The Amber Ruffin Show Is Too Good for Network TVPhoto by Virginia Sherwood/Peacock Comedy Features Amber Ruffin
NBC Universal’s The Amber Ruffin Show debuted last Friday night, and immediately established itself as one of the funniest shows in late night. It helps that the show is nothing but comedy—no guest interviews, no bands, just a monologue and comedy sketches featuring writer/performer Amber Ruffin. If you’ve seen her on Late Night with Seth Meyers, you know how charming and disarming Ruffin can be—she’s almost preternaturally cheerful, using that effervescence as cover for precision strikes against racism, systemic oppression, and the many indignities and traumas of the Trump age. That contrast works wonderfully during her brief appearances on Late Night, and she’s been able to scale it out for her half-hour show without undermining it at all. For a first episode, last Friday’s debut was remarkably confident and consistent, which is a great sign for the show’s future—a future on NBC’s streaming app Peacock, and not on NBC itself.
Should it be taken as a slight or an opportunity that The Amber Ruffin Show airs exclusively on Peacock instead of NBC? Yeah, every other attempt at a streaming-only late night talk show has failed, and Peacock has only a fraction of the brand awareness of NBC. But streaming isn’t just the future of television but already its present, and at this point a slot on Peacock is about as prominent as, say, the 1:35 a.m. time slot that NBC gave Lilly Singh. So unless NBC was willing to displace Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers, Peacock is probably a better place for Ruffin than any NBC time slot that would be available. And really, YouTube is more important than anything—the “Closer Look” segments from Ruffin’s other job, Late Night with Seth Meyers, routinely draw YouTube numbers that are higher than the show’s TV ratings. The Amber Ruffin Show, in its current half-hour, once-a-week format, probably wouldn’t draw that much more attention on NBC than it’s getting on Peacock, and yet would have more pressure to perform.
There’s a strong case that somebody as talented as Ruffin shouldn’t be limited to only a half-hour a week, though. I mean, just watch her show, or her Late Night appearances: She’s as engaging as any of the men who currently host late night shows on the major networks, and more so than a few of them. She’s more than proven that she has what it takes to host her own program. Even with the extreme fragmentation of the viewing audience today, and the glut of late night shows—the most popular of which averages only 3.5 million total viewers a night, the rest all averaging 2 million or less—there’s still a prestige factor that streaming can’t match, and for many a sense that a show on Peacock simply isn’t as important as one on NBC.
There are advantages to having a lower profile than a network late night talk show. Again, there’s less direct pressure when it comes to ratings, if only because streaming services usually don’t release viewership info. Ruffin and her writing team—Demi Adejuyigbe, Shantira Jackson, Dewayne Perkins, and head writer Jenny Hagel—won’t have to worry about appealing to a mainstream audience as much as they would if they were in a prominent NBC time slot. The lack of guests and musical acts removes the parts of late night shows that comedy fans are least interested in. It’ll be easier to break from the rigid formula that network late night shows have remained locked into for decades, and which still dictates the genre, despite six different talk shows airing on CBS, NBC and ABC. Look at Stephen Colbert as an example: on Comedy Central he was able to create one of the best sustained comedy performances and pieces of satire in TV history. On CBS he’s… pleasant? On Peacock Ruffin and company will have a freedom they wouldn’t have known if they were on NBC.
And yet. It’s still hard not to think that NBC could be doing more with this show. It’s locked away on a relatively new streaming service that doesn’t have the stature or public awareness of a Netflix, Hulu or HBO Max. The show’s more than good enough, as is, for a bigger audience, but then the network would probably change what it is in hopes of connecting to that audience. It’s a dilemma.
Fortunately most of the first episode is up on YouTube. This will almost definitely be the main way people actually see The Amber Ruffin Show—as “viral videos,” the way other late night shows are often consumed today. So instead of debating the whole streaming vs. network distinction, let’s just watch the damn show, and be happy that it exists at all.
The “You Matter” clip is our favorite. Just a head’s up.