Tag Archives: Saturday Night Live

Appropriately Inappropriate

October 30, 2018 by
Photography by Lloyd Bishop

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.

It’s a Weird Life

March 24, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you’ve ever let your DVR run long while recording Saturday Night Live, there’s a good chance you’ve accidentally let Matt Tompkins into your home. His show, Omaha Live, piggybacks SNL on WOWT 6 every week, announcing itself with a bold warning that its views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of NBC or the local affiliate.

Omaha Live takes no prisoners: what follows is an irreverent 30 minutes of sketch comedy where anything and everything Omaha is skewered, from “West Omaha Problems” to “Mayor Stothert’s Greatest Hits” to “Husker Emotional Support Hotlines.” Tompkins and his crew have got your number—and he’s certain the mayor hates it.

It’s local, guerrilla filmmaking at its most raw. Now in its third season, Omaha Live has always been a small operation with a commitment to quality, taking inspiration from productions like Flight of the Concords and Funny or Die. Tompkins’ broadcasting history involves a decade in radio, but Omaha Live is his first foray into television. He started the show with his younger brother, Ben, often filming in front of a green screen in their father’s church basement or on location.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re in an Ocean’s Eleven plot,” Tompkins says, elucidating the hazards in occasionally filming against the will of proprietors—or law enforcement. From modest roots, however, the show has grown exponentially, with ratings quadrupling since inception.

“We soon realized we couldn’t just B.S. every week,” he says. “After the first season wrapped, we knew it had potential.” Tompkins is proud the show has come to reflect the talent in Omaha, but he’s also pleased with the achievement it has represented for his broadcasting career. “It’s been a lot of long nights of editing, writing, and filming, but I’m most proud that we’ve been able to put together a show every week for 18 months straight. You’re gonna have haters, but the more haters you have, the more you’re doing something right.”

The show has had its growing pains, though Omaha Live’s success also coincided with Tompkins’ battle with painkiller addiction, which he hopes to open up about with his audience.

“I had a bunch of major surgeries in a row,” he explains, “so I was on heavy pain meds for years. I was a professional, functional addict, but it was an invisible pain. You don’t see that on TV.”

Tompkins hopes that by addressing his personal battles on the airwaves, he can one day help others with recovery, too. “When I was on the medicine, I felt like I was operating at only 20 percent. After recovery, I feel like I’m at 100 percent, and there’s no limit to what I can do.”

He credits much of his, and the show’s, success to the support of his wife, Wendy Townley, director of the Omaha Public Library Foundation.

“She helped keep us afloat, putting up with the long hours and the insanity that goes with them—even if it frequently meant a home overrun with weirdos in costumes.”

Tompkins also made a return to radio in January as host of the Late Morning show on 1290 KOIL, where he exports Omaha Live’s “no holds barred” humor to the AM dial.

“We’re going up against Rush Limbaugh now,” he jokes, “so I can tell our listeners the two of us have something in common.”

Search Omaha Live! on YouTube to watch episodes.


Steady As She Goes

September 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He’s part man, part machine, and all Steadicam operator. And he’s cleaning up on the screens and streets of New York.

This summer (or any season for that matter), just when you thought it was safe to shoot with a handheld camera, Omaha expatriate Kyle Wullschleger is waging an all-out war on shaky video footage with an iso-elastic arm and inner geekness. And he’s doing it for productions such as Saturday Night Live, Project Runway: All Stars, and Chopped, to name a few.

Not bad for a Heartland kid who originally wanted to be a zookeeper.

“Coming from a wildlife background, I never really was a filmophile,” Wullschleger, 28, says about his recently budding film career from his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn apartment. “It was more about the nerdiness of using a camera and just sort of dorking out about it.”

Before the technophile discovered the power of filmic gadgetry, Wullschleger says he developed a fascination for nature while growing up on his family’s former Christmas tree farm. It was there where the self-described animal lover says he would watch beavers build dams at the edge of his parents’ property and monarch butterflies migrate through the mulberry grove in his backyard.

And it was there where he says he also developed his work ethic.

“Not only did I learn to stop and smell the roses, so to speak,” Wullschleger writes about his childhood on his work-related website, Tree Farm Cinema, “but since trees don’t completely grow themselves, I learned the importance of working hard to create something you’re passionate about.”

While Wullschleger spent the rest of his salad days glued to Marty Stouffer’s PBS animal-documentary series, Wild America, it wasn’t until he says he got a job at Henry Doorly Zoo right out of high school that it occurred to him he could observe animal behavior in a different light.

“While I was at the zoo, I had access to all these amazing animals and that’s when I actually started to pick up a camera,” he says. “The wheels were definitely turning then.”

One thing led to another and Wullschleger suddenly found himself in New York shooting a dystopian spoof about an Andrew Garfield-played character being pursued by government agents for badmouthing a Beyoncé Knowles song and a satirical ad for testicles cologne with Andy Samberg for SNL. It hasn’t been quite the sort of animal behavior that Wullschleger originally had in mind, but it’s afforded him the chance to pursue what he says has probably always been his calling: animal documentaries.

“The hope is to take my experience and connections and decent living and start creating some of my own projects that are more nature-based, because that’s what I really want to be doing,” he says, citing work he’s done with great white sharks and sandhill crane migrations. “To get something started that shows what I’m capable of and what I could do if someone gave me a budget—that’s…well, that’s the big dream.”