Amber Ruffin has a message for her older sister, Lacey Lamar.
“Tell her she stinks,” the comedian jokes during a video interview from their parents’ home in Omaha, Nebraska. “You can smell her right through the Zoom.”
That kind of childish teasing is one reason Ruffin has become one of the brightest stars in comedy, garnering laughs through her regular sketch routines on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and her own program, Peacock’s “The Amber Ruffin Show,” which is now in its third season.
Her comedic talents are also why she was tapped to co-write the upcoming Broadway production of “Some Like it Hot,” a musical adaptation of the 1959 romantic comedy film that made running from gangsters seem as intoxicating as a drag-queen brunch.
‘I would have been the happiest mail carrier,’ Amber Ruffin says
Despite her ascent in the entertainment world, Ruffin, 43, who has received multiple Emmy Award nominations, is likely to skip the A-list parties for a booth at a chain restaurant.
“She’s horribly boring,” says Lamar, who, it turns out, gives as good as she gets. “People think she’s fun, but she just wants to eat at The Cheesecake Factory. She could do that three or four times a week. That’s her idea of excitement.”
Ruffin’s cheerful attitude – she practically sings her lines in both conversations and sketches – is in sharp contrast to many comics who act like they’re one heckle away from leaping off the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I do think sometimes I’m glad I got all this. But other times, I think, ‘What a waste,’ because I would have been happy no matter what,” Ruffin says. “I would have been the happiest mail carrier.”
Her onscreen persona – the playground tease who’s first to help out the kid who fell off the swing set – translates to real life.
“What you see is what you get,” says Jenny Hagel, a fellow “Late Night” writer. “One of the most joyful things about Amber is that she likes to facilitate people having a good time. When she plans a party or an outing, she wants everyone to be included.”
Telling it like it is in ‘The World Record Book of Racist Stories’
Ruffin’s upbeat approach and simple tastes haven’t restrained her from tackling serious issues that some other comedians won’t touch. One of her recurring segments on “Late Night” is called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” She and Hagel alternate giving their controversial takes on news topics, delivered in a way that may come off as racist or sexist if told by a white male.
‘Previously:‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ writer Amber Ruffin destroys ‘racist’ ‘Roseanne’
Ruffin embraces topics on race.
“The World Record Book of Racist Stories,” her new book with Lamar, is a collection of prejudices and injustices experienced by their family. As in its best-selling predecessor, “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories of Racism,” the sisters break up the tension with withering jokes.
“We pretty much have the same sense of humor,” Lamar says. “Something terrible will happen, but then six weeks later, we’ll find something funny about it.”
Ruffin’s ability to get away with devilish behavior dates back to her childhood. As the youngest of five siblings raised by military parents, she was quickly forgiven for indiscretions, like the time she and her brother set the garage on fire.
“Their story was that their hands were cold,” Lamar says. “Well, we don’t live in a cabin in the forest. She got away with it because she’s so cute.”
But young Ruffin also exhibited a can-do spirit. In middle school, she was learning how to play the piano from her church’s choir director. When the teacher abruptly quit, Ruffin had to take over the choir, even though she had only had two lessons.
“It certainly wasn’t great, but I got the job done,” she says.
Ruffin skipped college and quickly fell in love with improv comedy, performing with troupes in various cities, including Chicago, Denver and Amsterdam, which is where her husband, painter Jan Schiltmeijer, grew up. They married in 2010.
In late 2013, she auditioned for “Saturday Night Live.” She wasn’t selected, but former cast member Meyers was so impressed, he asked her to help him launch his own show, making her the first Black woman to be a full-time writer on a major late-night program in the U.S.
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Almost immediately, she started appearing onscreen, making her mark in regular features like “Amber Says What,” in which she would comment on pop culture. If you weren’t listening carefully, you’d think she was channeling actress Goldie Hawn from her “Laugh-In” years.
Her goal on Seth Meyers’ show: ‘To de-gaslight America’
Then George Floyd died. Shortly after his murder, Ruffin delivered a series of monologues on Meyers’ show talking about the times she had been harassed by police. Any thoughts that she was just a novelty act ended right there.
“We just are on a mission to de-gaslight America,” Ruffin says. “When bad things like that happen, they get framed in a way that tells people that it’s not as bad as you think it is. I’m delighted to do the exact opposite of that.”
Ruffin’s profile rose enough that Hillary and Chelsea Clinton sought her out to be part of their Apple TV series, “Gutsy,” treating her with the same respect they gave Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall and Megan Thee Stallion.
“I feel like I want her to be my friend,” Chelsea said in one episode.
But even as she’s becoming a familiar face, Ruffin dedicates most of her time to laboring behind the scenes. In addition to her late-night duties, she’s written for “Detroiters,” “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and various awards ceremonies.
Unlike many of her peers, she doesn’t believe in procrastination.
“I can’t live knowing there’s work to be done,” she says. “I’m not one of those people who says, ‘Oh, this is due Thursday. I’ll do it on Wednesday.’ What? I’m just supposed to be sad Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday? I’ve got to do it the second I get it. Then I can breathe a little bit.”
She tends to write alone, swapping drafts with Hagel so they can punch up each other’s work.
“We both speak the same comedy language,” says Hagel, who is also an executive producer on “The Amber Ruffin Show,” currently airing roughly once a month. “We approach comedy writing in the same way so when we work together, we’re attacking each project with the same spirit of collaboration. Also, we’ve been real-life friends for over 15 years, so when we’re working together, we often know what the other is thinking or what will make the other laugh.”
Loyalty will get you everywhere
As soon as James Corden announced that he will leave CBS’ “The Late Late Show” in 2023, Ruffin’s name was floated as a possible replacement. Ruffin says the job would be “the coolest thing,” but since she’s under contract at NBCUniversal, changing networks isn’t realistic. Plus, taking the gig would mean directly competing against Meyers.
“That would be like slapping your mom in the face,” says Ruffin. “It’s the worst thing I could possibly think of doing.”
Ruffin has plenty to keep her busy. “Some Like It Hot” (opening Dec. 11 at New York’s Schubert Theatre), is one of the Broadway season’s most anticipated musicals, with tunes from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”) and a book by Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) and Ruffin.
“It’s a whole different process,” says Ruffin. “Everything is 40,000 times as big in a musical. But it was very fun.”
She isn’t concerned about burning out.
“My work ethic comes from the fact that I’m shocked my job is so good. I can’t believe it,” she says. “They say fear is a great motivator. It’s not. Joy is.”
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