Funny while female: Williams fuses identity politics, humor

On Friday, Feb. 20, Jessica Williams came to speak to a packed Chapel. After two opening acts from Indecent Exposure comedians Jocelyn Hassel ’16 and Caitlan Moore ’16, Williams spoke about how identity politics inform her humor. Photo By: Sam Pianello
On Friday, Feb. 20, Jessica Williams came to speak to a packed Chapel. After two opening acts from Indecent Exposure comedians Jocelyn Hassel ’16 and Caitlan Moore ’16, Williams spoke about how identity politics inform her humor. Photo By:  Sam Pianello
On Friday, Feb. 20, Jessica Williams came to speak to a packed Chapel. After two opening acts from Indecent Exposure comedians Jocelyn Hassel ’16 and Caitlan Moore ’16, Williams spoke about how identity politics inform her humor. Photo By: Sam Pianello

It’s been a tough couple weeks for Jessica Williams. After Jon Stewart announced his exit from The Daily Show, all eyes turned to the 25-year-old

She’s withstood a flurry of tweets, a reporter demanding that she “lean in” and pressure to rise up from her position as correspondent to host of The Daily Show. She admitted all of the attention has been wearing on her, but standing at six feet tall in the front of the Chapel last Friday, Feb. 20, there was nothing small about Williams.

“We’re going to get real tonight,” said Williams, after telling the audience about her drive from Brooklyn (accompanied by the “Hercules” soundtrack), her upbringing in a Black Christian community and how she believes Vassar’s Chapel is haunted. “You know how I know a place has ghosts? Its Wifi is spotty.”

Throughout the night, Williams mixed the comedic with the serious, filling the room with laughter as well as thoughtful ruminations on what it means to be a woman, a woman of color and a woman of color in comedy.

“Jessica Williams isn’t afraid to bring her narratives in the spaces that typically silence them, and this is so prevalent in what she brings to The Daily Show. The fact that her work in The Daily Show is meant to unsettle, rather than satisfy, the audience is so important,” said Jocelyn Hassel ’16, a member of Indecent Exposure who opened for Williams.

She added, “There are many painful things that Jessica produces discourse on; pain through comedy is an art form, and it is not an easy task. It is serious, it is difficult, and transforming pain of experience to comedy is also painful in itself.”

Just a few years older than Vassar students, Williams has already made a name for herself in the comedy world, starting her career on The Daily Show at just 22.

“Spoiler alert,” she warned when she recounted her nervous excitement auditioning for the position, “I got the job.” Her final test had been running through her audition skit in front of Stewart himself.

“I just remember my heart beating fast, and then the first thing I hear is someone humming. And I’m like, who the fuck is humming at my audition?” It ended up being Stewart, who, Williams suspects, whistled to make her feel more at ease. He has continued to be a mentor and friend to Williams ever since.

The job came as a slight surprise for Williams, since they put her on as a full-time correspondent right away. Before the audition, Williams had made a point of not looking at what the other correspondents were doing. She wanted to present herself in her truest colors: a young character who knew was aware of all that she didn’t know. Still, at first she struggled finding her voice.

In her early days on The Daily Show, Williams knocked on Stewart’s door and asked him for some advice: “‘What’s my thing? You know, what’s my character, what should I do?’ and he just told me, ‘Relax, it’ll happen.’”

Though Williams didn’t believe him at the time, she is now known known for her pieces on racism and sexism, and showed the audience two clips on the show—one dealing with the stop and frisk policy and another dealing with sexual assault—that she is particularly proud of.

This type of realist comedy, Williams explained, came from her grandmother. Williams said, “[My grandmother’s life] made her have an edge to her. And it made her sort of rough around the edges, which is how I like to imagine I am, and how I think my work on The Daily Show is.”

Much of Williams’s talk revolved around the idea of alienation. Throughout her life, as a Black Christian woman, Williams never felt she could find her place. “There are things that are hard for me to grasp as being a women, as being Christian…as being a black woman, as being a feminist—there are some things that I feel I can’t reconcile,” she said.

This feeling of never quite identifying as someone was something Caitlan Moore ’16, another member of Indecent Exposure who opened for Williams, identified with. She said, “I’ve definitely experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation so hearing her talk about channeling that into art was really positive for me.”

Hassel added that Williams’s talk brought up a few crucial points. “In a comedic realm where there’s an assumption that ‘women aren’t funny’—so much of my energy is placed in combating this stereotype through different intersections of race, gender, and class,” she said. “I stopped caring about what type of audience would find ‘this’ funny or what type of audience would find ‘this’ not funny…I think a part of that stems from refusing to use so much of my energy in satisfying an audience over satisfying myself.”

Hassel mentioned that Williams’ words were not just poignant for those in comedy, but to anyone trying to live their best lives.

“Jessica’s lecture brought up so many crucial points of advice, I really don’t know where to start. I think perhaps one of her greatest pieces of advice that I personally made note of had to do with self-care. The fact that she was willing to admit her frustrations while at the same time acknowledging that there is this need to preserve energy over the discourses you engage in was pretty important,” said Hassel.

Williams ended on a lighter note, fangirling about the Sims 3, but the backbone of her talk resonated most.

Moore finished, “I really admire that she’s using her humor to try and make things better and shed light on issues. It takes a very gifted and socially conscious person to tackle these topics with respect and humor simultaneously.”

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