The Joke Amber Ruffin & Jenny Hagel Really Couldn't Tell

Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC.
If Late Night with Seth Meyers is a giant, carved horse — and it is a fine horse — Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel are the leaders of the feminist army waiting inside. They helm the popular segment "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," a series dedicated to the jokes host Seth Meyers is simply too white, too male, and too straight to tell.
"I'm Black!" Ruffin announces at the beginning of each segment.
"And I'm gay!" Hagel replies.
"And we're both women," Ruffin finishes. Together, they tell the punchlines for jokes specific to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. (Hagel later revealed that r as well.) Meyers provides the set-up.
For example:
Meyers: "A female entrepreneur has created a vacation resort where no men are allowed."
Hagel: "Women can enjoy activities like snorkeling and and finishing their own sentences."
"Jokes Seth Can't Tell" gave way to other bits like "Point, Counterpoint," in which writers debate issues like the Women's March or net neutrality, or "Amber Says What" in which Ruffin interrogates pop culture. Ruffin and Hagel — who are sometimes joined by writers Ally Hord and Dina Gusovsky — are officially regular fixtures of the show. When Kevin Spacey came out as gay as a way to deflect accusations of sexul assault, Hagel took the stage to address the situation. And no, not everything they do is politically charged. That's the glory of regular representation: Hagel and Ruffin don't have to handle exclusively socially conscious content. They do what makes them laugh, and that category happens to be huge.
When we spoke at the show's 30 Rock offices, Hagel and Ruffin were prepping for a sketch that would air later that night called "Joke Bucket." Ruffin wore bright pink scrubs because she'd play a nurse at the maternity ward, where all the best punchlines are born. Hagel played a human-sized "yo momma!" card, a mother of one of the newborn jokes in the ward. Sam Nunberg (played by Late Night writer John Lutz) was also involved in this sketch.
In a world where the need for jokes from diverse perspectives is far outpacing late night's ability to produce them, "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" gives us a vision of what after-midnight comedy could be. It’s a world where queer women can joke about period sex, and Black women can riff on Stacey Dash. And, white men aren’t the ones at the wheel.
Apropos of absolutely everything, Refinery29 spoke to the duo about their ever-popular segment, cracking jokes with Hillary Clinton, and the effects of antibiotics on female bees.
Refinery29: Tell me about the origin of "Jokes Seth Can't Tell."
Amber Ruffin: "It just happened! No, just kidding. It was Jenny's idea. A lot of times, monologue people will write these jokes that just go into the garbage because nothing can be done with them because Seth would never say anything like that out loud."
Jenny Hagel: "They'll amuse everybody, but they don't quite work for the voice of the monologue."
AR: "Yeah, and we love them. So, it was Jenny's idea to see if we can't salvage them."
JH: "I'm on the monologue team. So, when I first started working here I was kind of figuring out where I fit on the staff. There's was one day where I wrote a pile — I think there had been some news about the movie Carol."
AR: "It was bad."
JH: "I know. I think I probably wrote, like, eight Carol jokes."
AR: "A thousand."
JH: "Eight thousand, probably. Of course none of them made it. Then I saw my boss in the hallway later and was like [snaps] 'Let me know if you want more Carol jokes!' And he was like, [snaps] 'We can't use them.'"
Y'all recently did "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" at the Golden Globes, but you handed the mic to nominees in the audience. Was there ever a version of that segment that involved the two of you handling the punchlines?
AR: "Aha, there wasn't. We just always knew that we were going to do 'Jokes Seth Can't Tell' at the Golden Globes. That was the only information we had for a very long time. We just guessed that celebrities would have to deliver the punch lines. I don't know if you'd look at a row of celebrities and go, 'No, no, no, what do these two women that I don't know have to say?'"
JH: "In that room, you want to hear from the pretty people."
AR: "Ahem."
JH: "I mean, the other pretty people."
