Late-Night Laughs: Amber Ruffin & Jenny Hagel On Silly Sketches, Trump Takedowns & Hoping For A “Billion” Eps

Peter White
·9-min read

Late-Night Laughs is Deadline’s weekly look at the business of jokes after dark. We focus on the biggest topics in the world of late-night, the people who make these shows tick and the moments that go viral. Drop me a line at pwhite@deadline.com with tips or suggestions.

This week, we talk to Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel about how they’re getting on with making Peacock late-night series The Amber Ruffin Show in the middle of a pandemic and the best of this week’s late-night clips.

‘The Amber Ruffin Show’: Songs & Jokes But No Backup Dancers

Amber Ruffin and her writing partner Jenny Hagel are planning a Halloween-themed episode of The Amber Ruffin Show four days ahead of the Presidential election.

That is, unless, “some real shit comes out and we throw it all out” says Ruffin, highlighting one of the great challenges of working in late-night television in 2020.

“It’s a Halloween show with an asterisk because everything’s got an asterisk,” Hagel (left) tells Deadline. I’ve been referring to November 3 as a comedy cliff. We know what’s funny right but we don’t know what’s funny after November 3 because we don’t know what’s about to happen. Comedically, there’s only so far ahead you can look because the nature of late-night writing is taking the temperature of the room and room being America and seeing what’s funny in the moment and right now the temperature changes every hour.”

Ruffin and Hagel met years ago at a short-lived Second City outpost in Denver, where they performed in a show called How I Lost My Denvirginity (“it was heralded as the show that sunk Second City Denver”). After a few years away, they reconnected on Late Night with Seth Meyers, where they have become integral members of the NBC show.

They are currently three episodes in to The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock, a comedy variety show filmed at 30 Rock’s Studio 8G, without an audience and with only her friend and announcer Tarik Davis for on-stage support.

Despite putting together a new late-night format in the middle of a global pandemic, Ruffin says that she feels “relieved that it’s actually possible” and that it’s “as much fun as I thought it was going to be”.

“The show can only be loud and silly and presentational so we were really beautifully backed into a corner,” Ruffin says. “There was nothing else we would have done. There are modifications that other people can make to their shows to make them smaller but we’re loud and bad and it was always going to be that and I don’t think there were any modifications that we could have made to help our situation. Luckily, it turned out fine, even though it’s a big, showy, theater thing, and there’s no audience.”

Hagel admits the show that is streaming is now is very similar to the show that they had originally intended to make. “The only difference is that we don’t have an audience. While that is a bummer for obvious reasons, it’s fun to get laughs and to have the energy of an audience, in a way, it gives you the freedom to explore different kinds of jokes in the same episode of a show. When you have an audience, the jokes that work are the jokes that those 200 or 300 people get, that’s when you get a big laugh. But it’s also fun to [make] jokes for only five people. It makes every joke get treated with equal weight.”

Midway through our conversation, it dawns on Ruffin that she could have had backup dancers if it hadn’t been for COVID-19. “Because we had been doing Late Night remotely for so long, it just didn’t feel very weird at all because we’d already had a bunch of Zoom meetings and we had to pair everything down so all those adjustments we were already used to. Now that you say I could have had back up dancers, I feel my first real pain,” she jokes.

“When you watch the next episode and there’s a bunch of back up dancers, you’re going to know where it came from,” adds Hagel.

The show is a mix of silly sketches and Trump takedowns. Ruffin says that she’s given her writing team of Dewayne Perkins, Shantira Jackson, and Demi Adejuyigbe, the freedom to pitch whatever they want. “We’re really pressing that as far as it would go. Dewayne wrote a sketch about City High and it’s just a random weird song from the 90s and it’s four minutes about this one song, it’s so silly. If you’re a 40 year old black lady, you know everything about this song. It feels like I’m having fun for myself and I used to think that was so exclusive but it’s not, it’s fun to write things that are just for you and your sister and people have patience for that. It’s a fun, weird discovery that we’re making.”

The pair agree that it’s very similar to the Late Night room that they both still work in. “There’s a beautiful culture at Late Night where we celebrate pitching and not every idea is going to make it but it’s very fun to get in the room with your comedy friends and hear what’s in their weird brains. We’ve carried that over to this show so that every pitch meeting, every table read we have a very good time because everyone brings their fun points of view,” says Hagel.

Ruffin adds, “Before I worked at Late Night, I probably never thought about having my own writers’ room but I did think about what kind of environment I would want to work in. All it is, is the Late Night room; a dreamy bunch of friends who I get to goof around with.”

One of the refreshing elements of the format is that it is not centered around celebrity interviews. “We never planned on having interviews. I don’t know if we ever will or whether there’ll be one tomorrow. There is no way to tell what’s going to happen. Tarik and I have to generate all of the momentum. We hope you don’t get tired of us because there’s going to be half an hour of us,” says Ruffin.

Both of them are also pulling double duty, filming The Amber Ruffin Show on Fridays, when Meyers is off, before it airs at 9pm ET.

“It’s a lot of work in a really fun way. It’s like an Aaron Sorkin show where we’re walking down the hallway. It’s a super cool, super busy whirl of activity,” says Ruffin. “It’s like when you used to play Business.”

Ruffin is one of only a handful of diverse stars in front of the late-night camera – something that she nails in a sketch where a young, white man named Brian from Harvard comes to “take her job”.

She says that she’s proud that she and her Peacock peer Larry Wilmore, as well as Desus & Mero and Sam Jay, who recently scored an HBO late-night show, are all going to be on screens but admits that it’s “slow progress”. “It does seem like there’s a lot of weird racist, sexist gatekeeping. That’s the case literally everything I’ve ever seen. I like that we are cracking those boundaries.”

Robin Thede, who was the first Black woman to be head writer on a late-night show and hosted The Rundown on BET, recently told Deadline that there isn’t enough diversity in late-night. Ruffin adds, “Hopefully things are changing. Robin Thede is right, when you see two of us at the same time, it feels weird and proves that we’re not doing enough but hopefully now there’s more of us and people will one day look at late-night and see a bunch of us and it will start to feel more normal and people will expect that and when people aren’t getting us, they’ll come look for us.”

For now, Ruffin and Hagel are preparing for the remainder of their nine-episode order and hoping for a renewal, as well as a new President. “We have these nine episodes and then we hope that they’ll want a billion more,” says Ruffin. “How great would it be if Joe Biden said something that was a small amount of sexist.” Hagel adds, “I truly try to imagine having enough energy to be mad about anything [Biden] does after these last four years. I dream about the day when I don’t have to write a single monologue joke about Donald Trump.”

Clips Of The Week: Dolly Parton Makes Stephen Colbert Cry & More

2020 is enough to make anyone cry but, in Stephen Colbert’s case, I didn’t expect it to be because Dolly Parton was singing bluegrass classic Bury Me Beneath The Willow on The Late Show. “I better hush before you cry yourself to death,” she joked.

Elsewhere, Desus & Mero found out what happened to their new office during the pandemic, Jimmy Kimmel had a close call with Borat (although not as close as Rudy Giuliani) and Jimmy Fallon reunited with his pal Lin-Manuel Miranada for a new take on Two Goats in a Boat.

Finally, watch out for the latest special from The Daily Show correspondent Desi Lydic. The comedian is fronting half-hour special The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Presents: Remembering RBG – A Nation Ugly Cries with Desi Lydic, where she will go through the five stages of grief as she remembers the late Supreme Court Justice. The show airs on Friday October 30 at 11pm.

Late-Night Laughs will be on hiatus next week but we’ll be back on Friday November 6.

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