In Praise of Amber Ruffin, or How Seth Meyers could help your church

For a comedy fan, YouTube and late-night talk shows are the perfect combination. All the monologues, all the skits and sketches, none of the boring interviews. Just the laughs, and the hard thoughts sometimes behind them.

My current favorite of the late-night comedians isn’t a host but a writer-actor, Amber Ruffin, a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Meyers is very funny, and he’s confident enough in his abilities to put his writers on stage with him. At least weekly the woman writers–most of the sketch/skit acting is done by women–are on the show, with good juicy parts, often upstaging Meyers. Here he’s playing straight man so Ruffin can be top banana:

There is so much to love in that sketch. Ruffin pulls laughs out of unpleasant places. Her girlish demeanor is a great pivot point. She can go from there to sarcastic, contrarian, sexy, angry, almost anywhere. Here she makes the hugest move with it: At the time of the Charlottesville attack, a frightening time, she shows us how she guards her soft spots with a happy “Come oooooon!” Most comedians don’t ever get to that level of public insight.  She’s early in her career and doing it in front of a national audience.

Until I started to write this, I did not know that in 2014, Ruffin became the first black woman to write for a network late-night talk show, but I had figured she’s on track to be the first black woman–and maybe the first woman–with a late-night network talk show.

Apparently I’m not the only person who’s considered that. Just this week, Seth Meyers was interviewed in The Atlantic:

Julia Ioffe: So, you have these established female comedians—Tina, Amy, Samantha Bee—as well as a new crop of female comedians—Leslie Jones, Michelle Wolf, Amber Ruffin. If you were to be replaced, would you want to be replaced by any of them?

Seth Meyers: Oh my god, I would love to be replaced by Amber.

Ruffin isn’t the only one of Meyer’s writers getting serious screen time (though she does get most of the solo and one-on-one-with-the-host work). Here she and Ally Hord  duke it out like Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in Point, Counterpoint:

Ally Hord has the difficult, thankless job of straight man* in these skits (it’s a running gag), and does it well. She takes a slightly different tack every sketch while Amber does her thing and Seth moderates.

I prefer this approach to the SNL sketches, which hung on one big line. That’s funny, but does wear down with repetition. This version’s running gag has no tag line, so it builds more slowly but has longer legs.

The main thing, though, is the sensibility of the sketches.

Dan and Jane were clearly in an antagonistic relationship. And again, that’s funny, but it’s also still a single note. Ally’s righteousness and Amber’s ingenuousness share an underlying sincerity. When they interact, it’s different every time. And they always reconcile.

Jenny Hagel thought up another great sketch series, Jokes Seth Can’t Tell, which puts her and Amber on stage flanking Seth Meyers. Where Ally is Amber’s foil in Point, Counterpoint, Jenny is her partner here and Seth is their foil.

It’s a great idea! Seth sets up punchlines for good jokes that would sound funny (bad funny) coming from him, and Amber and Jenny deliver them. There’s chemistry going on, so when Jenny’s business gets an extra laugh, they run with it throughout the sketch:

Which brings us to the transition from the glories of Amber Ruffin to how Seth Meyers could help your church.

Jenny Hagel: “…Seth has so many years of experience doing this that in a meeting he was like, ‘I don’t know that this bees [thing] is gonna work.’ I was like, ‘You don’t get it. This is a lady thing. Trust me.’ And it did not work. But that’s the thing! It’s great! He’s like, ‘Okay, if you say so.’

Amber Ruffin: “And he will!”

Jenny Hagel: “Yeah, if you feel strongly about a joke —”

Amber Ruffin: “He’ll let you go out there and die on a joke you swore up and down would be great. He doesn’t care.”

That’s very true. Watch Amber die on one right here:

This is the price of trying new stuff and getting the great new things trying new stuff produces: Sometimes it flops and there you are.

Meyers has a staff of talented people (who I suspect he’s picked at least in part based on how they’ll work together) who get to do as much as they can. Sometimes he takes the back seat in a sketch and lets them drive. Sometimes he sets them up for the jokes. Sometimes they get the stage to themselves. He’s generous and deliberately inclusive. He makes space for his folks to fill, rather than making them take the space, over and over again, which surely would make them weary.

And when something promising doesn’t work quite right? They laugh at it and then they do the next thing.

The result is that if Seth Meyers suddenly stepped away from his show, Amber Ruffin (and probably some of the others, but I believe she’s ready) could step in and keep it going. He gives them enough power and responsibility to make that happen.

Does your church’s leadership do this?  What if one or two people at the heart of your congregation moved away from your city? It could happen! What if a decade of aging left half your current leadership on the sidelines? This will happen to some of you.

Is the power and the responsibility shared around sufficiently that your congregation isn’t held captive to the whims of time and death? They are whimsical but we know they’re coming. Not preparing will not keep them away. Out of sight, out of mind leads to out of time.

Give it some thought.


*On the one hand, that term is gender-specific and probably ought to go. On the other hand, I have no idea if Ally Hord is a straight woman or not. Anyone who can thread that needle with a great new expression please speak up.

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