Meet Amber Ruffin, late-night comedy's first black female writer
I’ve always been a happy little firecracker. I’d go as far as to say I’m always the happiest, silliest person among my peers. That’s probably why I was drawn to improv. When I started doing it in Chicago, I discovered I was good at goofy comedy. I didn’t want to live in that space where you talk about injustices all the time. I didn’t want to rail against the system. That was painful, and I wanted to have fun. So I did jokes about zoo animals in tutus. I did happy comedy. I didn’t do politics.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I was hired at Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2014. The silly stuff I started out writing worked. I was in my element dressing up as a Christmas elf doing singing telegrams. I had been a full-time sketch-comedy and improv performer for almost a decade, and it was finally paying off.
But after the presidential election, we found ourselves in a world where everyone’s rights were suddenly in danger. And when that happened, things changed. I realized that late-night comedy was going to have to change too. That actually made me nervous. I knew my concerns as a black woman were different from most of my colleagues’. I wondered, “If I take an honest look at the state of the world as it applies to me, will anyone care? Or will I need to push my concerns aside to try to say what’s on everyone else’s mind?”
The day after the election my colleagues were devastated. But I told them, “The world has always been this way for black people. Join the fun!” They laughed and encouraged me to write a bit about that sentiment. I did, and it went on the show that night. I said exactly what I felt through my specific lens, and — not to toot my own horn, but I’m going to toot my own horn—apparently viewers liked it a lot. So I never stopped.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska (and before you ask, yes, there are black people in Omaha; in fact, Malcolm X was born there), we didn’t speak very openly about systemic racism. I’d have to preface stories with, “I don’t want this to become a whole thing about race, but…” as if someone were doing me a favor listening to me talk about stuff that mattered. But I tried to follow my family’s mantra: It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. The only trouble is there are some very nice racists out there, like the folks who told me, “You’re a credit to your race” or “You’re not like other black people.” These are the same people who think cops are always justified in killing people or who think parents being separated from their children at the border “had it coming.” That makes me angry. And I can’t ignore my anger anymore.
Ignoring my anger is the equivalent of denying my full humanity. Before the election everybody had permission to be angry except me, lest I be perceived as the Angry Black Woman. Soccer moms were angry about the price of organic strawberries. Marijuana enthusiasts were angry about the declining quality of weed at the local bud bar. Yet my frustration with systemic racism had to stay hidden? A big, fat “No thank you!”
This election changed me as a performer and an American. I learned that my goofiness didn’t have to take a back seat to politics. Instead, the two go together. It turned out that my public anger wasn’t something that made people uncomfortable; it made me a lot of new friends. I heard, “Oh, you’re angry too? OK, I’m not crazy.” Talking about these issues is actually quite uplifting. To speak your mind and feel heard is not a luxury many black women have. Ultimately, I’m not responsible for what anyone thinks of me, but I am responsible for using my platform to speak truth to power. And so I still get to be a happy little firecracker … only now I’m exploding in the face of oppression.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.