SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Two new talk shows might ruffle some feathers - "The Amber Ruffin Show" and "Wilmore." Larry Wilmore's new show debuted on Peacock, NBC Universal's streaming service, last Friday, and comedian and writer Amber Ruffin's show debuts there today. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talked to them both.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If Amber Ruffin has a superpower, it's turning insightful observations about race and society into unexpectedly fun and funny comedy bits - most recently on NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers" - like this moment that went viral after Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis died. Ruffin surprised Myers when she cheerfully agreed with Donald Trump's claim that he'd done more for Black people than most any other president.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MYERS")
AMBER RUFFIN: And he's right. No one has done more for Black Americans to make our lives worse. He's done this.
DEGGANS: Ruffin says being energetic and fun even in the wake of terrible times is an important part of her comedy style.
RUFFIN: Everything has gotten so bad that it now makes me laugh as we all go down in flames. But you have to say what happened out loud or else you go insane.
DEGGANS: Ruffin said what happened out loud on "Late Night" once again. Days after George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, Ruffin told four different stories over four nights about police stopping and threatening her for little reason. Here's a clip from one of those monologues.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MYERS")
RUFFIN: Black people leave the house every day knowing that at any time, we could get murdered by the police. It's a lot.
DEGGANS: She told me that some white people may have said they didn't realize how bad it was, but Ruffin saw something more.
RUFFIN: One part they didn't know, one part they were unwilling to believe Black people and one part they did not care enough - it's all of those three things. They have to see it to believe it instead of (singing) believing us when we tell you [expletive] is wrong.
DEGGANS: Peacock's "The Amber Ruffin Show" and "Wilmore" both will talk boldly about such issues, giving space for two of the sharpest comics on TV to dissect issues of race and social justice.
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DEGGANS: "Wilmore," which debuted last week, featured a segment where both Ruffin and Wilmore looked at photos of people taking things from stores during unrest. They guessed, looting or reparations?
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LARRY WILMORE: All right. Amber, this is a true story. Some dude stole ice cube trays from a store on Melrose. Is that looting or reparations?
RUFFIN: He just stole ice cube trays?
WILMORE: Ice cube trays. Is that - what do you think? - looting or...
RUFFIN: That's reparations.
DEGGANS: "Wilmore's" first episode featured host Larry Wilmore in a chair on a mostly bare stage, flanked by giant TV monitors. He interviewed guests like Democratic candidate Cori Bush and soccer star-activist Megan Rapinoe. He compares his new show style to the topical interview shows once hosted by Dick Cavett.
WILMORE: It allows me not to compete with what I did on "The Nightly Show" because we don't have a big set. I don't have a big cast. There's just no money for that. But I appreciate the fact that it's going to feel a little more intimate than what I did.
DEGGANS: "Wilmore" hosted Comedy Central's "The Nightly Show" until it was canceled in 2016 months before the presidential election. During his long career as a TV producer, he has often seemed a step or two ahead of the industry, co-creating the animated comedy "The PJs" with Eddie Murphy, creating the single-camera comedy "The Bernie Mac Show" and co-creating HBO's "Insecure" with Issa Rae. With 11 episodes of "Wilmore" planned to stretch past the current election, the host is ready to surprise viewers once again with a few opinions they might not expect.
WILMORE: I'm not for just getting rid of the police. I feel the people who are going to be hurt the most are the people that need a lot of police protection the most in a Black neighborhood. So there's just, like, this general assumption that everybody agrees with them. Like, no, no, no, no. Slow down.
DEGGANS: Like Larry Wilmore, Amber Ruffin is a TV pioneer. Back in 2014, Wilmore almost hired her to work on "The Nightly Show," but she took a job on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" instead, becoming a rare non-white woman writing for a network TV late-night show. That job came after stints performing theater and improv comedy in her native Omaha, Neb., Chicago and Amsterdam, where often, being the only Black performer made her feel like she couldn't fully be herself onstage - like performing with weights on. Now she's another rarity - a Black woman hosting her own late-night show. And with the freedom to say what she wants, the weights have finally dropped off.
RUFFIN: I was toying with the idea of starting my show by saying, hey, everybody. I'm Amber Ruffin, and I've successfully gamed the system (laughter). I thought, maybe that's - maybe I got to keep that to myself.
DEGGANS: I'd say with shows from Ruffin and Wilmore out there, the system is quite a bit better off.
I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF A-HA SONG, "THE SUN ALWAYS SHINES ON TV") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.