Episode 109: Boundless and Bare

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
egyptian ruins
Photo by: Charlie Phillips (CC BY 2.0)

Amber Ruffin is the pioneering performer and writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” She talks about why her comedy is finding a home in a charged climate. Plus, “Room to Dream” author Kristine McKenna collaborated for a biography/memoir with David Lynch. And, writer Kirk Walker Graves unpacks the significance of Kanye West’s masterpiece “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”.

Featured in this Show

  • Amber Ruffin Is A Late Night Pioneer

    In 2014, after a failed audition for “Saturday Night Live,” Amber Ruffin received a call from former “SNL” alum, Seth Meyers. She thought it was a condolence call about not making the cast. Turns out, it was a job offer.

    “He called so quickly after (the audition) that I thought he was calling to say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get ‘SNL.”’ So I kept saying ‘he didn’t have to call, man,’ but he was trying to offer me a job,” Ruffin told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Meyers was taking over as host of “Late Night” and brought Ruffin on as a writer. When she accepted the position, Ruffin made history. She became the first black writer for a network late night show. This notoriety is something Ruffin is a bit surprised and somewhat saddened by.

    “It never occurred to me that I would ever be a first anything,” Ruffin said. “You forget how recent all of our nation’s atrocities are until there’s the next person who’s the first black anything.”

    Asked if this designation adds any pressure for her to succeed, Ruffin says “absolutely not.”

    “It would if this job wasn’t to act a fool,” she said. “So, there is no real wrong way you could do it.”

    In addition to writing, Ruffin quickly became a popular performer for the show, headlining several viral sketches – including the wildly popular recurring bit, “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.”

    Developed by her co-writer, Jenny Hagel, the sketch flanks Ruffin and Hagel around host Meyers and lets them deliver the punch lines to jokes that ride the edge on issues of gender, race and sexuality. It is a clever and self-aware way to address the concept of a white host riffing on socially-charged topics.

    Ruffin figured the bit would die in the show’s Thursday pitch meeting. When it didn’t, she was convinced that it would be a one-time bit. Ruffin and Hagel have now performed the segment nearly 20 times in her estimate. Ruffin credits the atmosphere Meyers and the producers have created at the show; the boundaries they are willing to push continue to shock her.

    “It’s two-fold. I cannot believe people are down for the amount of silliness that I’m putting on display, and I cannot believe that they will let us talk about such touchy, important, scary issues.”

    Ruffin has a theory as to why this brand of comedy is making headway in the current political climate.

    “None of this should be okay, but because we are all being continually gaslit in this country, you have to have a release,” she said. “Because we are all so amped up over these very scary things, it means that our comedians can go even further and say even crazier things. It’s kind of like what we need.”

    Ruffin isn’t afraid to tone shift either. In a poignant and honest sketch on a recent show, Ruffin addressed the pure exhaustion she runs into as a woman of color in the United States with “Amber’s Late Night Safe Space.”

    “It was a piece where I told Seth how frustrated I was with the world and how I needed a safe space to be in where people wouldn’t ask me about how I felt about dying black children and people touching my hair and where I could just have a second,” she said.

    Meyers has been on record saying that Ruffin could and should make another piece of history and host her own late night talk show. Ruffin jokes that she may be too busy for that. She has just completed a pair of musicals — a rewrite of “The Wiz” for the Muny in St. Louis and “Bigfoot, The Musical” in Las Vegas – and continues to pitch an endless stream of TV show ideas to her parent network, NBC.

    “I pitched them ‘Going Dutch’ – a show about me and my Dutch husband and how crazy he is,” Ruffin said. “The year before that I pitched them a show about a black family who was famous in the eighties, like a sibling singing group and they passed on that. This year I’ll pitch them something that is even less likely for them to make.”

    But don’t be surprised if one of Ruffin’s out-there ideas eventually gets the green light, she has the pioneering spirit and talent to make it happen.

  • David Lynch Follows His Ideas To The Outskirts Of His Imagination

    It’s no surprise that the new biography of the visionary film director David Lynch is not your typical biography. After all, David Lynch is not your typical filmmaker.

    The new book — called “Room to Dream” — written by both Lynch himself, and critic and journalist Kristine McKenna, combines elements of both biography and memoir. McKenna wrote the biographical sections of the book based on more than 100 interviews with Lynch’s ex-wives, his family members, as well as actors, agents, musician and various colleagues who shared their own memories of Lynch’s life and career. Those biographical sections are followed by Lynch’s own personal reflections which riff off of McKenna’s writing.

    McKenna told WPR’s “BETA” that one of the key turning points in Lynch’s life occurred in 1967 when he was studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

    “He was working on a painting of a figure standing in dark green foliage. And he says he heard and felt a little wind and he detected some movement in the painting. And at that point, he thought, ‘Oh, a moving painting’’ And that’s when he started moving toward film,” McKenna said. “And he immediately made a piece called ‘Six Men Getting Sick’ which is a short film projected onto a sculpted screen. So he kind of eased out of fine art making into film gently.”

    In 1970, Lynch accepted a scholarship to the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles. He didn’t like the courses and thought about dropping out but changed his mind after he was given the opportunity to produce his own original screenplay. The result was Lynch’s debut feature film, “Eraserhead.” It was released in 1977.

    “The first time I saw ‘Eraserhead,’ I didn’t know what I was looking at. Most people I think respond that way,” McKenna said. “But it’s very powerful and it’s very seductive because it’s so beautiful. It looks like it’s on velvet or something. It’s a black-and-white film, of course. And first I was pulled in just by the beauty and the humor because there are parts of it that are very funny. But as I became more familiar with the film, I think it’s a deeply spiritual film. David says that too.”

