How Jessica Williams Transformed ‘The Daily Show’

07.22.16 1 year ago 5 Comments
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Comedy Central

Earlier this month, The Daily Show said goodbye to one of its most talented and influential correspondents.

When The Daily Show hired Jessica Williams to the show’s team four years ago, it was seen as a bold move. She was young – still taking classes at California State University in Long Beach, where, ironically enough, her professors were teaching students about the use of satire through Daily Show segment clips. She was also relatively inexperienced. Aside from a stint on a Nickelodeon series in 2006 and some time on stage at famous L.A. venues like Comedy Sportz and the Upright Citizens Brigade, no one really knew who Williams was, or what she brought to the table.

That would all soon change. Williams was welcomed to the show during the peak Jon Stewart era, well into the period when it had become both a source for news for many and an influential voice shaping the political discussion. Yet, despite its success, the show’s writing team, and even its correspondents, didn’t reflect its audience — at least, not 40% of its audience. Writer Irin Carmon wrote a piece for Jezebel back in 2010 — two years before Williams joined the show — detailing the series’ problem with hiring female staffers and correspondents. The article inspired a fair amount of pushback, yet the fact remained that, apart from Samantha Bee, the show hadn’t hired a regular female correspondent in seven years and had just recently shed the appearance of a boys-only mandate in the writing room.

Williams, who would become the first African-American woman to ever hold a correspondent’s role on the show, shook up Stewart’s comedic fraternity. Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver — they were all funny. More than funny, they were f*cking hilarious and incredibly talented as their later, individual successes in the business would prove. You don’t get chosen to take over for David Letterman or nominated for Emmys if you suck at what you do. But Williams brought something more than just acerbic wit and the ability to mock incompetent politicians. As a young woman of color, she brought an experience and point of view that was completely different from anyone else on the show.

One of her first and most popular segments, “Frisky Business,” set the stage for what would become her defining voice. In commenting on the NYPD’s controversial stop and frisk program which discriminately affected black residents in certain NYC neighborhoods, Williams gave a master class in comedy when she pointed the finger at the real criminals who deserved the added attention: the suits on Wall Street. She was funny, creative, but, most importantly, passionate.

Stewart’s tendency toward pessimism is part of what made him such a great Daily Show host. It also ensured he rarely got flustered and even when he did, he was able to poke fun at himself for taking the media or the politicians he roasted too seriously. He’d been around the block a time or two. He knew that no matter how many times you blasted slimy congressmen or crooked CEOs, there’d always be another asshole ready to take up the mantle and generate another 24-hour news cycle.

Williams was like the wide-eyed freshman setting foot on campus for the first time. She was invested in the issues she chose to cover, issues that ranged from racism and feminism to women’s rights and white privilege. Whether she was schooling army lieutenants about regulations on hairstyles for black female soldiers, fighting the campus rape epidemic with frank PSAs, commenting on police brutality against black teenagers at pool parties in Texas, battling modern-day sexism by walking down a street in New York City, or getting a town to change its racist emblem, Williams wasn’t afraid of controversy — she was invested in change and used comedy as the vehicle to propel it forward. It’s hard to imagine past correspondents like Oliver, Colbert, or even Bee handling the debate over Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show quite like Williams, or being able to pull off covering anti-trans North Carolina bathroom bills with the same incisive, critical punch.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of late-night that specializes in hilarious viral clips of celebrities holding puppies or playing giant beer pong in front of live audiences, but The Daily Show has never been that. Stewart brought serious political intent to late night, a tradition that’s been carried on by Trevor Noah and, on their own shows, Bee and Oliver. They’ve proven comedy can make a difference; at the very least, it can pull back a veil.

It’s difficult to recall a time before Williams when The Daily Show covered issues of race, sexism, and feminism as often and effectively as it does now. Look back at any “best of” collection of the comedian’s segments and you’ll see just how relevant and timely her work is. Her comedy hits because it’s what her generation, which just so happens to be the core demographic of The Daily Show, cares about. It’s what she cares about and because of that, those five-minute clips full of satire and sarcasm that have become the show’s bread-and-butter don’t just go viral when Williams is in them, they demand change.

The woman who was once rumored to be a contender for Stewart’s old job is now getting a show of her own on Comedy Central — a half-hour series that follows “a politically-minded young woman who may be ‘woke’, but doesn’t know what she’s doing.” In other words, it’s completely up her alley and might be an even better platform for the comedian to share her unique voice. It speaks volumes that the network chose to house the show instead of letting Williams take her talent elsewhere — perhaps they’ve learned from their mistakes with Oliver and Bee. Her exit was a huge loss for The Daily Show and its correspondents team which, though now more diverse than ever, is down one of its strongest members during an incredibly important election season.

During her time on The Daily Show, Williams was given the freedom to talk about things that mattered, issues the show wouldn’t necessarily have given air-time to before and with which other shows didn’t bother. She was funny, she was mad-as-hell and she’s already missed, even if it’s nice to know she won’t be gone for long — and that her legacy on the show will live long past her tenure, on The Daily Show and elsewhere.

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