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May 21, 2020

What Tina Taught Him

Seth Meyers credits pal Tina Fey for this lesson learned: more women on a show means more talent. (Cue the eye roll from the women on his writing staff.)

Mara Reinstein
  • Seth Meyers with, from top left: Allison Hord, Karen Chee, (bottom) Jenny Hagel, Amber Ruffin, and Dina Gusovsky

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Amber Ruffin

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Jenny Hagel

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Karen Chee

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Dina Gusovsky

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Allison Hord

    Lloyd Bishop
  • Lloyd Bishop

The comedy story of Late Night with Seth Meyers begins, like so many others this century, with Tina Fey.

When Meyers formed the first writing staff for his NBC talk show in late 2013, he set out to change the longstanding "boys' club" model. so he looked to his trailblazing onetime Saturday Night Live colleague for inspiration.

"I was really lucky to come from SNL, a place that was representative of strong women," he recalls. "When I started, Tina Fey was our head writer, and she instilled that. Amy Poehler, Paula Pell, Marika Sawyer and Emily Spivey were integral to the writing as well.

"That was something we wanted to have on our show. We started with three, and the number has only grown since then."

Now, the Emmy-nominated, 14-member Late Night writing staff features five sharp-witted yet disarmingly humble women: Amber Ruffin, Jenny Hagel, Karen Chee, Dina Gusovsky and Allison Hord.

If Meyers had available openings, he says, he'd hire more. "What I've found is that the more women you have on your show, the greater the overall talent."

Meyers adds that their perspectives enhance the quality of the show — and led to popular segments such as "Jokes Seth Can't Tell."

As he puts it, "What we've learned is that if they feel passionate about something, it has more strength coming from them directly as opposed to coming from me. The audience has really responded to them."

The writers' backgrounds differ dramatically. They range from a bright-eyed Millennial to a Gen X boundary-pusher; from a former CNBC political reporter to a Second City alum.

One is Puerto Rican and gay; one is an Asian-American Harvard grad; one is a Jewish Russian immigrant; one is an African American from the Heartland; one describes herself as an "anti-Pollyanna who harbors a lot of rage."

And yet all five women — who contribute to Meyers's nightly monologue and write sketches — share a special camaraderie as they work together four days a week (no Fridays!) in an open bullpen on the eighth floor of New York's famed 30 Rock.

(As COVID-19 spread in early March, the show suspended production; the writers continued to work from home on digital segments.)

"We definitely have each others' backs at all times," Hord says. "When you get us all together, it's always a good time."

Hagel adds, "If you say a joke out loud that's halfway there, somebody may spin around in a chair and say, 'Oh, what if you said it this way?' We all win if somebody on the show does well."

Off-hours, they have an all-female group text chain to vent about the fraught state of American politics and, um, more. "It's like therapy to us," Gusovsky says. "It's nice to be able to go to bed with people who feel the same way you do." (Ruffin jokes later, "Dina told you about our super-secret text chain?! How dare she!")

And while Meyers isn't allowed on the group chat, he's fully supportive: "I'm glad they have one, because I'm sure there are plenty of times when what they want to talk about is more elevated and interesting than anything going on in that shared writers' room.

"Besides, everybody should be allowed to talk about their boss behind their back."

The good news is that the ladies are willing to tell all about their fascinating lives and individual journeys to the Late Night staff. Here's a closer look.

AMBER RUFFIN

You know the cliché that when one door closes another one opens? Ruffin didn't want to hear that after she failed to get cast for Saturday Night Live.

"I thought I was going to die," she says. "I was so convinced I was going to get it. But truly, [not getting it] was what I needed, because if I'd gotten it, I'd be insufferable."

Besides, it led to a game-changing opportunity. Meyers, who first saw the Nebraska native perform in 2009 with the Boom Chicago comedy troupe in Amsterdam (he's an alum), called her three days later and asked her to join his original writing staff.

She's now a standout Emmy-and WGA–nominated writer and performer who's also worked on the Comedy Central shows Detroiters and Drunk History.

A Monday morning writers' room aside about her lack of interest in the 2018 Winter Olympics led to her own news-skewering segment, "Amber Says What?" (Sample joke: "Rapper Lil Nas X released a country song called 'Old Town Road,' and l was like, 'What? No one wants to hear a country song.'")

"My brand of humor is happy-horrible," she admits. "I'm happy to convey a horrible idea. Last year I delivered a serious monologue about NFL players kneeling, but instead of taking a knee I sat on my butt, and Seth was like, 'That's not right.' I like giving you sugar with the vegetables."

She also holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to write for a late-night network talk show.

She notes that when she started on the show, there was so little diversity in her industry that, "We all went to dinner in L.A. and I looked around the table, and there were all the black women in late night in America. It was so strange. Since then, there have been a lot more."

Ruffin recently added a new title: host of her own weekly series, The Amber Ruffin Show, for NBC's streaming platform, Peacock. "I'm very excited," she says. "So many times we generate sketches on Late Night that we can't use. But now we have a place for them. I've got a bajillion ideas."

JENNY HAGEL

By her count, Hagel submitted about 35 writing packets to various late-night shows over the course of six years. "I kept getting closer and closer but never got hired," she says. "Finally, I thought, 'You know, this is probably not going to happen for me.'"

It's not that she lacked the credentials: the Virginia native spent five years writing and performing sketch comedy at Second City in Chicago. She got her master's degree in stage and screen writing at Northwestern University.

She and her brother used to fixate on staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live.

