Amber Ruffin Has A Lot of Work to Do: Comedian and Omaha Native Talks New Show, Upcoming Book
Omaha native Amber Ruffin is one of the biggest names in comedy. When she joined the writing staff of "Late Night With Seth Meyers" in 2014, she became the first Black woman to write for a late-night talk show. Her segments "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" and "Amber Says What" were so popular that NBCUniversal gave Ruffin her own show: "The Amber Ruffin Show" on Peacock, the network's free streaming platform.
The eponymous show lacks both an audience and guests. The audience will come once the pandemic ends, but Ruffin says there's no plan to add guests. Instead, she and sidekick Tarik Davis will continue to hold their own with current events commentary and musical numbers.
Ruffin is a 1996 Benson High School graduate. After growing up performing at local venues like the now-defunct Millenium Theater, Ruffin moved to Chicago and made a name for herself performing with improv troupes Boom Chicago and Second City.
In addition to writing for two late-night shows, Ruffin and her sister, Lacey Lamar, have a book coming out in January. "You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism" recounts the sisters' experiences with racism as Black teens in a predominantly white, Midwestern town. It comes out January 12 and is available to preorder.
Omaha Public Radio's Courtney Bierman spoke with Ruffin over Zoom from her office in Rockefeller Center.
KIOS: Congratulations on the show! It's very funny. How are you finding writing for two late night shows at the same time?
Amber Ruffin: It's fine. If everything stays perfectly normal, it's fine. But the second one thing falls apart. And I have to be like, like, yesterday, we realized we may not be able to get the rights to a song that like a whole sketch was based off of. So then I had to just write another song real quick. So that was today's mess. That was yesterday's mess, and it went on forever and forever. And I was like, if I'm gonna keep doing this, I need a margarita. So then, I made a margarita at my desk, and there is salt everywhere.
Can we talk about your wardrobe on the show? I know Eric Justian is your costume designer. Are the suits a collaborative effort?
No one's listening to me [about] what to wear! You better not listen to me. I was like, "I want to look like the fanciest a woman can look while wearing a suit." And I like doofy bows. That was basically it. And then he (Justian) just went to town.
I know you have a couple of Omaha projects in the works. Did you shoot the "Village Gazette" pilot?
We shot the pilot. You know the back lot of Universal Studios where they shoot "Desperate Housewives" — shoot. Shot like 1000 years ago. They changed it to this like, beautiful neighborhood. And like, I guess that's where most stuff is shot. And like my house was like, the old "Munsters" house if you can stand it, "Back to the Future" was also on that backlot. And so that whole square they changed to look like Benson. And it was insane. And some of the stores were Benson stores, and they just looked it up. And they made, like, the Benson the Omaha Bicycle [Co.], they made it. And then like another couple of Benson stores, they made them and I was floored. It was the coolest thing that's ever happened. Then we shot the whole thing. And then NBC passed. And by that I mean NBC died.
I'm sorry to hear that. You have you have a book coming out with your sister in January. What can you tell us about "You'll Never Believe What happened to Lacey"?
My sister and I wrote a book called "You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey." Lacey is my sister. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska. I am my me, and I live in New York City. I've always lived in big cities for like 20 years now. So our sensibilities are so different. And she gets to see fresh Omaha racism every dang day. And it drops my jaw. I feel like I moved away and then, like, forgot the crazy stuff people will say.
When you're a Black lady at work — and if you don't know this and are a Black lady at work, do this — when you're a Black lady at work, and someone says something racist to you, or crazy to you or out of pocket in any way, you write it down. And you write down those circumstances so that when they go to the boss, and they go, "Yeah, and she's crazy!" And they cite all those times where they were mean to you, then you can go, "Oh, this is what happened." So Lacey had that log for like 1000 years from like four or different jobs. So she was looking at it, and I was like, "This is a book's worth of stuff." And I was like, "Even if you just use just the funny stuff, it's more than enough for a book." So we just took all the funniest stories, and the most unbelievable stories and put them in a book.
