and then they stayed there. My mom and dad are from Georgia and Virginia, so they were like: “It’s great here! Look at these unorganized white people trying to harass us. They’re not even dressed the same. They don’t even have a uniform.”
How did you get into comedy as you were growing up?
In my house, I could stay up to watch “Saturday Night Live.” I could do whatever I wanted because I was a nerd and I’m the youngest of five, so I had zero supervision. They knew I was going to have my homework done. I also liked performing. I was like, [theatrical voice] “I’m going to do musicals!” That led to theater, which led to improv, which is where the most fun people were.
When you started performing improv comedy professionally in Chicago, did you find it to be a competitive environment?
Almost never. Because, well, a lot of the times the people who feel that way are white. [Laughs.] This sounds crazy, but Black people root for Black people so hard, almost no matter what. Whenever white people see me succeeding, they think, well, I could never have had that, because you’re filling some Black slot or whatever. So they don’t see me as anything. But Black people are like, yay! Oh my God, you did something great!
What ultimately brought you to New York?
This show [“Late Night”]. Seth called and said, will you move to New York? And I said, yes I will. Here I come. But I had never considered living in New York. I knew for a fact I was never going to live here. I don’t know a lot of facts. [Laughs.]
When you were hired for “Late Night” did you think it was going to lead to a lot of on-camera time for you?
Absolutely not. I got here being like, just be quiet and don’t embarrass yourself. I certainly didn’t think I was going to end up wearing ball gowns and prancing around. That was the surprise of the century. But that is an improv thing. With Seth, if I get a laugh, we get a laugh and we win. I don’t think other people think that. They think, if someone laughs at what you’re saying, even if I set you up, that laugh counts for you and I am lesser than, for some reason.
This past spring, after the police killing of George Floyd, you performed a series of opening monologues on “Late Night” where you talked about your own experiences being harassed by police, including one where an officer pulled a gun on you. How were you approached about doing these segments?
I wasn’t asked to do it. I saw what was happening and I went, I have to write something about it. So I did. And it quickly fell apart under the weight of this issue. There was no laughing about it. You couldn’t even do an angry rant. It just couldn’t hold. But it had to be addressed, because we were all feeling it so bad. That’s when I came to them with that idea and was like, what if I just tell this story? And then after it went well, I said, buddy, I got so many more. How many of these do you want to do?
Were you concerned you were just giving cover to a white male host who wasn’t qualified to speak on the subject?
If that was how it went down? Sure. But that’s not how it went down. I’m the one being like, I need to do this. He’s the genius moving out of the way. [Laughs.] And I’m here. I’m prepared. Seth’s the guy who was like, get this child a show already. That’s him; he did that.
How did you finally get your own show?
A couple years ago, we put together a show idea, and it didn’t go. But then NBC came to us and were like, hey, there’s this thing called Peacock. Can we do that show you pitched a while ago?
Were you disappointed when they previously passed on the show?
It was their fourth pass on me, sir, so I’m good. I’ve sold them three pilots, one of which we shot. At least with this, it was just a pitch document. Unlike a sitcom, you don’t have to spend a year writing it and rewriting. You just pitch it, like: It’s a late-night show. Do you want it? No? Cool.
What will the format of your show be?
It is going to be a monologue, a piece of comedy, just like a lot of other late-night shows. But then we’re going to do another piece of comedy. Another piece of comedy. And another piece of comedy. It’ll be like the first part of a late-night show, but over and over and over again. [Laughs.] I’m really just trying to disguise the fact that it’s a variety show.
Are you glad to be filming your show from the same studio where “Late Night” is recorded?
What’s most comforting is the fact that there’s no audience here. So if you want to fall flat on your face, do it. Coming out and being like, hey everybody, welcome to “The Amber Ruffin Show,” while looking 200 people in the face, might have been a lot. I was wondering how I was going to pull that off without tearing up or getting too scared.
Will you continue to work on “Late Night” while you do your own show?
Yeah! And if you have a third show, I will work on that. [Laughs.] It’s too much fun. No one ever leaves Seth’s show.
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