Amber, you hosted the Writers Guild Awards in February. After having done it, do you think awards shows are comedy-killers? Is there a way to do a truly funny Oscars ceremony?
AR: "I don't know that that's what those awards shows are about. I think awards show are about awards, and if you get some jokes in there, great. And if you don't, alright."
JH: "Yeah, we still got to talk about movies and see the cool dresses."
AR: "It's mostly about dresses. If no one said anything, I'd be fine."
JH: "If [the Oscars] was a parade of dresses, I would watch for five hours."
AR: "Yeah. I really would."
I would, too. You both emerged from the Chicago comedy scene — do you think there's a different style to Chicago comedy?
JH: "For sure. I think there definitely is. How would you describe it?"
AR: "[New York improv is] observational. It's verbal, mm? It's wordy. Whereas, Chicago improv is big and rowdy and physical. And I stand by that."
JH: "I think there's a difference in the process, too. I think that New York comedy, in my limited experience, can be more product-focussed, and that Chicago comedy can be more process-focussed. You're always, no matter what point in the process, when you're developing something with Chicago people, the idea of is valued. Success is assumed. The ability involved in it is — you assume everybody is good at what they do. If somebody's giving an idea, you assume that it's great, and you try to make it better. It's a really incredibly supportive process, and I feel like every job that I've been at, regardless of where I've been geographically, with Chicago people involved, you have a great time."
Do you consider yourselves performers?
AR: "I do. I very [much] do. I worked in a theater for 10 years. I guess we spend a lot of time writing, but we're both now — gosh, I never really sat down [and thought about it]. I'm still a performer, right?"
JH: "I mean, we definitely both came at this as performers as first, and then found writing through it. It's been a lovely addition."
AR: "It's so cool."
JH: "I feel like being a writer-performer is just a really fantastic opportunity, especially for women, because when you are a writer-performer you don't have to wait for someone to create a role that fits you, you get to create it."
AR: "Ain't nobody looking to create a role for me. So, I can just write it! I feel like a lot of people feel that way. It's one of the reasons why you get into improv. Because you can't be in a lot of shows. Like, I love musicals. And I'd love to write them. But I could never really be in a real big show. Like, a theater show that's a real musical? Unless it was very comedic. Doing improv was my way of being like, 'Oh, you mean I can be onstage fucking all of the time, and I don't have to fit into the eight musical characters you've heard of?'"
JH: "A lot of the roles for women can be flat. They can be limited. They can be things you've seen before. So, I think when you do improv or sketch and you write your own words, you get to say stuff that feels specific to you instead of somebody else's point of view."
In the past year, the two of you, alongside writers Ally Hord and Dina Gusovsky, have addressed topics like the Women's March, Harvey Weinstein, and sexual harassment. How do these segments come about? Do the women writers pitch them or does an assigning editor ask the women to step up?
AR: "It's rare that someone will come up to us and say, 'Write something about this!' What usually happens is Monday we pitch, and Thursday we write sketches. We read sketches that we have written. A lot of times things come up through there. But every once in a while, we will be like, 'Oh my god, it is 11 a.m., and some shit just happened. And then we will work together to piece the script together. And then run and see if they have time to read it and want to do it. That happens sometimes. Those are the exciting days! That's happening today!"
JH: "It is, actually. Every once in a while, there will be something in the news that Seth wants to address or that our head writer thinks we should address. Like, there was some news about Puerto Rico that broke over the weekend, and I'm Puerto Rican, and so my boss texted me and was like, 'Hey, if there's some stuff you want to say about this on the show, we'll make some room on the show on Monday.' And that's lovely — it's like, we want to address this, but we want to make sure that someone who's affected by it gets to address it."
AR: "We don't have to. No one's ever been like, 'A Black thing! You! Come here!" It's just, there's room to do it if you want. But then you do want to. Because you don't want Black people to be gaslit. So you go, 'Hey, this was an insane thing that happened.' And usually you go on the show because something made you friggin' crazy. And because you're so angry, everything you say about it because hilarious. So, you might as well write it down and say it again."
