Alexis Wilkinson on Joining Veep Straight Out of College and Writing for Middle-Aged White Guys

Alexis Wilkinson speaks at "Politics & Humor" at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics on December 2, 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Paul Marotta/2014 Paul Marotta

As the first African-American woman elected president of The Harvard Lampoon, Veep staff writer Alexis Wilkinson knows a thing or two about running one of the last male bastions. Not that she had that in mind last spring when the then-college senior sent copies of her humor magazine to its alumni trustees with a note reminding them she’d soon need a job. One of the recipients happened to be David Mandel, who became Veep’s new showrunner, and quickly recognized Wilkinson’s comedic value. A week after commencement, the Wisconsin native was on a plane to L.A. We checked in with the 23-year-old rookie writer to hear about going from Harvard to Hollywood, why writing jokes for middle-aged white characters is no sweat, and how she’s planning a career in which “everything is on the table.”

You started the Veep job so quickly. Were you familiar with the show?
Yes, I was definitely familiar with the show. But when I got the job, I did kind of lock myself in my room before finals period and a bunch of other stuff for maybe a good week and binge watch the season that was airing because I wasn’t caught up.

Did you think it was a good fit?
It was a really great fit particularly because — and this was something I hadn’t even thought about that Dave said was part of the reason he hired me — I’d been the female president of a thing. Obviously, I was not the president of the United States, but the Lampoon isn’t too different. It’s just way more relevant and drug-influenced. Also, I love insults, I love bossing around underlings, and I love telling white guys what to do. And Selina does that all day. I love making insults about people’s physical appearance, so Jonah’s really good for that [laughs]. I think Dave picked up on how I might be good at these things in our interactions before he hired me.

When you were elected president of the Lampoon, you said, “Becoming president of a place with a legacy comes with a sense of responsibility and baggage.” The same could possibly be said for joining Veep. Were those first days in the writers room intimidating?
[Laughs.] Yes, very, very much so, particularly because of my position. The next youngest writer was 38, and I was 22 at the time, so I was very nervous. All of them are so talented and so experienced, and I thought the stink of not knowing what the fuck I was doing would be immediately obvious [laughs]. But everyone was so nice. And Dave established that I was a part of the room and people should listen when I talked, that I was just as much a member of the team as anybody else. I hear from other people that’s not always the case when staff writers come in.

Were you the only woman and woman of color?
No, there were two other women. I was the only person of color.

Did you break any particular stories or focus on specific characters? Catherine’s just graduated Vassar, so she’s closest to you in age. But having been a lady president maybe you have more of an affinity for Selina?
The great thing about the show was that it’s so collaborative; I worked on pretty much everything. I wrote jokes for Furlong, I wrote jokes for and about Jonah. I wrote things for and about Selina. It was all up for grabs, which was really gratifying, especially because there were only ten episodes, so I didn’t get an episode of my own to put my name on. But my jokes and my ideas are in every episode. [As for the youth perspective] I definitely was there when they didn’t understand Snapchat, or when two writers made some reference to an obscure 1960s cartoon, and they asked me if I knew what it meant. I said absolutely not! So Dan and Amy and Catherine are not going to get that reference. I was the millennial consultant.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter showrunner roundtable, Black-ish’s Kenya Barris said white writers write for black characters, but black writers don’t get to write for white ones, and he doesn’t think it’s fair. So does he not know about you? And what’s it like writing for mostly white middle-aged characters?
[Laughs.] I think I’ve been handed a really unique opportunity, and part of the reason is because of the Lampoon, which is a very white-guy place. So I get to do things that other black writers don’t get to do, and I’m very conscious of that. Also, I come from Wisconsin, a very white state. So I know white people very well [laughs]. I’ve dated some of them. Also being a person who went from a working-class background to Harvard, I’ve gotten a really nice spectrum of class. I have cousins who are in jail, and I know some of the richest people in America. So I’m in a really good position to write for a variety of characters.

When I interviewed Sarah Sutherland last year, she said the actors improvised during rehearsal, and the writers incorporated some of their best lines. Is that still the case?
Yeah, I was on set all of the time. It’s funny yet so aggravating when as a writer, an actor comes up with a better line [laughs]. [Most of the writers] were pretty new, so [the actors] know these characters [better] because they’ve been doing them for years. Sometimes it was enlightening to see them work out what they thought their characters would do. Some of the funniest stuff would come out of that. Also, Dave had this whole system where the night before we would shoot some of the scenes, we’d get an email saying, “Here are some lines that Dave and/or Julia want alternates for,” a punch line or whatever. So I would try and write, say, five. And Dave would come to set with this whole list of jokes with no names on them. And he would circle the ten he liked, and Julia would say, “Okay, I like these six." And [the writers] wouldn’t know until we were taping which ones were coming up. [So] I’d be sitting there, and all of a sudden Dave would say, “Hey Dan, tell Jonah he looks like a mechanically stretched toddler.” And I’d go, “That’s my joke.” It was so exciting — it felt like a game show! I loved being on set.