When it's your own experiences with racism, how do you differentiate between what's funny and what's not funny?
Well, it's pretty clear when you're Black. If you laugh it's funny, you know. If you don't laugh, tt's probably still funny but hurts your feelings a little bit. But it's crazy. It's all just like, the craziest stuff I've ever heard. But it's like, it's my sister. So it's so funny that we're basically the same human being living in completely different worlds,. It's nuts. So she tells me those stories all the time, and I laugh so hard. It's so funny. So we wrote about. So if you live in Omaha, grab yourself that book. See if you can figure out which one of your little friends it is.
Lacey is here. You have a sister in Minneapolis, and you're the youngest of five. Are your other [siblings] in Omaha?
I have one sister in Lincoln and one brother in Omaha.
I know your sister in Minneapolis is a pastor Are any of them performers?
No. I am the only real performer, but, you know, being a pastor's kind of a performer. Also, if she had to perform she could. She's pretty talented. But no, none of us are really performers. But I should write another book with Angie, my Minneapolis sister. Her stories are horrible. I don't know how you can make any of those funny. They're just so unbelievable. There's a lot of unbelievable stories. I have a lot of work to do.
How is writing for yourself different from writing for one of the comedy shows you work on or writing for Seth Meyers?
Writing for yourself is a lot easier than literally anything else. You just write down the words that would come out of your mouth. Then you wait a little bit. Then you read them again. And then you make them a little funnier, and then you send it out. You know, it's so much easier than writing for someone else. Because when you write for someone else, you really have to build that from their personality plus what you're talking about. You really have to like construct it and start with the end point in mind. It's a lot. But if I'm me, I can just babble because you know you'll land when you're talking about something, and wherever you land is probably the natural place for you to land. So it's super easy. Luckily, for me, I've almost only ever written for myself. Because even back at the second city, and boom, Chicago, you'd write sketches for everyone. But a lot of what you write for yourself gets chosen.
Do you miss having a live audience?
I don't miss having a live audience. Because it's infinitely less scary without an audience. You will not get a bad reaction. You won't. You can't. No one's there to react either way. So people are always like, "Yeah, I've missed these laughs." And that's true. But I don't miss jokes going thud, which also happens. So if you take away the danger of something bad happening, it's fantastic. So at first, I missed it a little bit. But now I'm like, "I can do exactly what I want." With no repercussions. I can tell horrible jokes, jokes that only I would ever laugh at. And it's fine. Because you're watching it in your house by yourself. You're probably not making that much noise anyway, so you don't notice what one of these jokes goes thud as bad.
I was thinking about how difficult it must be to not only not have an audience, but just to start a show in this environment. But regardless of whether you have that immediate feedback of an audience, I guess there are still going to be kinks you have to work out with the show. So not having an audience, like you said, softens the blow.
Also, we never started with one, so it doesn't feel like we're missing anything. And I have a horrible memory. We started our show while we were deep into social distancing, so we hadn't had an audience in forever by the time we started our show. So I was like, "Oh, okay, yeah. It's always been like this."
People talk about your brand as being smart and silly, which I think is accurate. Another word that comes to mind when I see you perform is joy. Where does that come from for you?
I am thrilled that anyone has ever let me perform. I'm literally thrilled every day. It's the frickin' best. I cannot hide it. Also, because I'm the youngest of five, no one ever was like, "Calm down." Or "You're embarrassing yourself," ever. So like, I don't have I don't have any of those boundaries people have that are like, "I don't want to embarrass myself with my sincerity," or, like, "I don't want people to know how happy I am that this is happening to me." I have have always been able to be 100 percent thrilled. I'm just a lucky guy who slipped through life without being made fun of for their sincerity. And now it's gone off the rails.
I think not having shame when you're a comedian is probably very healthy.