She toyed with the idea of going back to school to be a Spanish teacher. Then, in 2016, she received a text from her good friend Ruffin: "She said, 'Hey, I think we might be hiring. Do you want to send me a packet and I'll pass it along?'" Hagel recalls. "I thought, 'Okay, I'll do this last packet.' And I got hired."

Hagel describes the writers' room as "really, really great" because of its diverse mix. Her perspective, she says, is based on how a headline hits her in the gut.

Last year, she quipped about Game of Thrones because she had never watched it. As a gay Puerto Rican woman, she conceived of "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" — in which she and Ruffin sit with Meyers at his desk and riff on provocative headlines.

"In the first few weeks, I wrote five jokes about being gay, and none got chosen because Seth can't burn lesbians," she explains.

"So I saw Amber in the hallway one day and said, 'What do you think about a sketch where we tell jokes on either African-American news items or gay news items that Seth can't?' To our great surprise, it got approved."

Being on camera is fun, she says, but not for the obvious reason. "We're all rooting for each other," she says. "So even if a joke doesn't go well, you're failing right next to a friend who's rooting for you."

KAREN CHEE

Ready to feel like an underachiever? At age 25, Chee has already graduated from Harvard and written for The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post. She was working on the writing staff of the 2019 Golden Globes with Ruffin and Hagel when they recruited her to join Late Night.

"It's such a blast," she gushes. "I feel like it's a blessing to be in an environment where everyone is funny and goofy all the time, and nobody is ever bullying or mean. People are genuinely kind."

Chee, whom coworkers describe as constantly cheery and optimistic, laughs when reminded of her age.

But she's used it to her advantage, as in the segment "What Does Karen Know?" in which Meyers holds up photos of retro images and Chee attempts to name the references. She couldn't place M.C. Hammer, for example. Sigh.

"It's the only thing on the show that's improvised," she says. "So it's exciting but nerve-wracking before I go on the stage because I have nothing prepared."

(And while she may have pop-culture blind spots, she says she recently raved about Gen Z hunk Noah Centineo, from the movie To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and received blank stares in the writers' room.)

Growing up in the Bay Area, Chee loved watching Meyers and Poehler in "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live — to the point that she bought a navy blazer and constantly wore it to school. She even dressed like Poehler for Halloween.

"I thought it was such a cool thing to write political jokes that were topical," she says. "It's very surreal that I'm writing for him now, but I can't tell him that, because it was only a few years ago!"

Unsurprisingly, Chee, who performs stand-up comedy in New York in her spare time, has big plans for her career. "I'm so happy where I am right now, but I'm really curious about writing movies and books," she says. "I'd also like to own a dog."

DINA GUSOVSKY

On the night of the 2016 presidential election, Gusovsky was devastated. Oh, sure, because of the outcome. But she also assumed that her dream of transitioning from on-air CNBC political reporter and investigative documentary producer to Late Night writer was officially scuttled.

"In October, I took a meeting with Seth, and my entire pitch was predicated on how when Hillary Clinton becomes president, they're going to want to keep the political momentum going," she explains. "I said I could find the stories and make them funny."

Meyers hired her anyway, and Gusovsky has delivered on her promise. With her hard-news background, she delves into issues "that might not be sexy but are important."

One of her first pieces was an exploration into a ban on federal employees that disproportionately affected veterans and military servicemen and women. She's also taken on immigration, the opioid crisis, prison reform and, of course, President Trump.

Gusovsky didn't know a word of English when she and her mom immigrated from Russia to Philadelphia in 1991 with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. (Her dad arrived later, via Italy and Vienna.)

"I learned the language through cartoons and Disney movies," she recalls. "But my parents said I picked it up so quickly that I had a Russian tutor."

While she watched sitcoms and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, her folks watched a Russian variety show. They supported her as she pursued journalism and later switched to comedy writing. And on Emmy night 2017, her father realized his own dream.

"My father doesn't bring up Russia ever," she says. "But on that night, he reflected on it, because he fought so hard for us to have a better life here — and for me to have amazing experiences.

"To see me on the red carpet because we were nominated for an Emmy, he knew he did the right thing. He said it was one of the best days of his life."

ALLISON HORD

For two years, Hord watched Late Night at home and knew in her bones she'd fit right in.

"I felt like Seth and I have a similar approach in how we digest the news and make humor out of it," she says on the phone between her thrice-daily monologue meetings. "That's why I applied for the job, and I think that's why they ended up hiring me."

Before then, Hord — a theater kid from Florida who started her career as an audience page for The Late Show with David Letterman — had taken the "traditional path."

She enmeshed herself in the L.A. comedy community and did improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also worked as a producer at Funny or Die, where she oversaw the full- length features iSteve and Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie starring Johnny Depp.

But late-night comedy is a different world. "It's a master class in life, because if you fail at getting a joke on the air, you can get up and try again," she says. "Every day is a new opportunity."

Mocking cultural touchstones is her pride and joy. She was the one who wrote a fake Hallmark commercial for Mother's Day in which women without children bought themselves cards from their dogs and signed them with paw prints.

In the vein of Elf on a Shelf, she devised an ad for holiday atheists called "Skeptic on a Stick" that suggested to children that they're all alone.

"I have a dark sense of humor, but I believe my audience is out there!" she says, adding that she often tests her jokes on Twitter to see what strikes a chord.

Cynicism aside, Hord's status as a Late Night writer isn't lost on her. "It's been almost four years but I still get goosebumps walking into 30 Rock every day," she says. "I always knew that if I got to work on a late-night comedy show, it would be a dream job, and it is."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2020

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