You wouldn’t expect “The Daily Show” to find a positive note in a year of racial tensions and allegations of police brutality. But leave it to Jessica Williams, one of the show’s rising stars, to deliver a little counterprogramming.
“Now is a really, really, really good time to be a person of color,” the late-night show correspondent told an audience at American University on Thursday night.
“The stories right now are f---ing old,” the comic told the crowd, adding that she was speaking to the LGBT community as well. “If you’re a comedian, a writer, an artist, if you want to get into politics — they need you. You have something to offer. You are valid.”
She ought to know.
Williams’s has been a bright comet of a career, one that is blazing hot this year. In February, when Jon Stewart announced that he would be leaving “The Daily Show,” fans began clamoring for Williams — who joined the cast in 2012, while still an undergraduate at California State University at Long Beach, as both its youngest correspondent and the first African American woman — to succeed him in the anchor chair. But when she begged off, arguing that she was “under-qualified,” a blogger set off a firestorm by casting Williams as a victim unaware of her own worth and in need of a lesson on “leaning in.”
To which Williams responded on Twitter: “I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours.”
As she offered her message to the sea of baby-faced undergrads (as many men as women) who had crammed onto the bleachers of the university gym to hear her discuss race and feminism, Williams still seemed to be learning one lesson herself — that some want her to claim voice-of-a-generation status, as fraught as that may be.
Time to own it.
In a nearly two-hour monologue, the comedian and actress did that skillfully, delivering buckets of warm and fuzzy emotional honesty spiked with comedic snarking that revealed how her brushes with racism and extreme religious views have affected her, what she thinks of “The Daily Show’s” incoming host — and mostly, how little the world really knows about her. (Her Wikipedia entry? It’s currently about 10 lines long.)
Lucky for this crowd, Williams wasted no time filling in the blanks on her celebrity origin story, which had the effect of leaving her listeners occasionally gobsmacked.
“I just lost my virginity last year,” the 26-year-old told the audience, which murmured momentarily — How real was this real talk getting? — before deciding to take her at face value and erupting into good-natured hoots and hollers.
“Thank you,” Williams deadpanned, “for applauding my va-jay-jay.”
Clad in a peach baby-doll frock, black knee socks, Keds and a worn jean jacket, the 6-foot Williams cut a starkly different figure from the J. Crew-clad news correspondent she plays on TV. She looked like the millennial Brooklynite she actually is.
She was the product of an intensely religious household, she told the crowd; her mother and stepfather are conservative Christian ministers back home in Los Angeles. On the cusp of adolescence, egged on by her mother, Williams took part in a “purity ceremony” and pledged to save herself for marriage. The ceremony, she said, left her with the impression that her body was not her own, a feeling, she later half-joked, that it would take a therapist — “my girl Heather” — to fully untangle.
Although Stewart has bidden the beloved fake-news program goodbye, Williams will be right there when “The Daily Show” returns to Comedy Central on Sept. 28 with South African-born comic Trevor Noah as the first new host in more than 15 years.
Noah, Williams told the crowd, is “awesome. He was really good during rehearsals.”
“It’s still ‘The Daily Show,’ ” she promised.
In the interim, it would seem that Williams has been everyone’s sounding board on Stewart’s departure. “I would go to Starbucks,” she told the audience, “and they’d be pouring my latte, like, ‘Damn, dude, does he have to go?’ ”
Williams also “had such a weird time with Jon’s last show,” she confessed, “because I felt like I sort of grew up on ‘The Daily Show.’ I grew up upper-middle class, black, and I wasn’t necessarily exposed to things that were racism and pure hate.”
Williams, who also stars in the new movie “People Places Things,” is just a few years older than the youthful faces in the audience. But her three years on the show have provoked and politicized her. She has been called the n-word and “token,” she said. To work on “The Daily Show” is to be in a constant deep dive into mass shootings and police brutality, rarely with a satisfying resolution.
“A lot of times, I feel like I’m walking around, just mad,” with “pure rage at things unsolved,” she said.
But it has helped her develop a voice that will probably only get bolder. The past year has been full of milestone moments for Williams, including her viral “Feminized Atmosphere” segment, an animated film that’s still rather hush-hush, and a movie, she told the audience, that is being written by “People Places Things” screenwriter James Strouse with her in the lead role.
“It’s crazy,” she said with not a small amount of incredulity, “how many people identify with the stuff that I do.”
Which is proof that while it may be a good time to be a person of color, it’s an excellent time to be Jessica Williams.