    “Eraserhead” is a surreal film that comes across like the cinematic equivalent of a tone poem, McKenna explains.

    “It’s the story of Henry Spencer who gets a girl named Mary X pregnant. And she gives birth to a deformed infant and abandons Henry with the infant. And the infant then dies. And along the way, Henry has kind of an erotic awakening with a neighbor. And through very complicated means, there’s a very kind of miraculous ending and it ends on a happy note,” she said.

    McKenna says Lynch’s work is all about dualities.

    “He had a very bucolic, nature-filled childhood with camping trips … And his father worked in a forest. And then he came to Philadelphia which in the 60s was really a mess. The city was kind of bankrupt, they’d had race riots there, it was very violent, it was completely the opposite of anything he’d ever experienced,” McKenna said. “So those two worlds collided and we got David Lynch.”

    In much the same way that Franz Kafka’s name has morphed into the adjective “Kafkaesque,” Lynch’s utterly original films have spawned the adjective, “Lynchian.”

    So how does McKenna define “Lynchian”? “On the surface, ‘Lynchian’ is funny because there’s this element of the surreal to things that are ‘Lynchian.’ But the deepest, most important part of ‘Lynchian’ is beauty and embracing things that at a glance might be dismissed as ugly, seeing them as beautiful and presenting them that way.”

  • The Redemption In 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'

    “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

    “I’m really happy for you, I’m gonna let you finish.”

    In 2009, rapper Kanye West was reeling from a string of national broadcast embarrassments, including a clunky attempt at criticizing the 43rd president during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon and humiliating one of pop music’s biggest stars – Taylor Swift – at the MTV Video Music Awards.

    It seemed West couldn’t get out of his own way every time he had the nation’s attention and his public persona was quickly alienating fans of his work despite the fact that his creative output was reaching new heights.

    West went on a sabbatical and traveled the world to allow the public shame to blow over. He signed up for a fashion internship in Rome and there were rumors he would be retiring from music. Instead, West retreated to his recording studios in Hawaii and would begin work on what many critics and fans consider his masterpiece, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

    The premiere music and cultural criticism site, Pitchfork.com, gave the record the incredibly rare perfect score of 10.0. NPR’s music critic Ann Powers at the time wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the album “is Picasso-like, fulfilling the Cubist mandate of rearranging form, texture, color and space to suggest new ways of viewing things.”

    Writer Kirk Walker Graves is author of the 33 and 1/3 series on seminal albums and wrote, “Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Graves joined WPR’s “BETA” to discuss the record and said that at its most self-aware moments, MBDTF is West’s artistic version of both a self-acquittal from and an atonement for his public outbursts.

    “He was truly explaining himself the only way he knew how to explain himself and that was obviously aesthetically. The record is a testament to that,” says Graves.

    “It has this gargantuan human comedy element to it that I think, I certainly have yet to encounter on another record in this century at least and I think that is kind of the reason it has resonated so much,” he added.

    Graves writes about the dichotomy in West’s work. While West’s narcissistic tendencies might drive him to embarrass himself on national TV, they drive a lot of his more ambitious musical endeavors. Even further, despite West’s massive ego, a lot of MBDTF is about exploring self-doubt.

    “That willingness to go to those places and that willingness to really cling to vulnerability like a plank after a shipwreck, I think that people relate to that,” Graves said. “It comes across most, to me, most profoundly in ‘Runaway’ – which is the album’s emotional center piece.”

    At over 9 minutes long, ‘Runaway’ begins as perhaps one of West’s best pop songs.

    “It’s one of the most gorgeous, in my opinion, pop creations that I’ve ever seen. To this day, it can still make the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear those first few notes in ‘Runaway’ – that stark piano,” says Graves.

    However, West eschews radio play opportunities when the song devolves into a disorienting three-minute coda with West providing a barely recognizable commentary while being accompanied by orchestral strings.

    “That song really is about self-doubt, self-disavowal and really it’s this naked, almost embarrassingly, uncomfortably honest plea for freedom you don’t hear on many hip-hop tracks or really in popular music,” says Graves.

    MBDTF begins with the song, “Dark Fantasy.” The track opens with rapper Nicki Minaj performing a “perverse interpolation of Roald Dahl’s poem, ‘Cinderella,’” Graves says. That recitation welcomes you to the record and the song sets the table for what’s to follow.

    “This track is an opening statement,” says Graves. “That opening sample is asking ‘can we get much higher’ and there’s this sense of aspiration that really defines the song and sets the tone for the rest of the record. There’s this sense of you’re about to enter a really intense ride and hold on as tight as you can.”

    Graves likens the hit single off the album, “POWER,” to the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, “Ozymandias.” He argues that it is West grappling – much like the fallen ruler – with the fragility of power or celebrity.

    “There’s a self-awareness in ‘POWER’ that I think Kanye sees the fragility of his own status. I think that’s bound up so intimately with this record, it’s almost impossible to understand the record without understanding his own awareness of not only his own ego fragility but also his status – whether he’s beloved or a pariah – I think he knows none of those things are constants and power is not permanent.”

    Wisconsin native Justin Vernon shows up on the album’s penultimate song, “Lost in the World.” (West would leave the closing track to spoken-word performer Gil Scott-Heron.) Vernon visited Hawaii to record a sample of his experimental self-chorus, “Woods” for West. West would transform that musical sentiment into the closing anthem of MBDTF.

    “There’s this sense of Kanye making this final claim. Again, if this album is an aesthetic self-acquittal of sorts for his own personality, if it’s an apology record in that sense, it’s also making a claim,” Graves says. “That track really is all about fusing these binaries within Kanye’s personality.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Amber Ruffin Guest
  • Kristine McKenna Guest
  • Kirk Walker Graves Guest

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