Jessica Williams, The Daily Show's reigning queen of satire, opens up about her mom, her therapist, and how she deals with haters.
Jessica Williams is not a morning person. This is one of the first things she tells me when we meet on a Wednesday morning, which happens to be Free Egg Sandwich Day at The Daily Show office in New York. Williams arrives with one egg sandwich in her hand and another in her jacket pocket, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of the female reproductive system. She looks a bit like a low-key feminist superhero gearing up for a long day of ass kicking.
Which is, of course, kind of the truth. As a correspondent on Comedy Central’s long-running news satire series The Daily Show, Williams takes on nefarious forces (racism and sexism are frequent targets of hers) with the not-so-secret power of wit. Since coming on as the show’s youngest-ever correspondent in 2012, Williams, now 26, has honed her comedic chops in hugely popular segments that have earned her praise from her fellow feminists and ire from, as Williams tells me with liberal air quotes and eye rolls, “Men’s Rights LOL Activists LOL.” And indeed, just past 10 a.m., in our very casual initial conversation about the beauty of N.Y.C. bodega egg sandwiches, feminism is somehow mentioned, and Jessica “Not a Morning Person” Williams’ eyes light up. “Woo!” she exclaims at the mere mention of the word, swallowing the last bite of her breakfast and diving right into a discourse on the importance of feminism in her life that spans Christianity, intersectionality, Beyoncé, and bell hooks.
She begins with hooks: “I’m reading Feminism is for Everybody,” she says, “and her definition of feminism is what it means to me: ‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’ I found working on The Daily Show that as soon as you say something about feminism, some people—not all men, but certainly a lot of conservative men—clench at the idea of there being an equal existence between people. It’s infuriating to me.”
And that fury, it seems, only causes further clenching in the pants of the patriarchy. “If those men were women, and especially women of color, who lived in a society that every single day, whether subtly or overtly, reminded them that the world is not made for them, then they would be upset, too,” Williams says. “There’s this idea of the ‘Angry Black Woman,’ and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I often feel like I’m put in that category. A lot of women of color are put in that category, when I think our anger is justified. I actually think that female anger isn’t that different from male anger. Boxing and football are, like, national fucking pastimes. And yet, when a woman expresses that she is unhappy with the way in which our society exists, that’s a big fucking problem. That’s crazy to me.”
"Feminism is something that is so important right now and dear to our hearts. It's also something very marketable, for like, 'the modern young lady.'"
One high-profile celeb who seems to have evaded the “Angry Black Woman” classification while still embracing feminism is the aforementioned Beyoncé, a public figure Williams debates about often with friends. “I feel like Beyoncé is one of those people where it really splits down the middle whether [you think] she’s feminist or not,” says Williams. “Is it wrong for her to have a song like ‘Flawless’ and still do the VMAs with the word ‘Feminist’ flashing behind her? I don’t know if that’s necessarily wrong or negative; however, I do have girlfriends who say that she’s not a feminist and she is marketing it. Feminism is something that is so important right now and dear to our hearts. It’s also something very marketable, for like, ‘the modern young lady.’ So it’s controversial. But even if I don’t agree with a young girl who sees Beyoncé as a feminist, who wants to step on a young girl processing feminism—as opposed to allowing her to go through her journey? You know what I mean?”
Beyoncé’s style of feminism aside, Williams’ pointed TV commentaries, and the anger she brings to them, are part of why she’s so beloved. She says she admires women who acknowledge their anger, but don’t carry it around all the time. “But at 26 years old,” she admits, “I’m not there yet. I’m so not.” She pauses. “I have this idea of myself when I’m older, having had a career and having done acting and activism and affecting the world in some sort of way, and I’m a bit more of a settled feminist—I’m less angry, less angsty. And I’m able to be sort of Zen and just smoke weed on a beach in Southern California with no bra on.” The idea of a chilled-out elder Williams, no-doubt radiant as she reclines in the sand after a long life spent alternately (or simultaneously) making people laugh and fighting for their rights, is certainly delightful. But what’s most striking about Williams now is how passionate she is. It’s a trait that, from what I can tell based on what Williams tells me next, she gets from her mother, whom Williams calls an “awesome, beautiful force” and whose catchphrase (“when she’s a little bit too excited”) is “‘You came from my coochie!’” “She really kicked ass,” Williams says. “When she was a single mom, she worked, went to school, got a degree—so naturally she had a lot of feminist qualities. And then she and my stepdad got married and they found religion together. So that really affected my upbringing, because I grew up very Christian, going to church every Sunday.”
