In only a couple of years, Jessica Williams has become a vital member of one the most influential comedy shows on television. She joined The Daily Show in 2012 at the age of 22, making her the show’s youngest correspondent ever. Since then, she’s become an integral part of the Daily Show team, often reporting as the show’s “Senior Youth Correspondent.” I got the chance to talk to her about leaving college to join the show and the scariest part of her job.
You were so young when you started at The Daily Show. Did you have any background in political comedy or satire?
I didn’t have a lot of background in political comedy or satire. I did my improv team and musical theater in high school and I did Comedy Sportz and Upright Citizens Brigade in college. That was my background, not specifically satire. Before I left college to come work on the show, we had just been learning about what satire was. They had been showing clips from The Daily Show in class.
Yeah, it was really to have to go up to my professor and be like, “Hey, so I need to reschedule midterms because I’m going to go audition for The Daily Show, which you were showing in class earlier.”
Was it a big adjustment to start paying that much attention to politics and the news?
Yeah, absolutely. Because typically, I’m really, really good at downloading information garbage. Things that are really irrelevant, like what did Selena Gomez do today? I’m very good at remembering what that is, but it’s a little bit harder for me to download political information. My brain takes a little while to catch up. So that definitely took a little bit more time, as opposed to what what Rihanna tweeted. I find that very easy to remember. [Laughs.]
This was your first post-college job. I feel like most people take jobs out of college that they hated and have some time to grow and figure out what they want to do. And you just jumped into one of the most high-profile jobs on television. How did you adjust to that?
It was weird. I had a couple of minimum wage jobs. I worked at the mall for a while, and I was a security guard for a little, so jumping from that, where I’m always hustling to put in hours, to now I have a lot that I need to do and that I need to figure out… I also associate getting this job with adulthood. I moved out of my parents’ house because I was living with my parents pretty happily and kind of just jumped and moved across the country to work. I got my own place, and I kind of make my own hours and all those things. It’s been really strange becoming an adult. [Laughs.]
There must be so much pressure. The Daily Show is a show that people pay so much attention to. You can’t fly under the radar at that job.
Right. There are only a few correspondents on the show right now, and the roster of correspondents and what they’ve gone on to do after the show is pretty amazing. So that could put a bit of pressure. Also I’m younger, and I’m an African American woman, so people tend to always ask me what sort of pressure I feel. I felt a lot of pressure the first six months, of having to prove something because of who I am and what I look like. But keeping that in mind doesn’t make me perform better. It just gives me anxiety and makes me question all of my choices. It would turn me into a crazy person who can’t really rely on her own instincts. So the longer that I’m at the show and the more that I perform, the more that I kind of don’t pay attention to that because it will drive me insane.
And the great thing about the show is that it has been on for a while and Jon is so great and the thing he tells me is like, “You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Just be yourself and do what you think is funny.” That’s the number one thing he says to me. And I try to take that and get more comfortable with that idea. Because, yeah, there was a lot of pressure.
And you get to do so many different things on the show. Do you have a type of piece that you particularly like to do, or a topic you like to focus on?
I love when it’s something that I feel passionate about. Even though we’re being satirical, it can still come through that it’s something that I feel very strongly about, and that this particular opinion is something that I really, really don’t agree with. I love to do pieces that kind of address that. Like, I did a piece on stop-and-frisk over the summer, and that was something that I felt really passionate about, so I was able to have a lot more fun with it when I performed it.
And I’m sure every correspondent gets this question a lot, but it’s so amazing to watch the show and think about all the people you meet, and the [often oblivious] way you have to act when you’re sitting across from them. Is it terrifying? Is it fun?
For me, that’s the scariest part of the job. The most difficult part of the job is to sit down with someone and watch them say things that are either crazy or that you do agree with, and you have to have this persona where you know, we’re being satirical. It’s being satirical in front of a person, basically. And you don’t know how people are going to react. You don’t know if people are going to be upset, and it’s crazy because usually people are not upset afterwards.
That is crazy, because people come off terribly on the show so often.
There’s people that call and are like, “Hey that was great. My family loved it. If you need anything else, please don’t hesitate to call me.” People just like that they’re getting Googled. Those people are still getting people coming to their web page or something like that.
I guess that’s good for them. And you mentioned earlier that you did improv in college and at UCB. Do you still do any of that kind of stuff in New York?
I don’t, actually. I’m mostly focusing on the show and trying to write my own stuff. I want do a one-woman show, so that’s kind of the main thing that I’m focusing on.
What will it be about?
It’ll definitely be about coming of age as an adult as a 24-year-old African American woman, and what that means from my perspective. Especially one that’s coming into the work force from being… are we millennials? Is that what we’re called? And being a millennial, I guess. What we’re all going through, but from my perspective. But other than that, I’ve mostly being doing The Daily Show.
Well, that seems like it’s plenty of work in itself.
It is. I think I get sleepier faster than other people. I just think that I’m always sleepy.
I know that feeling.
So I’m trying to work through that. I have to figure out how to not be so sleepy all the time.
The Daily Show airs on Comedy Central at 11 PM ET, and full episodes are available online. Jessica Williams can be found on Twitter at @msjwilly.
Elise Czajkowski is a comedy journalist in New York who can occasionally be found tweeting at @EliseCz.