Amber Ruffin and Robin Thede on Representation in Late-Night and Sketch Comedy
Variety talks with two successful Black female comedians
Variety talks with successful Black comedians Amber Ruffin and Robin Thede on representation, pandemic performances and creativity, audience feedback, comedic distinctions, and more.
Amber Ruffin and Robin Thede go way back.
The writers, producers and performers entered late-night TV around the same time (Ruffin in 2014 on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and Thede the following year on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”). Before that, they’d known each other for years, previously appearing together at improv shows where they would act out “lost” (aka fake) “227” episodes live.
Ruffin ended up writing on the first season of Thede’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” in 2019, but now the long-time friends are blazing individual trails in the late-night sketch comedy space. Thede’s HBO series just aired its second season, while Ruffin is celebrating the freshman year of her Peacock series, “The Amber Ruffin Show.”
Variety brought them together to talk about finding creativity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how the lack of wide representation for Black women in the sketch space affects what they do, and competing in the same category at the Emmys.
Sketch, stand-up, and talk shows
How happy are you that the Television Academy reversed its decision to combine the variety talk and sketch series categories this year?
Amber Ruffin: I think the two things are not alike enough to be all mushed together, and it is truly a non-comedy guy thing to do.
Robin Thede: That’s so true! Amber, you know this has happened before where you’re doing an improv or sketch show and people are like, “Cool, we’re going to start with a section of stand-up” and you’re like, “Why would you do that? That’s not the same.” The people who are going to see stand-up do not want to see you playing ridiculous characters and in wigs. It’s not the same thing. And we want to compete against our peers. Amber, your monologue is a sketch. Even when you’re serious, there’s this devilish grin, and everything that you do that is so goddamn charming; you’ll say the nastiest thing with a smile. You did a whole song about white women’s flat butts, and I was like, “How is she doing this on television!?”
Ruffin: I did think I was going to get in trouble for that [but] didn’t nobody care. I’m just going until I get in trouble!
Thede: I love it. Listen, I have to tell you something: you are doing Paul Mooney level subversive comedy to me; you are doing the most disarming, pointed commentary about things that people think is just, “Oh she’s just doing a musical number,” and it’s like, she told you how to fix a broken system into two verses and a chorus. I think people understand the surface, there’s jokes, but you peel back one layer and she has dragged everyone. And it’s in this package that is so delightful and so joyful, and it’s just only something Amber can do.
Getting to the writers’ room
Let’s dive a little deeper into that subversive comedy aspect and both of your processes in the writers’ room: How are you formulating what the line of commentary comedy versus just entertainment comedy or some combination of the two you want to walk with the shows?
Ruffin: It’s funny because I wrote for the first season of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” but I had to write from New York. The first time, maybe ever, there was an all-Black, all-women writers’ room and I could not be there.
Thede: And we weren’t even Zooming back in those days! It was over emails and calls, occasionally.
Ruffin: I would just send [my work in] and be like, “Bye.” But I got to hear about the process and also sit back and daydream about it. And I’ve watched Robin and copied all of the things she has ever done because Robin’s route she takes to get anywhere is the true genius of her. She understands that she is a fun doofus and she was like, “Great, I’m proud of that. How do I take that and surround myself with the people who will honor that and enough adults around to regulate me?” And that’s the thing: to know who you are, and then assemble what will make the route to exactly what you want.
Thede: I’ve never heard it put that way, so that’s actually an honor for me to hear, but it is true: convention be damned. But you know who taught me that? Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore and Chris Rock and Bernie Mac and all these people I had the pleasure of working with for years and years. I do think I have thrown out the ways we’ve been told that we cannot do things or the ways that we’re being told we have to do things and just made up the way I wanted to do things. Amber and I talk constantly about every element of production: hiring writers, bits, the best way to get jokes through. And the fun thing about that is, we have each other to talk to about that. When you are one of only a few, you feel so lonely sometimes – you feel like you’re on this island. It’s why we’re so possessive of each other. It’s not just support – no one will understand what we’re going through like the other.
How does this lack of representation affect the way you’re making these shows? Is there a feeling of, “Oh I have to find a way to comment on this because no one else will?”
Ruffin: The fact that there are so few Black women in late night and sketch just means I don’t have to triple check to see if someone made a joke I’m fixing.
Thede: Amber’s show is much more topical than mine; mine takes many, many months to make. When I was in late night, if Amber and I had been on at the same time, we would be texting each other jokes during the day, like, “Are you making this one? Are you making this?” And I can’t imagine any of the Jimmys doing that. But as much as we are connected, our brains also work very differently. Her jokes are so perfectly in tune with her voice [and] every week there’s quotable stuff and also her just devil-may-care attitude: she’s going say what she’s going to say and that kind of bravado in a Black woman in late night TV is what’s so damn revolutionary. At the end of the day, I know she’s not scared to say anything – clearly. I will reiterate the white women’s asses thing.