"I'm still a Christian; I'm just a Christian who believes in equality. I won't compromise on that."
Williams, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, says she even participated in her church’s purity ceremony when she was 14, where she promised not to have sex before marriage. “At that age, what I took away from it was that my body is not my own, that sexuality is bad; that if I leaned into my sexuality or took ownership of my body, that was wrong,” she says. “Then, when I was in high school, Sleater-Kinney was doing what we thought was their last tour, and so I really got into them, and Bikini Kill, and Le Tigre, and all those riot grrrl bands. That’s how I got some of my angst out. But when I went to college, I still carried a lot of that with me. I’m still a Christian; I’m just a Christian who believes in equality. I won’t compromise on that. But I started to realize that my body is my body, and I wanted to know more about sex, and I wanted to be free to explore these things as a woman. I do believe that a woman has the right to choose. I realized, Oh, there is a word for this. Oh, it’s feminism. Oh, OK.”
“But aside from the sort of non-feminist sentiment I grew up with, being Christian,” Williams continues, “I also have a black woman sentiment. I got this from my mom. I wasn’t do-ing my homework in middle school, and my mom went to my parent-teacher conference and was really upset. She wasn’t the kind of upset where she’s like, yelling at you in the car. She was the kind of upset where she was just, like, driving quietly. And I knew, Oh shit, I’ma get it. When we walked into the house, it was just me and her, and she was like, ‘You wanna talk to me about these grades?’ And I was like, ‘Uhh…no,’ because I knew what was coming. She said, ‘OK, well, you wanna explain these Cs to me? Why wasn’t you doing your home-work?’ I had no real reason. I was probably just playing The Sims and watching Lizzie McGuire. I looked up at my mom and I was like, ‘Well, Mom, uh, when you really think about it, Cs aren’t really that bad. Cs are average.’ And I’ve never seen my mom so upset, to this day. I just saw this flash of fire in her eyes, and she yelled, ‘AVERAGE? You are never allowed to be average, because you look like me. And because you look like me, you always have to work 10 times harder than everybody else. There are people out there who are men, who are white, who don’t look like you, who will get more than you have for doing perfectly average work. So you will never, ever be average.’ And I was like, Oh shit, but I said, ‘So am I, like, grounded or what?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, you know you grounded!’ That was a really hard lesson to learn. I didn’t really know what she meant, but as I got older, and as I examined feminism more and took things in from a black woman’s perspective, which is the only way I could take things in, then I sort of knew what she meant. She didn’t grow up with the advantages I had, and she sacrificed for me, and she knew that I had all these opportunities in my future, and that the world is a tough place, especially for a woman, and especially for a woman of color, so I wasn’t allowed to slack. I think that a lot of women of color have that sort of experience.”
I wonder out loud if people tend to project a lot onto Williams, because she seems to represent so much to so many people. Williams nods. “Sometimes, yeah,” she says. “And it’s flattering, but it also gives me anxiety.” I admit that I struggle with anxiety, too, and that I’ve noticed that the subject of anxiety has come up in several of the interviews I’ve read with her.
“Oh yeah,” she replies. “I have anxiety and OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]. I go to therapy twice a week.” Therapy, she says, “is the coolest, most fun thing ever…to have somebody who is fucking awesome and older and wiser objectively listen to you and give you advice is the best.” Williams credits her therapist, Heather (“She’s the best!”), with helping her through the difficult transition of moving from L.A. to New York in the middle of winter to start on The Daily Show. Williams was still enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, studying film and English, when she auditioned for Jon Stewart in 2011. At that point, she had some experience performing: as a teen, she’d co-starred in the short-lived 2006 Nickelodeon series Just For Kicks; did musicals in high school; and later took improv classes at the L.A. Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Williams impressed Stewart and landed the gig, and soon found herself experiencing the pressure of suddenly becoming a public figure. “I got a lot of anxiety, and it came quickly,” Williams says. “After my first two nights on the show, my Twitter just blew up, and all my @ mentions said things like, ‘Nigger.’ ‘Coon.’ ‘Token.’ ‘Uncle Tom.’ I just really got blasted with that, and it was devastating to me for my first couple months on the show.”
