Amber Ruffin and Dewayne Perkins on the Healing Power of Comedy
They say that you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying, and in the case of this past year, that couldn’t be more accurate. One person that consistently brought the funny was Amber Ruffin, who, as writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers since 2014 (making her the first Black woman to write for a late-night network talk show), broke out as a star in her own right after becoming a recurring on-camera presence, crushing memorable bits like “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” A few months ago, the 41-year-old, Emmy-nominated comedian debuted The Amber Ruffin Show, her very own talk show on Peacock, where she offers up commentary on current events with a blend of humor and heart, as well as comedy sketches that don’t shy away from topics like race. Last month, Ruffin hopped on the phone with one of the show’s writers, the comedian Dewayne Perkins, to discuss inspirations, improv, and whether comedy can unite our divided country.
AMBER RUFFIN: Hi, Dewayne.
DEWAYNE PERKINS: Hello, Amber.
RUFFIN: Where are you?
PERKINS: I’m sitting on my roof at my house enjoying the sun while it’s out. How are you? It is cold in New York?
RUFFIN: You know what, honestly, the last day of work was Friday, and I haven’t been going outside at all. It could be anything out there. It could be 1000 degrees and beautiful, I wouldn’t know, I’m not going out there. I’m done with outside. Hey, Dewayne how did we first meet?
PERKINS: I remember our first interaction because you messaged me to ask about what’s happening at Second City. You were like, “Hey, I’m Amber and know that you are at Second City, what’s going on there?” And I was like, “Oh my god I’m obsessed with you.” And then when we physically met, I think I was in New York, and you were like, “Hey, come have a margarita with me.” It was a beautiful moment in that nice restaurant with those good chips.
RUFFIN: Remember restaurants? Going out to eat was my coping, and now I’m slowly going insane.
PERKINS: I went to an Olive Garden to get take out and they brought it to my car and we tipped the person and then she started to cry. And we were like, “Oh no, they’re not tipping you?” And she was like, ” Nobody’s tipping me, people are mad because we’re backed up.” I was like, “Oh, this is the world.” And because I don’t leave my house, I don’t really interact with people, and that interaction was enough for me to be like, “Oh yeah, I never leave my house.” People aren’t suddenly becoming better people because of the conditions in which we’re in. It’s actually getting worse.
RUFFIN: The world is scary. But you know what’s not scary? Comedy.
PERKINS: Yes, let’s talk lots of comedy. How did you come across me?
RUFFIN: Twitter, Facebook, and a very good reputation from a lot of people. But then we started doing those improv shows, remember that? That was my proof that you’re great, and I was right. Why does comedy become a conduit for relief when the world seems to be burning down?
PERKINS: I think that laughing releases a chemical that makes you feel happy. And so people are just looking for any reason to not be sad. Comedy is a very easy way to get there. It’s also a way that you can say things as a path to the truth. “Oh, now that your defenses are down, here’s some real shit. And then I’m going to make you laugh again so that you don’t feel bad leaving. But also, think about it while you laugh.” What about you?
RUFFIN: I think that people just want to call out how bad everything is, and when you can laugh about it, it feels great. Because you don’t always get to laugh about terrible things, but now we’re in this really special spot where everyone is having a bad time. So we can all laugh together, and that rarely happens.
PERKINS: I agree. There is a weird sense of unity that I’ve never felt, because it was like, “Oh, okay, this is bad for everybody.” Maybe we can address things now.
RUFFIN: What comedians did you look up to growing up?
PERKINS: Because of me being a Black, gay child, I knew pretty early that it was not humans that I looked up to in comedy because it was either a bunch of white men or Black men who were pretty homophobic. Cartoons were my stage play. The things that inspired me comedically were The Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Looney Tunes. I really love cartoons and I think that even now, there’s evidence in the way that I do comedy. The things that I find funny come from a very jovial place. When I got old enough to really dig into the actual paths of people, I feel like I wanted my career to be the perfect marriage of Jordan Peele and Kenny Ortega. If my career can mirror those two people’s journey’s and the freedom and the projects that they got to do, that would be ideal.
