How Amber Ruffin Became the Margarita-Fueled Late-Night Host of Our Dreams

All hail the margarita queen of Studio 8G.
Amber Ruffin
Amber Ruffin in "The Amber Ruffin Show"

The video above was produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

It’s near impossible to interview Amber Ruffin.

Those familiar with her work know that even when addressing the most serious of topics, Ruffin has a natural ebullience that’s impossible not to be drawn into, which makes it all the more hilarious whenever she delivers a devastating punchline. In an interview setting, the best a person can do is give themselves over to the comedian’s enthusiasm and let her delight carry the moment wherever it wants to go.

The “Late Night with Seth Meyers” writer has every reason to be excited, having launched her very own late-night series, “The Amber Ruffin Show,” in September 2020 on Peacock and February 2021 on NBC. The eponymous series is just the latest feather in Ruffin’s hat, who became the first black woman to write for a late-night talk show in 2014 and has only grown as an artist since then.

Ruffin sat down with the team from IndieWire’s Millions of Screens recently and spoke at length about her Chicago comedy roots and the challenges that arise from trying to launch a TV series in the middle of a global pandemic.

But first, margaritas.

Margaritas, of course, are standard fare when it comes Ruffin’s process, as reflected by her intro from her very first episode in which she stated, “This is a late-night show! We don’t have guests, but we have sketches, songs, jokes, and margaritas. You’re gonna like it… Or else.”

It’s a tradition that started over at “Late Night” but the spirit of the, well, spirits flow throughout everything Ruffin does, which is a testament to the collaborative process and the need to pick those around you up when they’re feeling down.

“We like to have margarita sometimes because someone might feel bad,” she said. “Like if we catch wind that someone’s feelings are hurt, we’ll have a margarita night. Or we are bored or we’re about to go into hiatus or literally anything.”

Nowadays, however, much of the margarita celebrations have to be done virtually, with Ruffin’s writers room operating from a video conferencing space, a reality that’s introduced its own special challenges in an already challenging year. In some ways, the struggle comes from just not being in the same physical space as a co-worker.

Late Night with Seth Meyers
Amber Ruffin, Seth Meyers, and Jenny HagelLloyd Bishop/NBC

“They’re getting the short end of the stick,” Ruffin said of her writers sans an actual, physical writers’ room. “When you’re here, and you give me a script, I go, ‘Okay, so what you want to do is you want to take this top and cut it in half. You don’t need this sentence or this sentence. And then you take this whole gear up to the first beat out and you move up the first beat.'”

To translate for non-comedy writers — like myself — Ruffin explains that this is the first thing people learn when they start writing for late night and once you have it illustrated for you, it sticks and it remains with you forever. For her, trying to replicate the process via long-distance is less effective; too much typing, not enough physical demonstration. But they make do.

Perhaps it’s this make-it-work attitude that allows Ruffin to shine in times of turmoil. For instance, the comedian didn’t lose a beat forgoing an audience to launch her show, a unique challenge that feels like the antithesis of ideal for a person who thrives on performing in front of real, live people. But when I probed her about the situation, she was cool as a cucumber.

“You imagine the audience laughing,” she said, before going a step further, to better showcase her own skills as a smooth operator. “After I tell every joke if you [mentally] add an uproarious laughter, you can hear me being like, ‘Alright, alright,’ in my tone at the beginning of the next joke.” Which makes sense, because Ruffin deserves only the most enthusiastic of audiences.

No matter the challenges, it’s a good time to be Amber Ruffin. Sure, she has her own show now and her name’s been added to the sign outside of 30 Rock. She’s still writing and appearing on “Late Night.” She published a New York Times bestselling book with her sister Lacey in January. She’s almost done writing “Some Like It Hot” (the musical) and is starting work on “The Wiz.” And on top of all that, two more black women have joined the late-night scene in Ziwe and Sam Jay.

“I love comedy. I love late night. I personally feel very, very rich,” Ruffin said of her new cohorts. “There’s nothing I want to do more than watch TV. But the fact that there are all of these shows led by black women is nuts. And you know, we are all on the same freakin’ text chain. It’s the best. So it’s cool because it’s black woman, but it’s also like, my little buds.”

For more of our chat with Amber Ruffin, tune in to this week’s episode of IndieWire’s TV podcast “Millions of Screens” with Creative Producer Leo Garcia, and TV Awards Editor Libby Hill. Then, stick around as we breakdown the biggest news out of this week’s upfronts, including a shocking sale, a new tier of HBO Max, and details about some 1990s sitcom reunion that no one cares about, probably. Plus, the penultimate edition of Leo’s Murder Suspect Power Rankings for “Mare of Easttown.”

The video above was produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

Millions of Screens” is available on Apple PodcastsBreakerGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.

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