WHEN NICKELODEON canceled Just for Kicks, a 2006 dramedy about a girls’ high school soccer team, Jessica Williams, one of its stars, decided she was through with acting and went back to being a student in real life. It didn’t last. Before long she was juggling classes at Cal State Long Beach with auditions and sketch-comedy performances. Then, in January 2012, Williams was tapped to play a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the first black woman ever in that role. (Saturday Night Live made news this past week by hiring a black female troupe member for the first time in years.)
Thrown into the fray during a crazy election season, the then 23-year-old Angeleno quickly found her footing with bits that play off her youth and race—in “Frisky Business” (see clip below), she argues that if New York City’s stop-and-frisking cops really want to catch criminals, they should head over to Wall Street and profile white guys in suits. The Daily Show has been a reliable launchpad—Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Olivia Munn, and Ed Helms are among its famous alumni—and Williams, too, has ambitions. You can catch her, for instance, on the upcoming third season of Lena Dunham‘s hit HBO comedy, Girls, which premieres on Sunday, January 12.
Mother Jones: How’d you come to Jon Stewart’s attention?
Jessica Williams: Allison Jones, a big casting director out there, was like, “They’re casting The Daily Show right now—you should submit a tape.” I remember leaving school to go shoot an audition. I thought I did terribly. I remember driving back to school, being like, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” But then I got a call a couple days later: “Hey, Jon Stewart saw your tape. He wants to fly you out to New York to audition.” So my mom took me to go get a suit from TJ Maxx, and I showed up for my audition with green hair. I was really nervous and I ran my lines a million and one times. They were finally like, “Okay, Jon’s ready to come down now.” The first thing I heard was him singing. That was really cool, because it made me feel very welcome and warm and safe—that this person who is legendary in my eyes is a normal human being. I kind of knew walking away that I did really well. They called me two days later and were like, “Hey, they want you to move to New York.” I was like, “I have to finish my finals!”
MJ: Did you?
JW: Barely, girl. I got by by the skin of my teeth because I just didn’t give a shit. It was stressful to work on this, like, astronomy lab when I know I’m going to be living in New York by myself for the first time and on The Daily Show in a week. So I got a lot of Cs.
MJ: Was it bumpy the first couple of months on set?
JW: My first day they gave me a grand tour and I sat in on meetings. I was so overwhelmed, and a part of me really missed home. The next day, Jon’s like, “Okay, so are you ready to be on tonight?” And I was like, “Huh?” I can’t even watch my really early stuff now because it’s like, “Oh my God! No, Jessica, no!” I had to learn to trust my internal voice and my instinct.
MJ: You have a bunch of interests: writing, improv, acting. Which of those things appeals to you the most?
JW: Just writing, whether it be a book, or even my own show. I want to write and direct and kind of do my own thing.
MJ: What can you tell us about your role in Girls?
JW: I’ve known Lena for a while, and we had been talking about it. This third season it really worked out, because I lived here. I remember waking up in my apartment in Williamsburg and just walking across the street to go to the set for Girls. It was the best. I play a character named Karen who is a girl at Hannah’s [Dunham’s character] new job. I do a few episodes and they’re really fun. But no spoilers!
MJ: What do you make of the flak Dunham has gotten for not having enough women of color on the show?
JW: Her show has always been put through a magnifying glass, and I always take it with a grain of salt, because it’s her art and it’s her voice. It’s not her responsibility to write from my experience.
MJ: The Daily Show has received the same sort of flak. Do you feel like having more diversity has affected the show’s dynamic?
JW: As far as diversity’s concerned, there’s me, there’s Al Madrigal, there’s Aasif Mandvi. But I’m not walking around feeling black all the time. That would stress me out. It would make me crack. Some days I do feel that pressure of, “What do I mean as a black woman? What am I representing?” It honestly just gives me anxiety. Ultimately, when I deliver something, a lot of times it will be from a black woman’s perspective, but other times it will be just from a satirical, goofy perspective. I’m a young correspondent, so sometimes I’m just young. Sometimes I’m just straightforward. We have one of the most diverse casts out there, but we’re not putting ourselves in a box.
MJ: Sure, but your segments on race, racism, and privilege are some of your most popular. Why do you suppose that is?
JW: Because we don’t necessarily get to talk about that. Honestly, I love that that’s something where my race does come into play. 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.
MJ: What’s been your favorite segment?
JW: I loved doing “Frisky Business.” I didn’t come up with it. I think John Oliver and the writers did. Before that, Sam [Samantha Bee] and I had done this piece where she spoke with a black panel and I spoke with a white panel [about how hard it is to talk about race], and almost every black person had been stopped and frisked, which was crazy to us. Nobody in my white panel had been stopped and frisked.
JW: Oh my gosh, no! That would be so scary! I don’t think I’d be able to go through that pressure.
MJ: How do you feel about the opportunities for women in comedy?
JW: Really good, to be honest. Some of the best comedies now are led by women who are very involved: Parks and Recreation. Veep‘s incredible. I love Girls. 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!”
MJ: So who are some of the women who have influenced you the most?
JW: Tina Fey. I love Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon—kind of from that age of SNL. Amy Poehler. Maya Rudolph. Right now on The Daily Show it’s Samantha Bee, whom I look up to. Beyoncé: Every day I think about her. I play her on the way to work; she’s also on my workout playlist. My mom, my sister, my grandma. And Michelle Obama, of course, just from being a strong woman. And from her arms! She’s my arm inspo.