TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Amber Ruffin is a writer and performer on NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers." She also has a new late night show on NBC's free streaming service Peacock. She recently spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. Here's Ann Marie.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Launching a late-night show during a pandemic isn't ideal, but that's exactly what Amber Ruffin did in September of this year. Amber Ruffin was already an Emmy-nominated writer at "Late Night With Seth Meyers." And she was a breakout performer on the show, with her segments "Amber Says What?" and "Jokes Seth Can't Tell." She does that segment with Seth and fellow writer Jenny Hagel. Ruffin and Hagel tell the jokes that their straight white male boss can't get away with.
Amber Ruffin moved from her home in Nebraska to pursue comedy in Chicago, where she did improv at places like Second City. She's written and performed on Comedy Central shows like the "Detroiters," "Drunk History" and "Key & Peele." Plus, she wrote for the series "A Black Lady Sketch Show." "The Amber Ruffin Show" drops new episodes every Friday on Peacock.
I spoke to her recently about the show and her career. Here's a scene from an episode from before the election. Amber starts with a clip of Republican Senator from Georgia, David Perdue, speaking at a rally where he makes fun of Kamala Harris' name and how he can't pronounce it. Just a reminder that Perdue is one of the Republican senators who's currently involved in a runoff election that will decide the balance of power in the Senate. Here's Amber Ruffin talking about Senator Perdue.
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AMBER RUFFIN: Last week at a Trump rally, Republican Senator David Perdue mispronounced Kamala Harris' name. And worse, he did it on purpose.
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DAVID PERDUE: But the most insidious thing that Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden are trying to perpetrate - and Bernie and Elizabeth and Kamala or - what? - Kamala or Kamala - Kamalaalaala (ph). I don't know. Whatever.
RUFFIN: That really made me mad. Senator Perdue has worked with Kamala Harris in the Senate for three years. He knows her name, and he definitely knows how to pronounce it. I am sick of white people acting like Kamala is just a name you can't say. Guess what? If you refuse to learn someone's name because it belongs to a person of color, you are a racist. You know how I know? Because here are some of the names that white people always get right - Emily Ratajkowski, Timothee Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, Cher. White people have to be like, your name is too hard, please meet my daughter Sinead. Look, here's a little history lesson for you. One of the only things Black people really gain control of in the history of this country is what we name our children. When Black folks got off slave ships, white people renamed us. So when we finally got some freedom, we decided to take our names back. We took our power back. So you get Keishas (ph) and Shanikas (ph) and Davontes on your roll call. And there is power in those names. And if you are willing to learn a white Eastern European name that has no vowels, but can't wrap your head around Kamala, you need to ask yourself why.
BALDONADO: That's Amber Ruffin in a segment from the "Amber Ruffin Show." Amber Ruffin, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the new show.
RUFFIN: Yay. Thank you.
BALDONADO: I love this moment where, like, comedy is truthtelling. Maybe it always is. But, you know, that truth that people are making a decision, even if it's unconscious, to not learn a name that's different because it's connected to a person of color. It's like you're telling your brain, you know, this isn't important enough for you to remember. And I feel like - you know, I'm Asian American. And the times that people have mistaken me for another Asian American woman, like, in the workplace or in the world, it's just - it's dumb (laughter).
BALDONADO: And I don't look like these other people. It's just telling me that these people who are making the mistake, they're not, like, putting in the mental work to tell us apart.
RUFFIN: (Laughter) I mean, people don't know that that is what they're doing. And that's why it's so tricky.
BALDONADO: How did that bit come about?
RUFFIN: One of my writers, Shantira Jackson, wrote it. And - that happening to Kamala Harris - I think a lot of people saw it. And with America's new sensibility now, I think everyone was able to look at that and go, hmm, we see this guy's disgusting motive, you know? And I think Shantira was so moved and had encountered that herself so many times that what she wrote kind of just fell out of her, you know, after years and years and years of experiencing the same thing.
BALDONADO: Now, listeners may know you from a segment you do on Seth Meyers' show called "Jokes Seth Can't Tell." Let's listen to some excerpts from a really recent one. And this segment features Seth Meyers, the host, another writer, Jenny Hagel, who was a friend of yours from Second City and is now also the head writer of your show. But this is a segment on "Late Night With Seth Meyers." Let's listen.
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SETH MEYERS: These are two of our writers, Amber and Jenny.
RUFFIN: I'm black.
JENNY HAGEL: And I'm gay.
RUFFIN: And we're both women.
MEYERS: And I'm not. So here's how it works. I'll read the setups to these jokes, and Amber and Jenny will read the punch lines. Here we go. Archaeologists in Peru recently discovered a 2,000-year-old image of a cat etched onto a hillside.