Boomer articles like this one on comedians Amber Ruffin and Robin Thede:
And then for me, I’m like, “If you gave me the opportunity to be on your television, you’re going to get me as I am, and anything less is a disservice to all of the other Black women who would kill to be here.” You don’t want to do anything that’s going to tear anyone who looks like you down, but we wouldn’t do that as people. So beyond that, I don’t feel a responsibility to do anything specific because I can’t represent all Black women. With my show I’m able to represent a wide swath and pay homage to all of these amazing women who came before us. This season we have Kim Wayans and Kim Coles and I’m just over the moon about being able to bring on these actors from “In Living Color,” a show that shaped my life so immensely. It’s a happy responsibility: I have this platform; I can celebrate all these people who don’t get it everywhere else.
Pandemic performances for comedians Amber Ruffin and Robin Thede
How did working during the pandemic affect your creativity and the kinds of things you wanted on your shows?
Ruffin: Well, we didn’t have to change anything because we started during the pandemic. But I don’t remember ever performing in front of an audience. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never done such a thing. The memory is too far away. If an audience arrives, it’s going to be a mess. I don’t remember how to do it. Do they make noise? But [now] I do honestly imagine the audience after every joke just being like, “Yeah baby, whoo!” You’re free to imagine whatever you want in your mind. So it’s like, “Yeah, man, I nailed that one.”
Thede: We wrote the whole show and then we were about to go into production five days before the whole industry shut down. And so, when we came back in August my head writer Lauren Ashley Smith and I had to essentially rewrite the show – pull out some of the sketches that had 100 extras in them because you can’t do that, and we had a sketch that was in a hospital emergency room that would not have been appropriate. And we wrote some new ones, like the one in the teaser with Dr Hadassah just straight-on at the camera is a new sketch.
We lost one of our core cast members because she had another show and we had to get a new one. [With guest stars] we had a lot of really big names who, by the time we came back, we had lost either because they were working somewhere else or they didn’t want to work during COVID. And it was tough shooting during COVID because we shoot everything on location and people didn’t want us out there in October of 2020 through February 2021. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to make a show that didn’t feel like COVID. And with Amber’s show, the pace is so frenetic I don’t even miss the audience. She will look down the barrel of the camera in the setup and say the punch line and then look at you and go, “I know you’re laughing.”
Ruffin: I have to give you space to feel your feelings. I have a very defiant nephew, who, when he was a little child, would do something bad and then walk up to tell you the bad thing he did and wait for his punishment and I would be like, “Oh my god, this is so brave.” So, I’m just telling you the joke and I’ll live or die on it.
Thede: To make you sit in it. Not to move on and make you comfortable. And Tarik [Davis] is such a great foil for her. I coined this new phrase, which is the “Tarik Turn,” which is where he’s against Amber in whatever train of thought she’s on and then because of her charm, he turns and is on board.
Two takes on audience feedback
Hearing Robin say things like this brings to mind audience feedback. How much does that influence what you add into the shows?
Ruffin: They love to be like, “Bring back so-and-so” when it was clearly just a one-off thing that can never happen again, that you can’t bend to do again. That’s what they want to see a second time. The stuff that’s made to be repeated, no one has anything to say about that! [Laughs.]
Thede: For me it’s the opposite. People loved Dr. Hadassah so we should keep doing that character [for example]. The Black Lady Courtroom was not made to be a repeating sketch but because of people’s love of it, we were just like, “Oh well, we have to do a second installment.” There’s some fun to be had there, but still we want to fuck with people’s minds and do these twists and turns with characters and storylines that aren’t going to go where you expect. A lot of people were guessing what was going to happen to Chris of Chris and Lachel fame from Season 1 because Quinta [Brunson] is not in this season, so what is he going to be doing? People love to guess. They’re always in my mentions.
So what are the main things that inspire you today?
Ruffin: The way I write things is, I go, “What do I feel like doing?” And then I hold that in my brain as I look through the news, and then I go, “Oh, I can do this about this.” Like the, “How crazy was it?”, if I feel like doing a vaudeville bit, then I skim through the news “conservative” and then I put the two together: “How conservative was it?”
Thede: That’s how she really bridges that late night-sketch gap. My political messages are allegorical: if there’s the end of the world, four Black women would survive it, so that’s a political message in and of itself, but beyond that I really just get to deal with story and characters. I like taking that treasure trove of things that me and my writers have had bubbling in our minds, either recently or for years, and merging them together so that they fit the DNA of our show. While Amber has a blessing and a curse of being a weekly show, there is a blessing and a curse about being nine months out from air: we can be current, but we can’t be topical.
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