At first, it's surprising that comedienne Amber Ruffin was hesitant to describe her new show as one. Upon further thought, however, variety shows have an antiquated reputation. The phrase “variety show” itself is not something one often hears these days. Many late–night talk show hosts have some “variety” over the course of their hour, with musical guests or appearances by stand–up comedians. But true variety shows, from the ones developed at the advent of television all the way through the wildly popular programs of the 1970s, swapped celebrity interviews for an hour of assorted entertainment. It's hard to imagine any show recapturing the magic of programs like The Carol Burnett Show, but The Amber Ruffin Show may prove us all wrong.
In just its first few epsiodes, The Amber Ruffin Show has proved that variety shows are perfect 21st century entertainment—and conduit's for today's ideals. The only diversity in variety shows of the past was the different acts; nowadays, we strive to do better. Ruffin is not the first woman of color to host a show on NBC—that honor goes to Lilly Singh (also known on YouTube as iiSuperwomanii) of A Little Late With Lilly Singh. however, Ruffin succeeds in ways that Singh’s program has not. Ruffin’s transition from an often featured writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers to hosting her own show certainly feels more seamless than Singh’s jump from viral videos to late night.
Ultimately, the “classic” feel of The Amber Ruffin Show is nearly ubiquitous in its presence. From the comparatively calm sidekick Tarik Davis to the idiosyncrasies of the host—such as a penchant for margaritas—the show contains elements of some of the most iconic late night franchises in television history.
All this being said, Amber Ruffin herself is what makes the program work. She's talented, hilarious, and adorable. Anyone who has been following her trail since Late Night will be unsurprised by this. There, she often appears in segments such as “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” with her head writer Jenny Hagel, or “Amber Says What." Ruffin stole the show each and every time she’s appeared on Late Night, and her bright and powerful stage presence suits new platform brilliantly as she jokes, acts, sings, and dances.
Ruffin’s joyful personality embodies some of the great women of television’s past. She has the relatability and approachability of Carol Burnett, the sharp, quick wit of Joan Rivers, and the likeability of Mary Tyler Moore. Just like how The Mary Tyler Moore Show taught lessons in gender equality without patronizing or preaching to viewers, Ruffin’s clever commentary and advice on racial justice feels designed to include those who are working to improve themselves during this tense period in our country’s history rather than shut anyone out. For example, in a segment titled “Colossal Failures in Allyship” she calls out distasteful attempts at allyship by white people, drawing clear lines that differentiate racial impropriety before sneaking in suggestions about how one might do better. All the while, Ruffin maintains her friendly yet droll tone.
Amber Ruffin is like your cool older sister: she gives you good advice, makes you laugh, and entertains you to no end. But right now, she’s like that cool sister before she’s grown up—she's still striving to learn the important lessons herself. The Amber Ruffin Show has nearly unbearable amounts of untapped potential. Due to the coronavirus, it doesn’t even have an audience to bounce laughs off of yet, or the ability to feature frequent guests. One can hope that once the world gets closer to normal, NBC will offer Ruffin the resources to elevate her program to the level it deserves to be at. There’s a sort of extravagant showmanship in yesteryear's variety shows, and because of current limitations, this isn’t present in The Amber Ruffin Show. Ruffin already packs many a punch in every segment she performs in. And while show is a thorough delight, the opportunities afforded by the eventual readjustment to the “normal world” will be what takes the program over the top.
At the end of the day, The Amber Ruffin Show is phenomenal. At the end of a long week, it’s a welcome half–hour of laughs—and at the end of this pandemic, it will fulfill its unrealized potential.