Amber Ruffin on Having Free Rein, Centering Black Comedians, John Oliver & More
After debuting during the height of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, The Amber Ruffin Show finally has a live studio audience in Season 2. Airing new episodes every Friday on Peacock, the current season of the late-night talk show features the show’s staple sketches and “How Did We Get Here?” segments and for the first time ever, celebrity interviews.
Bringing guests onto the show changed the creative process a bit for host Amber Ruffin and her team. But it’s a welcome, exciting change. Here, the host chats with TV Insider about the series, from their writers room setup and the benefits of streaming vs. broadcast to her favorite moments and future plans.
I just watched your “January 6 Capital Rioters Face Consequences” song. “Your suffering fills me with joy” is a hilarious line. Do you ever experience pushback from executives when making segments about (I’m using heavy air quotes here) “controversial” topics like that? Or do you have the free rein?
No one has ever said, “You cannot talk about this” or “You cannot say this like this” to us at Peacock. Either we have free rein there, or ain’t nobody paying attention to us [laughs]. I hope it’s that we have free rein.
The show is the first late-night streaming show to receive a Variety writing Emmy nomination. Have you ever imagined what the show would be like if it were on broadcast instead of streaming? I imagine it would be more limiting.
I do think if we were on broadcast, it might be a little more limiting. But if someone knew who we were, and then put us on broadcast, I think they would expect this behavior at this point. Oh, we’re bad.
You’re the only Black woman hosting a late-night show. What challenges come with this, if any, and what joys?
It is a joy to be able to give this opportunity to Black writers. That’s a freaking joy. Anytime Black comedy people get together, it’s this crazy feeling I can’t explain. Everything we say has had to be understandable for white people and for Black people, so it’s like running with weights on. You can’t do everything, say everything that’s on the top of your mind. You can’t make Babyface references ’cause no one knows who that is. You have to behave within certain parameters. But when everybody’s Black, your first thought is valid. You don’t have to doctor it to be understood by white people. You can just be your full self, and your jokes can get extremely specific. Being able to do that with all our writers is a freaking thrill.
All the challenges are fun. It’s neat. I recently wrote on the Tonys. It was me, the head writer, Dave Boone, and then all of the executives. There is that freedom there. When you’re not in charge, you can just do whatever the rip you want, and it has been so long since I could act without direct consequences that I forgot what that is like [laughs]. You know what I mean? No executive was going to call me and be like, “We don’t like this song for the Tonys.” That note has to go through four people before it gets to me. But to be right up against the consequences — or to have to be the consequences — it’s pretty cool.
What are the pros and cons to having a weekly episode rollout rather than every night?
For me, the pros are it’s easier. We’re used to [Late Night With Seth Meyers], where you have new episodes every day, so slowing that down feels fantastic. I remember when we first started at Late Night Seth, we thought, “John Oliver keeps winning, but he only does one show a week!” To look at the work that goes into John Oliver’s show [laughs], I’m literally incapable of doing anything like that.
Each way has its own pluses and minuses. We do do our show once a week, but we do a fair bit of research and we do a ton of sketch. We write a lot of sketches to end up with a half-an-hour worth of show. And we recently started having guests, so that’s cut our sketches in half. Things have gotten easier as we’ve gone along, I think.
Is it possible to have a favorite interview yet?
I don’t think it’s possible. It was Vanessa Williams, Jaquel Spivey, and Cynthia Erivo. It’s so funny, because I did just so happen to interview them at the height of my love for them. Just seeing A Strange Loop, I was like, “There’s no better human being on Earth than Jaquel Spivey.” I will admit I am that kind of person to fall in love real hard with someone after seeing a really good show, but I was in love with them the most when I interviewed them. So when I interviewed them, each person was my favorite.
Can you share what the writers room is like each week? How do you pick your topics and how quickly do things move?
Our writers room is cute, and we’re in love. Monday, we each send in two sketches and read through. Then Jenny [Hagel, head writer] and I choose which sketches we want to be in the show, and we make up a running order. Tuesday, we work on the sketches. If there are songs, they get orchestrated and choreographed, and then on Wednesday, we have another pitch meeting to try to keep the show current. If any of those pitches beat any of the things that were chosen on Monday, then they get replaced. So then, on Wednesday, they write up those things. On Thursday, we have a rehearsal, and on Friday we have a show.
This whole while, Michael Harriot or Erica Buddington have been working with Jill Twiss on “How Did We Get Here?” Those things, we choose them way ahead of time. They’re crazy researched and rewritten within an inch of their lives, so by the time they hit the show, they’ve been worked on a lot.
Do you have a favorite segment or sketch? One that maybe came together in the last minutes and turned out really great, or one with a topic that’s close to your heart?
If a million years from now, someone asked me, “What’s the most memorable thing you did on The Amber Ruffin Show?” I’m gonna have to say it was singing that song with El DeBarge. I. Could. Have. Died. He saw me in the hallway and was like, “Hi, Amber,” and I was like, “Oh, hi.” And then, I realized who he was and I literally fell against the wall. My knees fully gave out like they do in the movies [laughs]. Singing a song with Tarik [Davis] and El DeBarge was maybe the coolest thing of all time.
Since the interviews are a new aspect of the show, who are you aching to get on the show next?
You know what’s gonna happen? I’m gonna go see a Broadway show, I’m gonna fall in love with someone, and I’m gonna say, “We have to have them on the show or I’ll die!”
In lieu of that, I consume a lot of television every day, so the people I’m obsessed with right now are the people from the show Barry. I really should be hosting a panel with them. We wouldn’t be taking a single question from the audience, because I have them all. The show is so perfect. I’m also in love with John Oliver. We be watching that show! The only real appointment viewing I have is [Last Week Tonight with John Oliver] and Grey’s Anatomy. I’m the cool guy.
What are you most excited for for Season 3?
That we get one! [Laughs].
The Amber Ruffin Show, Fridays, 11a/10c, Peacock