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SXSW: 7 things we learned about Samantha Bee and Amber Ruffin, the ‘Late Night Girls Club'

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman
Amber Ruffin hosts her own late-night show on NBC's streaming service, Peacock.

Samantha Bee and Amber Ruffin are two of the most heralded comedians on late-night television. During Friday's virtual South by Southwest, they shared a split-screen to interview one another and compare notes.

Both have been forced to make comedy at home in the past year without an audience. Both members of the self-described “Late Night Girls Club” have likewise had to exist in spaces dominated by straight men and, seemingly at every turn, make adjustments. These days, Ruffin and Bee are running downhill and writing the comedy they’ve always wanted to. Bee hosts TBS’ “Full Frontal”; Ruffin became the first Black woman to write for a network talk show in 2014 and recently left Seth Meyers’ staff to launch "The Amber Ruffin Show" on NBC streaming service Peacock.

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Their hourlong exchange played like a welcome break for two of the hardest workers in comedy, rich with riffing and relatable workplace commiserating. Here are seven key things we just learned about the pair, including why Bee got a new family cat — and what she named it.

Like many New Yorkers of means, Bee ditched the city for the country home when the pandemic began.

She said she rested for one week in the country home, terrified and in a “state of heightened anxiety,” and then felt an urgency to make new episodes of TV.

“If I didn’t start making a show, maybe you don't have a show anymore.” Bee said. “People get really comfortable that you’re off the air.”

Her husband, comedian and fellow “Daily Show” alum Jason Jones, helped facilitate this initial act of “pragmatism” as a producer who could help leverage “sunshine and an iPhone” into programming.

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What was it like for Ruffin to launch a show amid a “global plague,” Bee asked her panel companion?

It’s as if "I made a wish on a monkey’s paw,” Ruffin joked. “I should have been more specific when I was wishing to have my own show.”

"Full Frontal" host Samantha Bee said at SXSW Online on Friday that she does not particularly miss live audiences.

A year in, Bee and Ruffin don’t particularly miss the studio audience.

Bee has relocated “Full Frontal” to a smaller studio with no audience and remote-activated cameras. Her older studio was shared between “seven” other shows and this recent pivot affords her a more intimate space, where she has more logistical control over COVID-19 protocols. She doesn’t really miss the crowd, either.

“I wouldn’t be that sad,” Bee said about the possibility her studio audience never returns. “It’s actually OK. ... I’m not a standup. I don’t personally feel like I need that audience feedback.”

The whole notion of having a crowd to begin with came from Bee feeling like she needed to “buy into” late-night TV as a male-dominated medium with routines and expectations. Ruffin, who has an improv and theater background, agreed.

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Ruffin is working on a remake of Marilyn Monroe’s “Some Like It Hot.”

The original film, from 1959, is about men who dress in drag to escape gangsters after witnessing a murder. Ruffin said its optics aren’t great these days.

“How could we possibly do this in 2020?” she said about the show’s challenges. For example, the Prohibition-era story had to think through its racial dynamics, because Black signers in the late 1920s couldn’t have just existed in white spaces like Monroe's character did.

“Hey everyone I’m in this bar with all of you,” Ruffin joked through the prism of a Black character in the stage remake. “I’m going to sing and come through the front door.”

Bee is thankful Stephen Colbert canceled on her.

On Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol riots, Bee said she was scheduled to make an appearance on Colbert’s late-night talk show. She was relieved when the programming shifted to news coverage.

“As a citizen of the world, I was watching everything unfold,” Bee said. “Praying that Colbert would cancel me, which they did, and I was really grateful.”

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She added that she’s not a “hot take” comic and needed time to “mourn and reflect.” It seemed to mark a difference in her comedy: As a writer, Bee processes trauma with an apparent sense of deep empathy and thrives when she has time to grieve and return with clear-eyed analysis.

“It felt a lot like election night in 2016,” Bee said of the Capitol riots, saying she was “watching so intently and feeling so sad.”

Bee and Ruffin also discussed recently watching the documentary "Framing Britney Spears," noting its ability to spark anger at how women have been treated in U.S. society just in the recent past. The documentary made headlines for showing the casual misogyny with which women were treated by TV comedians at the time.

“What a journey back to what it was like being a woman in the 1990s,” Bee said. “Do you see why when we have these moments in the culture right now, we are so (expletive) pent up?”

Bee doesn’t bother watching her male counterparts.

“I don’t really give a (expletive) what the boys are doing,” Bee said of her male colleagues in late-night TV. “I don’t tune into what they’re doing, because I don’t like to muddy the waters.”

When “Full Frontal” began in 2016, Bee added that she was conscientious not to cover the same material and headlines in her comedy. She said she learned that’s a losing game: “The take is always going to be different, and it’s going to come out of your lived experiences.”

Ruffin said she felt some pressure to provide the “ladies’ take” on news but has found her way. The streaming format helped, she added.

“Luckily we’re on a streaming service, so they’re like, ‘Do what you feel, baby,’” Ruffin said. “We are doing exactly what we feel like doing.”

A throughline in Bee’s activist-oriented and left-leaning comedy, she added, is the joy that comes with “being on the right side of history.”

“I feel really good about having made it through the Trump era and not regretting a single thing that I said about the Trump family,” Bee said, adding that they proved to be “even worse” than she initially thought.

Like you, they hate Zoom.

The comedians spoke about quarantine fatigue and video calls at work with a “weird, silent gallery,” as Bee put it. They may not miss the crowds, but they definitely miss the collaborative, human side of work.

“Every second is agony,” Ruffin said.

Bee just got a second cat named Susan Collins.

“I wanted a second cat and felt I deserved it,” Bee dead-panned, adding that she wanted to give it a name that would make her family laugh.

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