Late-night TV sensation Amber Ruffin and her sister co-wrote a book about racism. And, yes, it's hilarious.
If you looked at Amber Ruffin's ascent in late-night TV on paper, it wouldn't necessarily reveal anything unique — except for maybe the one obvious thing: She's not a White man.
But like many of them, she too had toiled for years in Chicago-based improv ensembles, sharpening her comedy skills. She also first walked through the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza to just miss the cut on "Saturday Night Live." That audition earned her a seat in the writer's room for Seth Meyers when he took over as host of NBC's "Late Night" in 2014, where she was the only Black woman at the table.
Her on-air bits on Meyers's show became such a breakout hit that Peacock, the parent company's new streaming site, offered Ruffin her own weekly gig on Friday nights — "The Amber Ruffin Show," which premiered last fall to critical acclaim.
While the men of late-night ditched their suits during the pandemic and went for the open-collar casual of a substitute teacher trying to keep it together during the endlessly infuriating lunacy of 2020, the 42-year-old Ruffin galloped onto her show's set (filmed in the same studio as Meyers's show) intent on putting on a real show, dressed in impeccably tailored shiny suits with alluringly fancy string ties.
She has no studio audience (thanks again, pandemic), but she fills her half-hour each Friday night with a vibrant combination of shrewd commentary and musical numbers that assert her take on the world.
"Things (on the show) can get more serious than I thought, and I'm constantly surprised by that — I don't know how many times I have to learn that lesson. But you can really go in on some (expletive), and people are fine with it," Ruffin says. "I think they just want to hear the truth, and there aren't a lot of people telling the truth. Not that truth."
That truth being that even the most horrifying aspects of America's struggle to reckon with itself (or not) can sometimes be so ridiculous that she has no choice but to see a penetrating kind of humor in it. "Lately, there's been a lot of talk about systemic racism," Ruffin said in a recent episode of her show. "Everyone claims they want to fix it, but we can't even agree on what 'it' is. We just know it's bad, like poverty or pollution — or the way White people dance."
The publishing industry has been eager to get Ruffin to write one of those tra-la-la star-comedian memoirs about this journey, in her trademark style, but she shooed away the chance to self-aggrandize. Instead, she took it back to her hometown of Omaha and directed the spotlight on her older sister, Lacey Lamar.
Ruffin and Lamar's "You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism," released last month and now a New York Times bestseller, chronicles the real stories of the mortifying ignorance and racism that Lamar, 46, has encountered in her life and career in directing retirement communities around Omaha. The accounts read like a delicious (and horrifying) group chat you can't stop checking in on. "Some of these stories are old, but a lot of them are post-Obama stories," Ruffin writes. "A lot of folks think things like this don't happen anymore."
There's a line in the book where Ruffin stops to actually wonder, for herself and for Lacey and for the reader, if anyone has ever done this in the modern era — kept a list of every last offensive comment, action, aggression, disappointment and hurt that a Black person endures over a lifetime? And if so, did they find it as absurdly funny as these sisters do? It seems no one has, so that's why they wrote the book.
The list is long. They recall the sheer frequency of times that a young Lamar was stopped in their local J.C. Penney under the flimsiest suspicions of theft. ("They're so famous in my family that we changed their old jingle from 'J.C. Penney! Doing it right!' to 'J.C. Penney! Up against the wall and spread em!,'" Ruffin writes.) Or the co-workers, bosses, teachers, cops, neighbors or even doughnut shopkeepers whose comments and actions inflict such a specific psychological toll over the years that it can be hard to keep an ongoing tab.
Except that's exactly what Lamar started doing.
"It's always been this running joke, when things happen to me, people would say 'Oh, that's going in the book; that's Chapter Two,'" Lamar says. "So I just have been keeping lots of journals from work when racist things would happen to me. I would write them down if I had to go to H.R. and file a complaint."
Lamar eventually learned to place "zero faith" in the typical employer's ability to make things right — or even care. Confronting bias at work became such a redundant cycle, she says, that she can predict when she has made too much of a fuss. "One time I was (visiting Ruffin), and I told her, 'Yeah, when I get back, they're going to let me go. They're probably talking about it right now.' Came back to Nebraska and they got me."
Usually the only thing left to do was to debrief her kid sister, who relishes hearing Lamar's latest galling tale. Hence the book's title: You won't believe what just happened — but sadly, you will.
It's this aspect of Ruffin's humor (laughter in the face of exasperating outrage) that sets her apart on the late-night scene.
Her recurring bits on "Late Night," including "Amber Says What?," delivered a litany of clever wallops on topics that would be too radioactive coming from the mouth of White hosts. One of Ruffin's most popular bits on Meyers's show was in fact called "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," where he tees it up — "According to a new report, the U.S. has an out-of-control population of so-called 'super-pigs'" — and she knocks it out, "Hey, that's not nice. Just call them cops," with a devastating yet scampishly endearing directness.
"I think the thing I always remember about Amber is she presents, and it's very authentic, as this incredibly upbeat and optimistic person and that is a very true thing about her," Meyers says. "But it also provides this really good smokescreen to the very hard truths that she wants to talk about. I think there is this misperception sometimes about people with bouncy personalities that they are ignoring what ails the world, whereas in Amber's case you realize, 'Oh, no, it's just the way she's going about dealing with it.'"
The same approach informs "The Amber Ruffin Show," an offbeat romp through the news in late-night style. The show's only formal segment involves a behind-the-desk monologue of Ruffin's cutting insights, but can just as easily spin off into a nearly beat-for-beat musical number praising President Biden's ho-hum Cabinet picks inspired by Bob Fosse's "Cabaret."
Shooting straight is a common trait in Ruffin's family. Still, it's a delicate matter to take personal stories and commit them to the page. Reactions, Lamar says, can be funny: Casual friends and co-workers, catching wind of the book, have pored over the stories to deduce if they're one of the unnamed offenders. Lamar got a call from one woman who thought one story might be about her, but also didn't believe it could be. "And I said, 'No, that is you, you did that.'"
So how do they maintain hope? Not only for themselves but for a young Black generation, including Lamar's daughter?
"My daughter won't be able to tolerate it. She'll be like, 'Are you out of your mind? This can't be happening,'" Lamar says. "Will (racism) happen to her? Oh, absolutely, if she stays in Omaha, it will happen to her. Kids that are growing up today, they just aren't tolerating anything, and I do love that. I've seen her do her little walkout at school, and she'll call me — 'Mom, there's a walkout against racism at school, and we're doing it.'
"I already know that she will fight against it, so I'm not worried about her at all."
Stories that may interest you
After he finished his latest album, "When We Wander," in late fall of 2019, Stonington singer-songwriter Jesse Terry had a few months before the official release date. He could reflect a bit on what he'd accomplished and spend time with his wife — also named Jess — and...
The novel tells the story of Samuel Sooleymon, a South Sudanese teen who comes to the Un.S. to play college ball and hopes to make it to the NBA so he can help the family he left behind
COVID-19 derailed touring and recording plans for countless musicians around the world in 2020 and this year like nothing else in modern history. But Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Wilson cites the pandemic as the reason she was able to make "You and Me," the first official solo album...
Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am By Julia Cooke Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 266 pp. $28 - - - Even before a global pandemic crippled the airline industry last year, whatever sheen of romance international air travel once held had long worn off.