HAGEL: Said lesbians all adopt it.
MEYERS: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said recently that the phrase make America great again is pretty much synonymous with the phrase blue lives matter.
RUFFIN: And they're both synonymous with the phrase, yeah, but where are you from from?
MEYERS: Amber, where are you from?
MEYERS: Yeah, but where are you from from?
MEYERS: Ah. The Hallmark Channel has announced that one of their Christmas movies this year will be about a gay couple hoping to adopt their first child.
HAGEL: And the town that rises up to defeat them.
HAGEL: I'm just kidding. A town's not going to keep gay people from adopting. Amy Coney Barrett is.
MEYERS: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
RUFFIN: Oh, did it, said Black women.
HAGEL: Hey, Seth, why don't you tell one?
MEYERS: Oh, I couldn't.
RUFFIN: Come on. Just one.
MEYERS: I never feel like it ends well.
RUFFIN: Do it.
HAGEL: Come on.
MEYERS: According to a new study, Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to get job interviews than white women. Said lesbians, what's a hairstyle?
RUFFIN: (Gasps) Seth.
MEYERS: Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm so - let me try again. Netflix has ordered a new lesbian teen vampire series, so instead of coming out at night, they come out in college.
HAGEL: How dare you.
MEYERS: I'm fine with that one.
RUFFIN: You should be ashamed of yourself.
MEYERS: There's no audience. The laughs are the same as groans.
MEYERS: Black women and lesbian are liars.
BALDONADO: And that's the way Seth always ends the segment.
BALDONADO: Now - and the segment, it's a genius way to get your perspectives on the air and also kind of unseat Seth as the host for a little while. So it's a great way to do that.
RUFFIN: Yes. Seth does not care who gets the laugh. He has this, like, team mentality. And a lot of people don't. But if he is around while the audience is laughing, he counts it. And so if we get big fat laughs, he is thrilled. It doesn't matter that the laughs aren't for him. And I don't think a lot of people are that way.
BALDONADO: Now, Amber, you're credited with being the first Black woman writer at a network late night show. That happened in 2014, which seems crazy - like, way too recent to have that happen. Had you always wanted to be a late night writer?
RUFFIN: No (laughter). I certainly didn't think being a late night writer was an option for me, but I don't know that I ever was very honest with myself about what I wanted. I was only just trying to keep things realistic, you know? So I always thought, OK, I got this theater job. That's crazy. I'll ride this thing 'til the wheels fall off. It never occurred to me that I could write for any television show, much less late night. I thought at best I'm a performer because at a lot of places I worked, there were a lot of writer-performers and that was 50/50. But I was more a performer-performer and I would write because I had to. So I never thought I would get to be, like, a writer. I thought, sure, I can perform and I'm confident in it, but I'm less confident in my writing. And now it is all I do.
BALDONADO: Well, was it because you didn't see other writers, you know, you didn't sort of see that out there, writers like you?
RUFFIN: Absolutely. Because you would hear about friends that made it into television and started to write full time. And none of them were women. And zero of them were of any color. So I just never thought I could do that.
BALDONADO: Also, is your show the only late night show without any straight white guy writers on it?
RUFFIN: (Laughter) For now. We're going to have to end up with one. Those guys are everywhere.
BALDONADO: My guest is comedian Amber Ruffin. She's a writer and performer for "Late Night With Seth Meyers." Now she's hosting her own late night program, "The Amber Ruffin Show," which is on NBC's streaming service, Peacock. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is comedian Amber Ruffin, who has been a writer and performer for "Late Night With Seth Meyers" since 2014. She's now hosting her own late night show called "The Amber Ruffin Show." And you can find it on the NBC streaming service Peacock. She also has a book coming out in January that she co-wrote with her sister, Lacey Lamar. It's called "You'll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism." Now, you grew up in Omaha, Neb., the youngest of...
BALDONADO: (Laughter) The youngest of five kids. Can you describe where you grew up?
RUFFIN: I would say we were 50/50 black/white, and it was this type of place where everyone has a huge backyard. So then you would just go through everyone's backyards to your friend's house, like, eight houses down the road, and no one cared that there were strange children running through their backyards (laughter). And, like, it would be, like, a normal house, normal house - like, my parents live in a normal house - like, normal house, like, three-bed, two-bathroom regular. But then there'd be, like, a nice house with a pool a couple houses down, so then one of those super great houses was our neighbor. And me and my little friend would always just walk into their garage and get a soda pop and go hang out in their backyard and drink it. And no one cared. They'd be like, hey, sweethearts. No one cared. It was the best. It was the most charmed little childhood a person could have.
