The Incredible Jessica Williams
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Reprinted interview from Issue 04 of Got a Girl Crush Magazine, Fall 2015
When The Daily Show first hired Jessica Williams, most people talked about how young she was (22 and still in college) or how she was the first black woman to be a correspondent in the show’s history. Now, three years later as Jon Stewart prepares to hand the keys over to Trevor Noah, she is one of the show’s most senior correspondents, anchoring sketches that combine feminism, social justice, and Beyoncé worship to consistently hilarious effect. Got a Girl Crush met Williams in Brooklyn to talk about the next phase of The Daily Show, the sketches that mean the most to her, and why old ladies are dope.
Caroline Framke: This has been a big year for you: you starred in People, Places, And Things, which premiered at Sundance, and you’ve been on The Daily Show now for three years. So what are you looking forward to?
Jesscia Williams: I’m really looking forward to Jon’s final months on the show. I mean, it’s bittersweet. I’m not looking forward to it, like, “I’m looking forward to him being gone.” No. Not at all. I’m looking forward to enjoying him, his legacy and his style while we have it still, ‘cause now it seems super precious. Then maybe getting a little bit of a break, because then I think we’re gonna take some time off a little bit to reset the show…I’m really excited to figure out The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and what that’s going to be.
Caroline: Samantha Bee recently left, and I know you guys are tight.
Jessica: Yeah, she’s my number one homie.
Caroline: Did she leave you with anything? How was that, when she left?
Jessica: We liked to joke that we just wanted to have brunch and get some eggs. We both just really like eggs…but she always had really great advice in general. Why she is a woman that I will always look up to is because she is a woman with a beautiful family, beautiful kids, but is still hilarious and a comedy queen to me. So she left me with this idea that it is possible to sort of have it all, and be just this badass female comedian, and also be thoughtful and thought-provoking and still be a wonderful mom and a wife, you know? So she left me with that sort of idea, that I can aspire to that.
Caroline: You’ve done a lot of feminist-bent sketches. I’ve seen a lot of my friends who are our age sharing these, and there’s a sense of, “finally, a sketch about this.” Like when you first did the “Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere” with the street harassment…it was startling, because we hadn’t really seen that before. Which of those segments were the most fun for you?
Jessica: We’re still just a comedy show, but…the most fulfilling are things like the “Feminized Atmosphere” piece. I did a stop and frisk piece a really long time ago that I liked. I liked a black hair [in the military] piece. I did an on-campus sexual assault piece. Those things feel really, really good to do. Not only because they’re funny, but also because they really matter to me. I’m learning as I become older and a bit more seasoned, a little more experienced on the show, [that] it feels really good to follow my gut, because a lot of times with my gut I’m not the only person experiencing it. So especially with the “Feminized Atmosphere” piece, I just talked about something that the women on the show and I found infuriating, and no one was really talking about. It meant a lot to me that so many women responded to that. That’s the reason why I do it! I mean, it’s nice if guys like it, but I care a little less about that. I just…I like when people feel a little less alone. Especially black people, minorities, women…that matters to me. And then at the same time I still just get to be funny and fart around and do dumb jokes, so that’s good.
Caroline: [Were] you and the women in the office talking about [street harassment], and the men were peripherally aware of it but not to the same extent?
Jessica: They’re all really nice guys. I mean, that’s the thing. A lot of the men that we choose to have in our lives, they’re super nice! They just don’t know. If I’m walking around with my boyfriend, I don’t get any sort of catcalling or any sort of looks. But if I’m alone…then yeah, a man on the street’s going to talk to you. So there’s no way for, really, a nice guy to know what’s going on. That was sort of the case with the show, even with Jon and all the male writers. They were like, “Whoa, we didn’t know…” And we just don’t say anything. But it’s insane. It’s bananas that you walk to work and somebody’s jeering at you verbally, and you have to settle into work, and then you just get to your computer and have the rest of your day. But it’s not something that you walk in and say to a man. Like, “Hey, this guy on the street said he wanted to touch my titties.” It’s not office decorum, or something cool to discuss with a man.
Caroline: There’s some sort of level of embarrassment when you don’t talk about it…the more you call it out, the more people can be held accountable for that kind of stuff.
Jessica: When I am getting catcalled or somebody’s talking on me on the street, I don’t like the feeling of not being in control of what is coming at me. I think a lot of it, especially since we started having this conversation as women and on the internet, people are saying it’s a control thing from a male’s perspective. It’s one of the ways to assert dominance just immediately to a woman. There’s no way for me, or for a woman, to physically not have that happen. So I don’t personally, as a woman, like the feeling of not controlling that part of my environment. And I think a lot of women feel that way, too. It’s like somebody handing something to you, and they’re like, “Deal with it. You have to process this.”
Caroline: So by the time you came in, The Daily Show was really established.
Jessica: Absolutely. It was a well-oiled machine.
Caroline: As a comedian who’s developing your voice…how do you establish your[self] in that?
Jessica: I think that was the number one thing I was most stressed out about. Early on I would go into Jon’s office and be like, “What’s my thing? What’s my character? Sam is the wisecracking woman, and Oliver is the super smart smug British guy, and Jason is Jason…just this super chill, laid-back, super smart dude. So, what’s my thing?” And Jon was like, “You’ll get it. Don’t worry about it.” And I was like, “Okay, we’ll see. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But his main advice for me was to follow your gut, and follow what you feel is interesting, or what makes you upset, or happy, or moves you emotionally. He’s like, “That’s where the good stuff is. That’s where the best bits are grown, and like, art and all that shit. Songs and stuff.” So I just sort of did that, and I learned to sort of follow my gut, and use the emotion that I felt about things that made me happy, or angry, or laugh. Use that, and be like, “There’s probably some good meat here. There’s probably something funny here.”