RUFFIN: How did you learn to be funny? Were your parents or family members fans of comedy?
PERKINS: My family would watch stand-up specials, but I didn’t realize that they were stand-up specials. I just thought that they were movies in one location where an actor’s sharing jokes on stage. I realized that was an art form within itself. I had a speech impediment for a very long time, so I had to have speech therapy for decades. And so being funny or telling jokes is just not something that I did naturally, because I just didn’t speak very often. I had a really bad stutter. I learned to be funny in high school through improv. I just knew that I watched a bunch of movies. I’ve absorbed a lot of stuff and I have a good memory. So, I used the academic part of my brain to dissect comedy once it was presented to me, and I was like, “Oh, this is how you be funny.” What about you?
RUFFIN: I learned how to be funny because I was a very ugly child, and I mean I was the ugliest child I’ve ever seen. And it’s not even close. So I had to learn how to be funny so that I could be a part of things. I did have a similar thing where my family would allow me to stay up all night long. I would stay up late and watch late-night shows with Jay Leno and try to guess the punch line before he said it. And I wasn’t half bad at it. It’s a fun little game. I think everyone should do that. Unless you’re watching The Amber Ruffin Show. You can’t figure out our punch lines.
PERKINS: Some of the punch lines are shocking to me. The range of the things that we are allowed to write is surprising even to me. So as a viewer I’m sure they’re like, “What are these people going to throw at us?”
RUFFIN: Yes, we will never pick a lane. We’re the entire expressway going both ways. Someone the other day asked me in an interview, “So who writes the songs on the show?” And I said, “I write the songs. Wait, everyone has written a song.” We’re all taking turns. Here’s a question: What would be on The Dewayne Perkins Show? What kind of show is it?
PERKINS: I feel like my show would be very much like Scooby-Doo, how Steve jumps into photos. I just like to place myself into different worlds and then allow that space to be transformed by my presence. I don’t know how that would translate necessarily, but even now that I’m doing more film, the idea of tackling certain jobs and being able to write this whole comedy and taking up a space that has not traditionally been allowed for me and truly owning that space and being like, “This is mine now, thank you.” And then I go take something else over. That’s the vibe, but I haven’t narrowed down exactly what that would be. Do you think that comedy could help unite a divided country?
RUFFIN: Sure, I do think that it definitely could. I just think if we’re trying to unite racists and trans-folks and the homophobes with everybody else, I don’t know that that’s the right thing to be doing, frankly. But can comedy do that? Yes, I do think it could. But I think there’s some work people have to do on themselves before everyone should be like, “We’re all in this together.” Because right now, I don’t know that we are.
PERKINS: I completely agree. Comedy can help, but it’s six, maybe seven on the list of things that need to be done first. It probably can assist, but there are some systemic things that need to happen. Comedy can be, “Oh, let me help you move this box.” Because you’ve been doing the heavy lifting, but I don’t think comedy can be leading the charge.
RUFFIN: That’s probably the right way to think about this. You need a building built, and comedy can help you move some boxes.
PERKINS: We can help you decorate. Comedy is the interior design. If the structure is falling down, what can we do? We can’t tell jokes in a building that’s on fire. We can bring you a cute couch and some ambiance.
RUFFIN: Can comedy heal? How has it helped you individually?
PERKINS: The thing that comedy has done for me was it gave me a point of view and perspective on life, based on the opportunities it has provided me. The spaces that I’ve been in because of comedy have forced me to know parts of myself that I don’t think that I would’ve known prior. Improv is an art that challenged me in a way that maybe I learned who I was on a deeper level. Stand-up is an art form that gave me the space to do and say whatever I wanted without any filters or boundaries. Comedy is healing in that it literally provided me spaces to grow as a human.
RUFFIN: Heal is a strong word, but yes, I think it can help you heal because people use comedy to deal with a lot of rough stuff. And when you’re laughing at how horrible things are, there is some healing in that. It helps give you a different perspective. When things are going terribly, it does feel good to joke about it. And then because you’ve joked about it, you’re like, “Well, this probably isn’t going to kill me. How serious can this be if we’re all sitting around laughing about it?”