Williams says that a lot of her anxiety comes from the idea of “having to represent other people, because ultimately, there’s nobody that can represent a particular individual’s experience, except for that person.” She also says that after that initial spewing of hateful comments, “I never get that sort of thing anymore. And if I do, I’m like, LOL. You’re stupid and I don’t care. And I’m kind of happy that you’re angry.” Now, when it comes to haters, “it’s less of a racial sentiment and more of an anti-feminist sentiment, and, well, good,” she says. “If a man’s upset because I said something about catcalling last night, and that’s something that he wants to defend, then I’m glad that he’s upset. I’m so happy he’s upset. Good. I’ve done my job today. I just don’t care anymore.”
“Separating myself from my thoughts helps,” Williams adds. “And this is gonna sound very, like, college G.E. requirement right now, but my therapist says sometimes I can think of my ideas and my thoughts as trains, and if something happens, I don’t have to catch every train, because that would be really exhausting. That’s what triggers my anxiety—if I’m worried about what bit I’m going to do on the show tonight while being worried about what my parents are doing and if they’re safe while being worried about the state of terrorism in the world—if those thoughts are all trains going by, I don’t have to jump on each one. I can see it, and I can acknowledge it, and I can just let it pass, which is a really nice way to think about it, because it puts me a little bit more in control. Especially with the OCD, because that’s a control thing.”
"If a man's upset because I said something about catcalling last night, and that's something he wants to defend, then I'm glad that he's upset. Good. I've done my job today."
With her schedule being as downright bonkers as it these days, Williams does what she can to take care of herself. She loves to “Netflix and chill,” doing her makeup (“I love a good highlight”), and working out. “I try to exercise, but it’s really hard when I’m traveling a lot,” she says. “I just started kick-boxing, and it’s so much fun. You put on gloves, and you get to kick and punch. It feels really good to do that action. Not at a human, but at a bag. My boyfriend and I took a kickboxing class together a couple days ago, and he was saying that I got really into it. Like, I always look like I’m gonna die, ‘cause I just don’t have the stamina for kickboxing. So I’m just sweaty and sort of flopping my arms everywhere but still punching and yelling, ‘WOO! YEAH!’” She claps. “He was telling me about it this morning. And I was like, I’m so proud of myself.”
But despite her self-proclaimed lack of stamina at the gym, Williams shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to her career. In addition to The Daily Show, she co-hosts a live-show-turned-podcast called 2 Dope Queens with her “work wife” and fellow comedian Phoebe Robinson. (“We like to talk about sex and politics and How To Get Away With Murder,” she says.) And she’s also producing and starring in a film that was written and directed by James C. Strouse (who also directed Williams opposite Jemaine Clement in the 2015 indie flick People Places Things).
We chat more about movies for a bit before we part ways so Williams can head to a session with Heather. But before she leaves, she drops one more pearl of wisdom from therapy that would probably be helpful to a lot of feminists out there who occasionally get exhausted from fighting the good fight. “Sometimes my therapist is like, ‘You don’t have to fight that right now,’” Williams says. “And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?!’ Because I’m always ready to fight—I have all this anxiety in my body, and so many things make me so mad. I’m like, ‘If I could just tell that UPS guy that he’s not allowed to condescend to me like that just because I’m a—’ and she’s like, ‘You can relax, breathe. You don’t have to fight that today. You can do that next week. You can do that another time. Sometimes it’s OK to just get in bed and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’” Williams grins, as if the idea of watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer in bed really appeals to her. “Yasss, therapy!” she exclaims. And then she’s gone.
By Bridgette Miller
Photos: Jill Greenberg
Stylist: Brandy Joy Smith @ Artmix Creative
Hair: Nai'vasha Johnson @ Exclusive Artists
Makeup: Janice Kinjo @ Exclusive Artists
Nails: Miss Pop Nails
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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