I have no shame. I also did a million shows at a place called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. And those audiences will get you, buddy. It'll be like two full tables of drunk British tourists who are raging and should not be in a theater. And you have to just dress them down in a way that will shut them up. Or you have to cause a distraction until they can be kicked out. If after you've been, like, sincerely booed by a full audience and you deserved it — if that's happened to you, you're fine. Once I realized the worst that can happen to you is not very bad? Please. We'll do whatever we feel like doing. You know, I think it takes having a lot of bad performances to get the freedom of doing whatever you feel because people could turn on you in one second. So you might as well be dressed like an elephant singing a song about peanuts. Oh my god, write it down!
Are we gonna see that on the show?
You're going to see that every show.
I'm not a comedian. I think bombing is probably something of a rite of passage, though.
It feels horrible. But it gives you all of the tools you need to survive. You ever have any of those friends who are like, full-ass adults, but are scared of stuff? Won't say I love you or like won't drive a car? Like weird stuff. It's like, you're too old! You gotta just let some stuff happen to you. You'll be fine.
You mentioned your tenure in Amsterdam. How did you end up doing comedy in Amsterdam of all places?
I was in Omaha and I would visit Chicago every once in a while to do improv. And they said, "Move here and you'll get a full time job improvising within a year." I said, "Okay." And I moved there, and I did! I auditioned for a theater called Boom Chicago, where they do like a Second City-esque type show except it's like shortform comedy and like, improvised songs and sketches. And you do like eight shows a week. It's nuts and all you do is perform. I counted, and I've done 3000 shows. That's only counting when I was a full-time performer. Then I did Second City Denver. We existed. Then I did Second City proper in Chicago, Second City Mainstage. And then I went back to Boom Chicago and Amsterdam again, because it was the most fun human beings can have. It was comedy basic training. We did like so many shows. It truly didn't matter if you had a bad one. Because you have another show. Maybe that same day.
Did you meet your husband in Amsterdam?
Oddly, I was living in Amsterdam and I was on tour here in New York City. We were doing shows in New York. And Seth Meyers had come to the show because Seth Meyers used to do Boom Chicago. We did the show, we went downtown to some bar, and I was standing outside smoking. And my husband came walking down the street. But he wasn't then. He was just some guy. We started talking, and I realized he was Dutch. He was a Dutch guy on vacation to New York, and I was living in Amsterdam. And we didn't live that far apart. We both lived in Amsterdam. And I was like, "Oh, well, here's my email, because I can't remember my Dutch phone number."
I've kind of gotten the sense from other interviews that you never really expected to be in this position, hosting your own show. Or maybe even writing for late night. That being said, do you have an endgame? Where do you go from here?
I have no idea. Every time something new happens. I go, "Yay, look at this new thing!" I certainly don't have a plan. If I had planned any of this? I don't know. I'd be delivering the mail, I bet. Because I would never have thought I could do anything like this. Never. I don't think I would have even had the bravery to write it down and be like, "This is my secret wish." I don't think I would have even had enough confidence to be like, hopefully, maybe one day in my secret heart of hearts. I couldn't have even dreamed such a thing. It's crazy.
I think you would also be an excellent mail carrier, for what it's worth.
Look, I'm a happy guy. I'd have been happy no matter what. I do think this is a little bit wasted on me, all this fun stuff, because I was gonna have fun regardless. So I just get to have fun in front of other people, which is nice.
Was not having guests on the show something that was planned from the beginning, or is that because of the pandemic?
No, we were never gonna have guests. We were always just trying to be like, "How can we disguise this variety show as a thing people will let us do?"
What is the first thing you want to do once there is a vaccine, once it's safe to go outside without a mask? What is the one thing you miss the most?
I miss sitting outside and drinking margaritas. That's all I've ever wanted. I do wanna hang out with my friends. Okay, so let me change it. I want to sit outside and drink margaritas with my little friends.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. New episodes of “The Amber Ruffin Show” are released Friday at 8 p.m. on Peacock.