Caroline: If you’re feeling strongly about it, chances are someone else does.
Jessica: Yup. So, that’s sort of Jon’s philosophy, and that’s become my philosophy.
Caroline: Something’s worked, because you’re very popular on the show. I definitely see your clips shared. Maybe it’s also because I’m in your demographic.
Jessica: Yeah, thank you!
Caroline: I feel like now…the people we admire in pop culture have never been more accessible to us. We [can] tweet at someone, we can tell them a good thing or we can tell them a really shitty thing.
Jessica: It’s like catcalling on the street.
Caroline: Basically. And they can project what they want on you. I know that you’ve talked before about the pressures of that. How do you manage to deal with that without just going out of your mind?
Jessica: I think a lot of that stuff came from a really good place. Like, that’s super flattering. I’m honored that people like me enough to do what they imagine in their head is the best idea for me. But I think that there is this sense of agency that we fight for as feminists, and as women, and as girls, and transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual. There is this sense of needing to feel like you are in control, that you get to choose what you want to do. Good intentions aside, in that particular instance, it was still a woman, someone telling me what to do.
Caroline: When [Ester Bloom of The Billfold] said you just needed to “lean in” and host The Daily Show.
Jessica: Yeah. And it was them shaming me for not doing that, in a public forum. I’m not gonna go through that again and explain myself again, I think that I have explained myself as much as I need to for, all things considered, the people that don’t know me personally. But I think it’s just sort of learning, and a part of growing up, is learning that I do have agency. People are going to catcall. People are going to always tell me what I should do, because they like my work and that’s just the way people are…but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it. I’m still a whole person. I’m still allowed to make choices. Just because somebody says something to me doesn’t mean that I have to do what they say. I think that’s a part of me growing up, and sort of not letting people control my reactions so much.
Caroline: And being confident in what you’re doing, and just saying, “I know what I’m doing, and you can think what you want.”
Jessica: Absolutely. Because I did feel bad. I totally felt bad for like, two hours after I read that: “…maybe what I thought wasn’t what I really wanted.” And that’s not the kind of woman I want to be. That’s not the way I want to live my life, especially now that I do something on a public forum. But that was a lesson. It was more of just me respecting my own womanhood, I guess.
Caroline: It takes some time, and some real self-work to actually get to a place where you’re like, “No: I know what I’m doing, and I know myself, and I feel good about where I’m going.”
Jessica: Yeah, totally.
Caroline: It’s all that matters, really. Like when you went in to Jon: “What’s my thing?”
Jessica: Right. But it was really cool that he let me figure it out.
Caroline: He didn’t say, “We hired you for these reasons, we thought you could do this kind of thing.”
Jessica: I think that’s a sign of a great teacher, a good boss, and a good man. That’s one of the reasons why it’s also bittersweet that he’s leaving. I’m happy for him, but I’m also like, “Dude, bro, I love you.”
Caroline: But he’s also passed on so much to you.
Jessica: He’s left a whole legacy…a lot of people when I walk down the street, their gut reaction is, “I love you.” Or it’s, “I love you guys.” Whether they mean it or not, it’s not people expressing like, “I really enjoy you.” People are always like, “I go to bed watching you every night.” In making the show he’s left this legacy of people that love him and love the show and get to love the correspondents, because we are expressing something that they felt deeply. And that’s awesome. I don’t know if other actors get that a lot, but just…“I love you.” Instinctual. And it’s like, “Oh, sick. Thank you so much!” I’m really bad at commitments. I’ll say “thank you” to this love.
Caroline: You’ve probably been asked, “Who were your role models growing up?” a thousand times, so in the spirit of Got a Girl Crush, I thought I’d ask you more about who of your peers or your friends inspire you.
Jessica: My mom inspires me…she taught [me] everything. I feel like moms are amazing, for good or for bad, they can do really amazing things. Sam Bee inspires me. Strong women inspire me, just in general. Frank Ocean, I find very inspiring… I just think he is this super talented, beautiful sweetie boy. He doesn’t put himself out there because he wants to cover the market. He just specifically does what he wants to do, because he feels moved, and that’s something in an artist that I really like.
Jon really inspires me, just everyday. He works so damn hard, and he’s so smart, and that’s a level that I aspire to be at as a comedian. Tina Fey inspires me; I think she’s like, a go to for everyone. The Broad City girls inspire me a lot. I just think they’re kickass. My girlfriends, who are living really normal lives but who still I have found support me a lot, no matter what, I really love. I think a lot of times with politics and comedy it’s easy for some of your friends to fall by the wayside in general, but my girlfriends that I have still stayed tight with, [who] actively try to be my friend even when I’m busy—they inspire me. It takes a lot of work to be my friend! Just because I’m so busy, I’m awful! I can’t do anything! For the most part I just travel and I work and I put my head down. It’s amazing, the payoff’s great—
Caroline: And the friends who can appreciate that…
Jessica: Yeah, that means a lot. Because it’s not every friend.
And you know what? Just old ladies. I’ve been really into old ladies lately, just because they’re so smart. Like, they’re so much smarter than us. We think that we always know what we’re talking about, and you know how every five years you’re like, “That thing I was doing five years ago was dumb”? Old ladies have just done that a million times. They have to watch us all traipse around in our sports bras and our hot bods. They have to deal with that. But then a lot of them are just chill as hell. They’ve had their kids, or they’ve chosen not to. They don’t have periods anymore, which is dope. They’ve been with their husband for a really long time—or they’re dead, [and they’re] like, “Whatever, it is what it is.” And I’m like, “Damn. You’re my hero.”