Amber Ruffin Knows the Value of Embarrassing Herself: ‘I Don’t Have a Lot of Shame!’

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Photo Source: Lloyd Bishop/Peacock

“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

Now is a particularly exciting time to talk to Amber Ruffin, an improvisation-trained comedy performer and writer whose talent, perseverance, and upbeat charm have led to her own late night variety series. Peacock’s “The Amber Ruffin Show” allows the multihyphenate host to both cover current events with a refreshing directness otherwise rare in late night television and indulge in the silliest comedic premises (from a segment on the necessity of a White History Month to a dream ballet with a dancing COVID-19 vaccine needle). 

Her advice to fellow writers, performers, and every comedian in between? Take risks, have no shame, and be prolific. “You have to have a pile of work that you can point to and go, ‘I can do this and here’s the proof.’ Because anyone can go, ‘I’m really funny.’ Who cares? No one cares. Can you point to a bunch of videos? Can you point to a bunch of TikToks? Do you tweet every day? Something, anything! But not something, anything,” she amends. “All of those things.”

In the world of comedy—and by extension Hollywood—the more you can maximize the odds of getting noticed, the better. It’s about quantity, says Ruffin, rather than worrying about quality. “When I started making little internet videos, they were all garbage,” she remembers. “Maybe there were like two good ones. And no one cared! The bad stuff just falls away.”

That’s the strategy that has helped Ruffin rise through the comedy ranks since 2014, when, instead of booking “Saturday Night Live,” she became the first Black woman to write for a network talk show: NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” which has earned her four Primetime Emmy nominations. A theater kid from Omaha, Nebraska, who trained at Boom Chicago Amsterdam (just like Meyers himself), the iO Theater, and the Second City, Ruffin has appeared on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” written for awards show specials and series including “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and this year penned the hit book “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism” with her sister Lacey Lamar. She’s also Broadway-bound, co-writing the new musical production of “Some Like It Hot.” 

“I was the youngest of five,” says Ruffin when asked about her comedic sensibilities. “I don’t have a lot of shame! And I think because of that I am searching for what feels a little embarrassing. So I always like to feel a teensy bit embarrassed.”

Anyone who’s tried to make crowds of people laugh night after night knows how to harness that embarrassment. When asked about her relationship with failure, Ruffin replies earnestly: “We’re best friends.” Performing thousands of live improv shows prepared Ruffin for a Hollywood life full of uncertainty and rejection. “Once 300 people are like, ‘Boo!’—once that happens, and then you are sad, and then you wake up and you go do another show again—then you realize it doesn’t matter.”

That’s also why Ruffin believes actors must generate their own material, and comedy writers should not limit themselves to just writing. “Performers are the best sketch writers,” she says. “Because we know, you write differently when it’s your ass on the line! You know what it means to be looking 300 silent people in the face. You will do your job!”

And the more aspiring comedians do that job, accepting the reality that there will be failures to learn from, the more they can hone their specific comedic voice. Writing and eventually appearing on camera on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” Ruffin says every time she dared to break what she thought of as “late night rules,” it yielded comedic gold. “The more outlandish it was, the more they were like, ‘Great, we love it, knock yourself out.’

“Any showcase of you isn’t sneaky,” she adds. “People want exactly who you are. They love it. And that’s not a special rule. I mean, I guess if you like to kick dogs, then no one wants to see who you are. But most human beings are great.”

Tune into Ruffin’s interview wherever you listen to podcasts, and stay tuned for casting insider Christine McKenna-Tirella’s advice to improvisers. Her recommended Backstage notices of the week include a fast food commercial and reality series, both of which are now casting. 

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