When Benson High School’s class of ’96 voted Amber Ruffin “Class Clown,” they were clearly onto something.
“It [comedy] came about because I was a very ugly child,” Ruffin says. “I had to do something if I was going to survive.”
For anyone who has noticed the bubbly actress and writer on NBC’s The Late Show with Seth Meyers, “ugly” is hardly an accurate description of the telegenic comic. She delivers incisive social and political commentary with a dose of adorability that makes her messages accessible to a network audience.
It is widely believed that Ruffin is the first woman of color to be a writer on a network late-night talk show.
“I did comedy for a million years and I never thought to write on a late-night show,” Ruffin says. “It never occurred to me that it might happen, and it’s because [the late-night comedy writers] have all been white men.”
Ruffin mentions Whoopi Goldberg as a comedy role model, but she also points out that it is important for people to see themselves represented in the entertainment they consume.
“I do freak out about representation because my entertainment [growing up] didn’t reflect my life,” Ruffin says. “You can’t look at the success of all of these minority-led shows and movies, and not realize that everyone got something horribly wrong for most of all time.”
Born and raised in Omaha, her performing career was launched as a 12-year-old. She was playing piano for the choir at Trinity Hope Foursquare Church when the director left, and Ruffin found herself in charge because she was the one who could play piano.
“These old people are listening to me; everyone else better, too,” Ruffin says, recalling how that experience gave her confidence.
She went on to take major roles in plays at Benson High School, including a star turn as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress—a role once played by legendary comics Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman. However, acting was not originally her plan.
Ruffin coached gymnastics after graduating from high school and says she envisioned a coaching career. During the same period, she became involved with the local theater scene and received positive attention for her work with the now-defunct Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre while also taking improv classes.
While performing with an Omaha group at the Chicago Improv Festival, Ruffin says the co-founder of the iO Theater (formerly known as ImprovOlympic), Charna Halpern, saw her perform. Halpern told her that if she moved to Chicago she’d be performing full-time within a year.
Ruffin was 22 and had never lived anywhere other than Omaha. But she wanted to do improv, and Chicago is the cradle of the American improv scene.
“I interned at iO and I took classes at iO,” Ruffin says. “I was out of classes and did like three shows before I got Boom Chicago and had to go.”
Halpern’s prediction was right. Ruffin was on her way to a full-time job with Boom Chicago, which produces a sketch comedy show in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The progression took slightly less than a year.
“I’d never been out of the country,” Ruffin says.
The time performing in the Netherlands was formative for Ruffin. It allowed her to hone her craft and find her voice as a comedian.
“Just the sheer volume of shows that you do, you learn what people like to hear from you,” Ruffin says.
She points out that performing for audiences who spoke English as a second or third language was great for developing technique and timing because actors are forced to slow down and fine-tune their timing. Ruffin also says that she appreciates the directness of Dutch culture.
“Dutch people do not have a political correctness thing,” Ruffin says, explaining that the performers were told the only off-limits topics were cancer and the Holocaust. “It’s a country of people who look at the truth all the time, and there is no sugar-coating anything.”
She stayed in Amsterdam until 2006 and then worked with Second City in both Denver and Chicago. Ruffin was performing on tour in New York City when she met her Dutch husband, Jan. He happened to be on vacation in the city, and she gave him her email address. Not long after they met, Ruffin returned to Amsterdam to perform with Boom Chicago again.
After a few years, the couple moved to Los Angeles so that Ruffin could further her career. She worked as a nanny and Jan was employed as a security guard. They did not love it.
“In LA people are just so…polite [in a way] that reads false. In Omaha we’re polite in a way that reads genuine,” Ruffin says, explaining that the culture in Los Angeles was very different from the forthright qualities of the Dutch or the “Nebraska Nice” of her childhood.
A few years passed before Ruffin and a small cohort of black female comics were invited to audition for Saturday Night Live. During the 2013-2014 season, the show came under fire for the lack of black women in the cast, despite the growing need for an actress to play prominent women of color such as Michelle Obama and Oprah.
“Everyone got SNL but me,” Ruffin says.
She went back to LA empty-handed, and for two miserable days she thought nothing would come of the audition. Then Seth Meyers called and offered her a job on his writing staff.
“We screamed and we lost our minds when I called my mom,” Ruffin says.
Jan was working nights and she woke him up to share the news, “I jumped on the bed and was shaking him, ‘We’re going to New York!’”
Living in another country and being married to someone from that country has also given her a new cultural perspective. For instance, she recalls Jan noticing a security guard who followed Ruffin around a store as if she was going to shoplift.
“His seeing racism in action is absolutely shocking to him,” Ruffin says. “Having grown up in America—especially in Omaha, Nebraska—I have a high tolerance for racism.”
Ruffin expresses fondness for her hometown, but her “Nebraska Nice” blends with “Dutch Directness” when discussing inequality.
“I’m done explaining racism,” Ruffin says. “I’ve served my time. You can kill yourself to get these people to understand the world, and I’m just not doing it.”
On Late Night she’s become known for several recurring sketches, including “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” in which Ruffin and Jenny Hagel, a gay woman, tell jokes that would be inappropriate if told by a white man.
“You always write jokes that you like the most, and it’s clear that Seth can’t tell them,” Ruffin says. “Jenny saw these jokes going to waste, and it was like, ‘What if we got to say these jokes?’ It came from watching all those jokes go in the trash.”
Ruffin says one of her favorite sketches was a reaction to professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. In a bit of manic comedy, Ruffin tumbles, jumps, and rolls around the set trying to figure out the right way to protest while Seth corrects her.
“That was so silly, but it was exactly what I wanted,” Ruffin says. “I wanted to goof around real hard, but I wanted to make my point. It was the cleanest, funnest way to say something that I feel is extremely important.”
As if she isn’t busy enough working on a daily television show, Ruffin is also a writer on the Comedy Central sitcom, Detroiters. She’s appeared multiple times on Comedy Central’s Drunk History, and says that’s she’s always looking for new projects.
This year she also has a big decision to make; what does one wear when they’ve been nominated for an Emmy (with the cast of Drunk History)?
“Oh, my God, please, what is that dress gonna be?”
For updates from the comedian, follow her on Twitter @ambermruffin.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.