As the Peacock streaming service was launching in 2020, it tried to have something for everybody, including late-night entertainment. But the pandemic had cut off the supply of studio audiences. No problem! Two shows launched in empty studios — Wilmore, featuring former Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore, and The Amber Ruffin Show, featuring a relative newcomer whose day job was writing for Seth Meyers.
Wilmore is long gone. Someone told the trades that Wilmore had made a “promise to finish it after 11 episodes,” although who exactly he made this “promise” to is unclear. What actually happens in the TV business is that you get an initial order for episodes of your show and then, if those go well, you get to make more. Had Wilmore been connecting with viewers, Peacock would have asked for additional episodes. And, yes, he would’ve done them gladly — I promise you.
The Amber Ruffin Show received an initial order of only nine episodes. That gives you some idea of what the network thought about its potential, since it was costing almost nothing to produce. In case you haven’t seen her show yet, it’s basically a subset of Late Night With Seth Meyers. Same studio, same crew, and Meyers’ head writer Jenny Hagel also writes for Ruffin. (By the way, why haven’t you seen it yet? It’s on the free version of Peacock’ and, if you still have a DVR, NBC sometimes airs a rerun after Late Night.)
So why is The Amber Ruffin Show wired while Wilmore was tired/expired? That is the existential question every late-night show ought to be asking itself right now. Donald Trump was a godsend for political humorists. Basically every late-night show not named Tonight helped themselves to the endless supply of “material” the president produced. Seth Meyers was no exception. His Trump-bashing pieces drew millions of views nightly on YouTube.
But not everyone benefited. The Daily Show is the O.G. of political late-night shows, and yet under Trump it struggled to find a distinct voice. That’s surprising given that host Trevor Noah seemingly could not be better suited for the job, being a South African native with a sharp outsider’s perspective on American politics. (Hosting the worst-produced home show of the pandemic didn’t help.) Hasan Minhaj, who cut his teeth on The Daily Show, did a terrific late-night show for Netflix that lasted about a year because, well, it’s Netflix.
Then there are the shows that — when you remove the safety net of a live studio audience, as the pandemic did — sound less like themselves and more like echo chambers of other, funnier programs. Wilmore was one of those shows. I watched two episodes and not only was I not entertained, I learned nothing that I couldn’t have picked up from MSNBC. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is another. The ratings aren't great and seeing as TBS recently said goodbye to its only other late-night show (hosted by a far more formidable host), Full Frontal's future feels less than secure.
What all of these shows have in common is their patrilineage. Jon Stewart is the one who took The Daily Show from a silly parody of network and local newscasts, essentially TV’s version of The Onion, and turned it into a more serious-minded satire machine. All four of the aforementioned hosts owe their careers to him, as do Colbert and HBO’s John Oliver.
But it feels to me that we’ve seen the end run of serious topical comedy, and it’s basically a copy of the outrage machine it was meant to combat. Ask yourself, who seems angrier these days: John Oliver or Tucker Carlson? It’s an unfair question, because Tucker is the three-dollar bill of television hosts, whereas Oliver’s outrage seems genuine and not purely tactical. But the outrage you give is the outrage you get, and in that sense what Jon Stewart created as an antidote to Fox News is now a reflection of it.
We can’t go back to the Onion’s heyday any more than we can go back to the iPhone 3G or $10-an-hour service jobs. Politics is in the water supply now, so the way ahead will always involve some political humor. But I can’t take another four years of beating viewers over the head with lefty outrage (even when I happen to share it). And from what I am hearing from viewers, many of you feel the same way.
And that brings us back to Amber Ruffin and her cheap-to-produce, done-in-her-spare-time late-night comedy closet. Why have the critics, Emmy voters, and lots of viewers fallen in love with it? I think it’s because she’s found a formula that many of us craved and didn’t even know it.
If you haven’t watched a full show of hers, you've more likely caught one of her clips on social media, a recurring segment called “How Did We Get Here?” These anti-racist explainers, which have taken on the pumped-up controversy over Critical Race Theory and revealed the history behind “drowned towns,” are lively and informative, and come with the credibility of a Black woman who, along with her sister/co-author, has thought about race quite a bit.
But if your sole idea of The Amber Ruffin Show comes from watching these bits that NBC/Peacock has highlighted because they deliver clicks, you're missing out on all the silly. Like her opening banter with Tarik Davis, her sidekick and able performer in comedy bits that are sophisticated amalgams of pop-culture critique and slapstick. Or Ruffin’s various forays into song, which are all the more hilarious because she’s not the most tuneful performer and couldn’t care less. Or the fact that she always dresses like someone on the top of a gay wedding cake.
The funny-goofy part of The Amber Ruffin Show not only eats up most of the show's half-hour running time, but is the necessary and welcome spoonful of sugar that makes the anti-racist medicine go down. She recently explained to an interviewer, “We can goof around and have fun, and that’s nice, but because you have visibility, you have power, and we have chosen to use the type of power we have to make sure people are cared for in the tiny little way we can. That’s where those more serious pieces come from.”
I believe she sincerely means that. This native of Nebraska strikes me as someone who hasn’t let her sense of moral outrage interfere with her Midwestern sense of decency. And that's what makes Amber Ruffin not only the second most important Black voice to come out of Omaha, but makes her silly-serious-silly formula the one that other late-night comedy shows would do well to emulate.
Amber Ruffin will be featured on NBCUniversal’s Tokyo Games coverage starting July 23. The Amber Ruffin Show returns to Peacock August 13.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.