Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel
Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel write for the show "Late Night with Seth Meyers" and perform regularly on the long-running comedy program. But although humor is their livelihood, identifying the line between entertaining and offending an audience is no laughing matter. Ruffin and Hagel share their Brief But Spectacular take on the role of comedy and their mission as Ladies of Late Night.
Judy Woodruff: Tonight's Brief But Spectacular pulls back the curtain of the NBC show "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel write for the show and perform regularly in the long-running "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" segment. The writers, funny comedians in their own right, give us a sense of what it takes to get a joke on the air.
This segment is part of our ongoing Canvas series on arts and culture.
Amber Ruffin: When you hear a joke that you know is the perfect joke, first of all, usually, that happens to me when it is someone else's joke.
Jenny Hagel: Yes. I feel like comedy writers rarely even laugh.
When a comedy writer hears a joke that good, they all go, oh. Oh, you did it. You got it.
When I first started writing "Late Night With Seth Meyers," I was trying very hard to kind of figure out Seth's voice. And there happened to be an item in the news that was about lesbians, and I don't remember what it was, but I happen to be a lesbian. So, I saw that headline and I was like, here we go.
And I think I submitted like 10 jokes about that. And then I saw the head writer, Alex Baze, in the hallway later and, just jokingly, I was like, "Let me know if you need more lesbian jokes." And he was like, "We cannot use them."
And I didn't — I just hadn't thought about that. Like, right, Seth can't burn lesbians.
I pulled Amber aside. And I said: "Hey, what if we tried to do a segment where we tell jokes that Seth can't tell?"
And Amber was like, "Let's figure that out."
Amber Ruffin: In "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," Seth sets up the joke, and then the minority says the punchline.
Jenny Hagel: Yes.
Seth Meyers: Focus Features has released the trailer for the new movie "Harriet" about Harriet Tubman.
Amber Ruffin: It tells the unlikely story of a black lady who, against all odds, was the main character in a movie.
If I talk about slavery, it's not as big a bummer as it is for white people to hear about it, which is something I learn each time we do "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," and they go, oh, that's too much of a bummer. And you go, all right, I guess so.
Jenny Hagel: Like, I had a joke where there was some setup about gay weddings. And then Seth said, "Jenny, what's the difference between a straight wedding and a gay wedding?"
And I said, "The reason the parents are crying," which to me is very funny.
But I happened to mention it to a friend of mine before that segment aired. And they're like: "You can't say that on television. That's too sad."
There's a lot of conversation about, like, P.C. culture and what's too far. And we're not trying to court that line of offensiveness, but we're trying to court this line between like, there's things to be said about our respective communities that are hard and true.
Amber Ruffin: Yes.
Jenny Hagel: And we're interested in exploring those through jokes.
Amber Ruffin: Are we saying something new that the audience can hear and then learn and understand in one fell swoop?
Jenny Hagel: I don't love can't, and when people talk about there are things you can't joke about. But I think it's important to ask, what's your intent?
We live in America. We have the First Amendment. We can say anything. So, I don't think it's about can't. It's just, what do you want to do with that time and space that you have, and does it feel good to you, and does it feel good to the people hearing it?
I can't imagine living in these times, waking up every morning, seeing the news, and then being like, OK, time to go be a dentist, where I have to not talk about it all day.
Amber Ruffin: I mean, some people get up and they cannot talk about it.
Jenny Hagel: Right. You have to go to work and be polite and keep all your feelings here. And we get to have all our feelings…
Amber Ruffin: I'm sorry if that's your life.
Jenny Hagel: I know. And I'm sorry that our life is basically us working on our feelings, and then you guys have to hear it. We owe you all a co-pay for therapy.
Amber Ruffin: But thank you for that. Thank you.
Jenny Hagel: Yes.
I'm Jenny Hagel.
Amber Ruffin: And I'm Amber Ruffin.
Jenny Hagel: And this is our Brief But Spectacular take on…
Amber Ruffin: Ladies of late night.
Judy Woodruff: And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.