BALDONADO: Now, you recently wrote a book with your sister. It's called "You'll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey." Why did you and Lacey Lamar, your sister, decide to write the book together?
RUFFIN: So Lacey and I both grew up in Omaha, Neb. She is still there. I am in New York. And I've spent the past, you know, almost 20 years living all over the place and having these very liberal experiences, whereas Lacey has stayed in Omaha and had very racist experiences. And you know how when you're a Black woman at work or a woman at work, you have to write down when people say crazy things to you? Because there is this thing that happens where sometimes someone says something crazy to you and then they say a racist thing to you because they are using you as a punching bag because they are angry, and lots of times, that can get out of control. And then they'll go to your boss and be like, you'll never believe what this person said and blah, blah, blah and insubordination. And it's just them having a whole bunch of feelings by themselves. But they've dragged you in because you're the closest punching bag because you are a Black woman. That happens all of the time to minorities and women all over the place. So because when you're one of them, you keep a log of when these things happen just so you know when and where and what you can expect and so you can recognize a pattern and keep your coworkers safe. There's all kinds of reasons to do this. So because of that, Lacey ended up with books and books and books of these incidents.
BALDONADO: And it is just the funny stories. There's probably many other books, like the Graver stories.
BALDONADO: But can you give an example of - one of your favorite examples from the book?
RUFFIN: There's a story where Lacey once had Black history checks. And, you know, it would be, like, Malcolm X, you know, on your check and Martin Luther King on your check. So she hands her check over to the lady. And the lady goes, oh, I didn't know you could get checks with your own picture on them. And Lacey goes, that's not me. That's Harriet Tubman.
RUFFIN: It was a picture of Harriet Tubman. And the lady thought it was Lacey (laughter). And it's not like - it's, like, an old-timey (laughter) picture of Harriet Tubman. So not only did this lady not know who Harriet Tubman was, she thought Lacey was so full of herself she got her own face on her checks, but also, like, could not see the difference between Harriet Tubman and Lacey Lamar.
BALDONADO: Now, back in 2013 and '14, "Saturday Night Live" was getting criticism for not having a Black, female cast member on the show. And so there was this concerted effort to cast someone. You were one of the comics that went in for that audition. What was that experience like?
BALDONADO: There were all of these auditions in LA where - it wasn't, like, auditions. It was, like, showcases. And then, like, certain people from "SNL" would be there. And then you'd make it to the next one. And then you'd do another one - blah. So each one of those shows, it's you and 20 other Black women who do comedy. So you got to fall in love 20 different times and become a fan of 20 different people, because the side effect of being an improviser of color is a lot of theaters will take all of their people of color and distribute them so that each group has one. So because of that, you never get to perform with anybody.
So then, like, five of us or eight of us flew here to New York to audition on the "SNL" set. And I remember I auditioned after Leslie Jones. And as I'm walking into the studio, Leslie Jones is walking out. She's sweating, panting as she's walked off of the stage. She's already off the stage. She's 50 feet from the stage. People are still laughing. They can't see her anymore, and they're still laughing at her bits. And I was like, ooh, buddy. So I went in there. And I did my five minutes. And after that, we all went to dinner. And then I got a call at dinner saying I need to stay for the weekend.
So then the next day, when we got down to the lobby, you know, I look around and it's LaKendra and Leslie, who were my little buddies from all of the auditions, you know? And then we stayed to go to the "SNL" Christmas show. So it's the three of us. We're like, one of the three of us is going to be on "SNL." So then we get in line to go to the show. And there's a fourth person in line. And it's Sasheer Zamata. So we were like, oh, no. Now there's four. But I was the only one who didn't get "SNL" from the four of us. LaKendra got hired as a writer. Leslie got hired as a writer and then, you know, went on to be on the show. And Sasheer got hired to be on the show. I didn't get anything. I went home with no job (laughter).
BALDONADO: But then, a couple days later...
RUFFIN: Then a couple days later, Seth Meyers called me on the telephone. And I thought, 100%, he was calling me to say he was sorry that I did not get hired by "SNL." And I kept saying, you didn't have to call. It's fine (laughter). But he was trying to offer me a job.
BALDONADO: Well, Amber Ruffin, thank you so much for talking with me.
RUFFIN: Yay. Thank you for having me. This was great.
GROSS: Amber Ruffin spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. You can find "The Amber Ruffin Show" on the NBC streaming service Peacock. The book, "You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism," which Amber Ruffin co-wrote with her sister, Lacey Lamar, will be published next month.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Ed Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic who's been covering the pandemic since it started. His new article about the research that led to the COVID vaccines is called "How Science Beat The Virus And What It Lost In The Process." It's about how scientists managed to create vaccines in record time and how some flawed scientific research helped lead to misguided policies. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.