JH: "If you follow the news, especially right now, if [the news] affects you personally, you probably already have feelings about it. So, like Amber said, you might as well write them down."
Are there any "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" jokes that never made it to air that you miss?
AR: "Bees."
JH: "Aw, yeah. I wrote this GREAT joke about bees getting yeast infections. I thought, 'You're welcome, America.' And nobody liked it.'"
AR: "Woo! Nothing."
JH: It was something about, 'They gave bees antibiotics.' There were some scientists who gave bees antibiotics. And my punchline was like, 'So if you're a bee, that explains your yeast infection.' I thought like, 'You're welcome women, I understand you! Women of America, I finally put into words the thing that we all feel.'"
AR: "I thought it was the funniest joke of all time. It made me laugh so hard."
JH: "Those bees turned to crickets in rehearsal. The audience was like, 'No, thank you, please don't ever say that again.' Seth has so many years of experience doing this that in a meeting he was like, 'I don't know that this bees [thing] is gonna work.' I was like, 'You don't get it. This is a lady thing. Trust me.' And it did not work. But that's the thing! It's great! He's like, 'Okay, if you say so.'
AR: "And he will!"
JH: "Yeah, if you feel strongly about a joke —"
AR: "He'll let you go out there and die on a joke you swore up and down would be great. He doesn't care."
What about tabled segments? Any that didn't make it you still care about?
JH: "We pitched a thing one thing about emails. Obviously, emails have been in the news a lot in the last eighteen months, and — I don't even know if Amber remembers this — but we pitched a thing as two FBI agents and we had gone through Seth's emails. But all his emails were just, like, Pottery Barn coupons. And I only enjoyed it because I thought it would be so fun to dress up like FBI agents. The little kid in me was like, 'What if we got to dress up like FBI agents?' Which is the wrong reason to root for something."
AR: "That's where everything I've ever written comes from. What can I get them to make me? Can I dress up like Sheila E.? Great."
JH: "We worked on a piece together right after the election. Right after Trump was elected. And it was a piece where we were talking to women who'd voted for Trump. That is a piece had so many of my actual feelings in it, but I had a hard time landing it, comedically. It was right that it didn't go, but it's one of those pieces that I think about once in a while."
What's a segment you've pitched for a costume?
AR: "My favorite one was — there is a lady who I'm too young to have heard of named Sheila E. In the eighties, she would play these three drums. I forget what it's called, the three drum thing. She had a big eighties hair and just a friggin' bustier that was half-leopard and half-shiny. She's the one who sings, 'She wants to lead the glamorous life.' I wanted to do it. I wanted to dress up like Sheila E. and explain what a super delegate was. And then I'd be like, 'A superdelegate is easy to explain. But first you gotta start with spelling out its name. S! [drums] U! [drums].' She would never get around to explaining what a superdelegate was. And it got close! They made the costume! We did it later at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, so I don't feel too sad about it. But I could do that sketch everyday."
You did a "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" with Hillary Clinton. How was her delivery?
JH: "On point."
AR: "I was shocked. I was shocked. I did not expect anything."
JH: "She did great. She was a good sport, too. She was fantastic. We sent her two possible jokes, and we were like, 'Eh, she'll pick one.' And her people came back and said, 'Can she have a third?' We said, 'You bet you can.'"
What's your dream late night landscape? Who's hosting? What are the shows?
JH: "To me, it's pretty close to what we work on. A bunch of different people with different points of view who are allowed to speak to them when they feel like they want to."
AR: "It really is nice hearing from other people. It's nice."
JH: "It's the best."
AR: "I'm straight up addicted to other people's points of view. It's so neat! But to answer your question: stunts."
JH: "Like this, but more pyrotechnics!"
AR: "Exactly the conversation the three of us are having, but with pyrotechnics!"
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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