The most exciting thing that’s evolved on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” is that while Meyers’ name is in the title, it’s not wholly his show. Instead, the NBC late night mainstay has proven to be a showcase for its talented staff, many of whom end up on camera with the host.
Perhaps the most iconic example of this is a segment targeted at Meyers’ status as a straight white man (like nearly every other late night host on television), which has also proven to be a vehicle for elevating two of his writers, Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel.
Ruffin and Hagel have been with “Late Night” for a few years — Ruffin since 2014, and Hagel since February of 2016. And in a recent interview with IndieWire, they explained that their growing prominence on “Late Night” happened pretty organically, in part thanks to the segment “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.”
In case you’re not familiar, the recurring bit features Ruffin (who’s black) and Hagel (who’s gay) telling jokes that might be inappropriate for Meyers to tell given his straight white male status.
The pair credited Hagel with the initial idea for the bit, a concept that, when she initially heard it pitched, Ruffin thought would be “too spicy.”
As Hagel explained it, the premise was born after she realized that she was writing jokes that worked if she delivered them, but not if Meyers did. “I had a bunch of jokes that I’d submitted that were about gay stuff that had not been chosen, and that I realized later, ‘Oh right, it’s not appropriate for Seth to say those,'” she said.
The format of the segment, they said, was pretty much the same as initially pitched and tested, with the exception of the final beat, when Ruffin and Hagel ask Meyers to tell a joke on his own, and them yelling at him afterwards.
“When he says ‘lesbians and black women are liars,’ that’s a thing he improvised in rehearsal, the first time we did it,” Hagel said. “And I know at least I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a funny thing he’ll only say for the rehearsal audience.’ And then it was a delight when he said it for the actual show.”
Ruffin credited Meyer’s openness to letting his staff step forward to his previous experience working on “Saturday Night Live.” “I have to say it’s not at all what I expected to happen,” she said. “But you know what, he is used to being part of an ensemble, and I think is able to see the value in a different point of view.”
And the variety of points of view is something that the writers of “Late Night” value deeply. “It really broadens the type of thing we’re able to cover,” Hagel said. “If Seth is the only one talking, there’s really a limited number of things that we’re able to talk about. The fact that the writers get to participate, or even that I get to write for other writers who have a different background than me, really widens what I feel like as a writer I’m able to write about.”
Ruffin and Hagel are part of a 14-person writing staff that writes everything from monologue jokes for Meyers to individual sketches, which they’re able to pitch for inclusion on the show on a regular basis.
The size and diversity of the staff is important, for a number of reasons. Ruffin noted that “Twitter has made us aware of all these crazy, race-based injustices, and now you have to acknowledge it. You have to say something about it. And that wasn’t always the case. And I don’t think you can do that with an all-white staff. It’s just impractical today.”
Hagel agreed, adding that “everybody on every late night show is working from the same headlines. Let’s say there’s 10 big headlines in a day. And we’re all sitting at our computers trying to write jokes off the same stuff. But the more different types of people you have on a writing staff, everybody’s gonna see a different angle based on what walk of life they’re coming from.”
As she continued, “If you have 14 identical people in a writer’s room you’re going to get 14 identical jokes off that headline. But if you have people with all different backgrounds, different ages, different genders, ethnicities, people are going to see a different way into that story or have a different reaction. So I think you just get a wider variety of jokes.”
In addition, the show’s embrace of its writing staff’s diversity means the writers have the opportunity to not just write for Seth, but for themselves. Hagel referred back to a piece she did on Trump calling out Latinos at a recent rally. Getting to speak out against Trump making racist comments about Hispanics, she said, was something she felt inspired to do after the April 28 rally where his crowd booed the idea of Latinos being present.
“I’m the only Hispanic writer on staff, so it really only made sense coming from me. But I feel like if we were only writing for Seth, I would have had to let that story go,” she said. “I would have read it and gotten mad in my personal life, but I wouldn’t have brought my feelings about it to work.”
Continued Hagel, “I just went to a coffee shop on Sunday. I think partly as my own personal therapy, and I opened my laptop, and I was like, well, let me just write some thoughts down. This probably won’t be anything. But I ended up writing a four page piece, and I emailed it into my bosses, and I said, ‘Hey, I wrote up a thing about what Trump said this weekend, just passing along in case it’s of interest.’ And we ended up doing it, and I was really glad that we did, because I felt like that was a thing that to me felt important that was getting overlooked.”
Moments like that seem to contribute to something that both Ruffin and Hagel acknowledged openly: That they remain continually shocked by what they’re able to get away with on a regular basis, especially on a political level.
“I’m shocked every day,” Ruffin said. “There is really no limit. On this show, you feel it, you say it.”
Added Hagel, “Yeah. The only limit is, does it get laughs? You have to have a good joke for it. There’s even some things we’ve pulled where we liked the point of view in it, but the jokes just don’t seem to work for the audience. And if that’s true then it gets pulled. But not because someone’s like, ‘Ooh, you can’t have that feeling about this issue.’ It just sinks or swims on its own comedic merit.”
Hagel noted a monologue joke that she did not ever think would make it to air — but did, even though it was “so mean. But it was kind of a delight, it felt a little bit like betting on a horse that didn’t have great odds at a race track. Because I wrote it in the morning and I sent it in a pack of monologue jokes, and I thought, well, this won’t get chosen to be read at the 2 o’clock meeting. And then it got read at the meeting. I thought, well, we’ll read this at rehearsal but the audience will hate it. And then the audience liked it. And then it ended up in the show.”
The joke in question: “President Trump and the First Lady will host French president Emanuel Macron tonight for a formal state dinner. Said Melania, ‘Which fork do I use to kill myself?'”
“Late Night” has famously been no friend to Trump, which led IndieWire to ask this question: How would a writer with more conservative views fit in on the writing staff?
Hagel asked for clarification: Was this fictional writer a Trump supporter? I went with “yes,” and both Hagel and Ruffin’s responses were immediate.
Hagel: “No, of course not.”
Ruffin: “He wouldn’t have fun here.”
But the writers who do work on “Late Night” are having fun — and they’re having more fun than their compatriots on other shows. “We are friends with a lot of late night writers, probably we know someone from every show, and I think we are the happiest group of people,” Ruffin said. “We are spoiled times a million. For a million different reasons, because we work only Monday through Thursday. I think this year we have more vacation than normal. And also because Seth hired nice people, and he made it a point to hire nice people.”
Part of that might have to do with the office set-up, according to Hagel. “Other late night shows, a lot of times writers have their own office, or they share an office with one other person. We are 14 of us in one room together. So it’s kind of like being in the backseat on a car trip with 13 siblings, all the time. We’re just so lucky, like Amber said, but somehow we still all get along. That should make you want to murder everybody.”
Added Ruffin: “We are really in love. We have it bad.”