Did any of your favorites make it into the final version of the show?
Yes! One of my favorites is a Furlong joke. He tells a group of people volunteering in Nevada: “I was doing this before your mom threw herself down a flight of stairs, belly first” [laughs]. The great thing about that is that even people who know me, and know my sense of humor, wouldn’t peg me to write that. I think that’s why I’m the most proud of it. Because it’s very mean, it’s very harsh. Most times when I’m mean and harsh it’s in some weird sexual way! Even when it was said on set, everyone was very surprised that it was me. That was very gratifying. I really pride myself on being able to write for anyone. Furlong and I have nothing in common.

When New York interviewed you in 2014 after getting the Lampoon job, it was right after Saturday Night Live hired Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones, after they’d been criticized for a lack of diversity. You said you thought there was more gender and race equality in comedy performance than in comedy writing. Has anything changed?
No [laughs], certainly not. There are definitely certain people, Kenya Barris being one of them, who fill their rooms with diverse people. But for the most part, no. I think Veep, not that it’s particularly that great on the race front, but at least we have women. I’d like to think that things are getting better, but there’s just more black shows now, and they hire black people. Most other people still don’t. Numbers-wise, it’s probably gotten better. There are definitely more black writers and people of color generally in writers rooms than before. But that’s because diverse people are writing their own shows, not because other shows are hiring diverse people.

Did you get invited to John Ridley’s [American Crime] recent networking event for underrepresented writers?
[Laughs] No, I did not, and I’m very sad about that, actually. It might have been because it was a CAA thing, and I’m [represented by] UTA.

What many people didn’t know until you wrote about it was that around the time you got the Lampoon gig, you lost your best friend Angela in a car accident. How did you take charge of a humor magazine after that?
Not well [laughs]. It was the first time I went and talked to someone about anything. I didn’t grow up with the type of family where you talked about your mental health, or went to mental health people. [Her death] spurred me to say, “There is too much going on right now. I’m sad and happy and miserable and tired and overwhelmed and everything.” I needed to externalize it and get it out of my body. ... I’ve been through a lot of death in my life. My dad died [of colon cancer] when I was almost four. I have no grandparents left. I have very few uncles and aunts. So it felt like, if this is my life, if everything’s just going to be taken away from me that I care about, what’s the point? I was that level of depressed. And at Harvard I was so far from my family, so far from anybody that I knew. Angela was really an important part of understanding Harvard. So I was completely adrift. Everything that was close to me and that I [understood was] gone. Talking to someone allowed me to realize that things are going to be sad, and people you love are going to die, and that’s life. But being here is still important. And also knowing that Angela, of all people, was the most supportive person of me at Harvard. When I was feeling really sad, and feeling like I just wanted to drop out, and I can’t be president of the Lampoon right now, I can’t be president of my own life, it was her voice and knowing how much she legitimately cared that was encouraging.

You’ve said suddenly losing your dad taught you to have a Plan B. So do you have a master plan for your career? You’ve already written and directed a Funny or Die short. Is that the direction you want to go?
Yeah, writing and directing, that’s where I see myself. Seeing this thing that I wrote brought to life, and having so much control over it — I’m such a control freak — and now realizing that this level of control is in my grasp [laughs]. Nothing is off the table for me. I had my script, and I said, “I want to direct it.” That was it. As women, as people of color, we hold ourselves back so much by thinking things are off the table. Everything is on the table. You just have to grab it — or push someone else’s seat away to get yours [laughs]. And now I have this feature that I wrote and am going to direct. ...I definitely also see performance as being a part of my career. Probably not the main part, but definitely a portion, because it’s another level of control [laughs]. Eventually, some 20-odd years down the road, [I want to] get my own show and run it. There are certain people whose careers I really look up to like Shonda Rhimes. What she did for drama is what I want to do for comedy. I want to own a night of the week [laughs]!

Have you met her?
No, I’m almost scared to [laughs]. If she doesn’t like me, I’ll jump off a bridge. I’ve been in the same room with her. I could’ve gone over and introduced myself. I did not. I ate my pigs-in-a-blanket, and walked in the other direction [laughs]. 

Will you be writing for Veep next season, and does that mean you’ll break down and buy a car instead of relying on ridesharing, which you’ve been doing for the past year?
No and no [laughs]. I am going to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’m nervous but excited. The opportunity presented itself. I’m a big believer in growing and changing. And I think this will be such a good chance for me to do something different with more responsibilities. It’s 22 episodes not ten, and my name will be on an episode at some point. So the schedule’s different, and the people are, for the most part, also a little younger, so it will be socially different, and also a little more competitive, which I think will be interesting. I love that show: Andy Samberg is a national treasure.

This interview has been edited and condensed.