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Jessica Williams: Raising The Daily Show's Game

Women and Hollywood By Sara Stewart | Women and Hollywood July 1, 2014 at 11:04AM

The long-running comedy show's first black female correspondent brings a new and welcome energy to tackling the stream of bullshit we call the news.
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Jessica Williams on "The Daily Show"
Jessica Williams on "The Daily Show"

I'm hardly the first to ask it, but how is daily late-night TV still this white and this male? Every morning, I'm inundated with links to the latest from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and occasionally Craig Ferguson. (Chelsea Handler? Almost never. A topic for another time.) And while there's a lot of good stuff coming from those guys – well, the first two, anyway – the homogeneity of it all tends to make my eyes glaze over pretty quickly.

Which is why I've been loving the dispatches from Jessica Williams, The Daily Show's first black female correspondent, who’s been on since 2012 but seems to really be finding her footing lately. Exhibit A: this segment on college sexual assault, "The Fault in Our Schools."

So much to love here, but one of my favorite things about it is Williams' vehemently talking over Jordan Klepper's voice of male privilege/cluelessness. It's a move she's brought to other segments, like her "Trouble in Beyadise" report on the Solange/Jay-Z dustup in the hotel elevator.

Williams, a Los Angeles comic who got her start on a 2006 Nickelodeon show called "Just for Kicks," was a regular performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade on the West Coast before getting the call to audition for Stewart – at which, she told Glamour, she wore a suit from T.J. Maxx, a nicely anti-high fashion remark that I love.

She brings a distinctly different voice to TDS than its other female correspondents – Samantha Bee's withering sarcasm and Kristen Schaal's goofy, absurdist schtick (not to belittle either: Schaal's bit on sexy Halloween costumes is one of my absolute favorite TDS bits).

But Williams, at 24 more than a decade younger than either of them, brings a new and (dare I say it) millennial vibe to her reporting. Instead of the world-weariness with which sexism and racism are often covered on this show, Williams conveys a new, angered astonishment – the type that, perhaps, one can only genuinely demonstrate when one is this young - that this shit is still going on.

As she told Mother Jones in an interview earlier this year, "I love being a black woman and being able to say those things. There's truth in comedy, and that resonates with people of all races. You don't have to be African American to really enjoy 'Frisky Business.'  But as far as being black, a lot of people in New York have been stopped and frisked, so that hits home for them. A lot of this stuff just pisses me off and makes me so mad that there's something behind the eyes—the delivery is a bit more biting, and I think people can tell." (Also: you know you're looking at someone with progressive potential when one of the first big stories on her appears in Mother Jones.)

The show itself wisely pointed out Williams' status as the sole black woman in the cast, in Jason Jones' recent tongue-in-cheek profile of her:

Still, I'd like to see her get more air time of her own. I know it's still early days for Williams, and I know she's the youngster in the cast, but she's so often shown in segments alongside other reporters, as with the "Fault in Our Schools" segment, and this recent one about Bowe Bergdahl, and this one about mass shootings, and this one about racism in America.

Putting her alongside another correspondent often serves to underline her token status – she's presenting the alternate viewpoint to the predominant white male narrative. Which, of course, IS the predominant narrative, so in that respect the show is aptly reflecting the news it's satirizing. But there's room here to allow Williams to develop more on her own; she’s obviously quite capable of taking a report and running with it.

I don't think it'll take long for her profile there to rise, though. As she cracked to Jones in his segment on her, "I'm young and this is a show full of old farts." In the larger circle of Comedy Central, she's part of a cadre of younger women taking a formerly very white male network, and the popular culture, by storm. In a recent New Yorker profile of the stars of "Broad City," Nick Paumgarten observed that "the show is sneaky in the way that it simultaneously celebrates and lampoons naïve impertinent millennials, who are at once better than and unready for the adult world they are half-trying to join." Likewise, Williams (with The Daily Show writers, of course) brings a welcome fresh perspective to her coverage of the news. Her correspondent persona is unwilling to downplay her indignance at the unrelenting torrent of B.S. that constitutes a large part of the news, and unafraid of pointing out disparities in power and agency. 

Plus, she's just damn funny. She’s a natural for the show, like others before her who've gone on to greatness (a shout out here to John Oliver, whose HBO show continues to delight and astonish me whenever I catch it). I want to hear Williams' commentary on just about everything – like, let's say, the Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court yesterday. Here's hoping TDS realizes what they've got and gives her more of a spotlight. As Williams herself said, "There is more of a demand, especially on the internet and on Tumblr and Twitter, from women who are like, 'We want to see more of us on TV!'"

This article is related to: Television, Women Comedians, Jessica Williams, The Daily Show