Right before this interview started, Jessica Williams – who is best known for her work on The Daily Show — wanted to trade seats with me. She claimed it was so she had a better view (which was accurate), but I’m pretty sure the truth was that she wanted a good look at one of her comedy heroes who also happened to be in the same ragtag Sundance Film Festival press area, Lily Tomlin. When Tomlin had a break between the interviews that she had to give, Williams politely excused herself and made a beeline for Tomlin. I watched this encounter and it was remarkably endearing. I got the sense that Tomlin wasn’t familiar with Williams’ work (which I’m sure will change in the near future), but Williams was absolutely glowing.
Williams is at the Sundance Film Festival in support of People, Places, Things, an incredibly sweet film that has been one of the nice surprises of the festival. Williams plays Kat, a student of the recently heartbroken Will (Jemaine Clement), who tries to set Will up with her mother. It’s not the hilariously confident Williams we usually see on The Daily Show, this is a much more nuanced character – and an interesting glimpse of what we’ll see in the future.
Jessica Williams is extremely tall. I am six feet tall and we were at eye level together, even though her brimming confidence makes her seem a bit taller. I only mention this because it’s impossible not to notice and she’s been immediately inducted into my “famous person who is much taller than I thought they would be” hall of fame. What’s even more striking about Williams is that she truly is a student of comedy who claims influences as diverse as Gilda Radner (well, sort of) to Cheri Oteri to, yes, Lily Tomlin. But, as an African American woman in late night comedy, she’s aware of the hurdles – she has interesting thoughts on SNL (a show she adores) and the Internet’s initial reaction to her being cast on The Daily Show.
Did you have to audition for People, Places, Things?
[Director] Jim Strouse met with me. He’s a fan of The Daily Show and he just liked me.
Oh, so you didn’t have to audition.
No. He had me in mind for the character of Kat.
Is that a leap of faith? You’re at an interesting part of your career. You don’t want to sign on for a bad movie.
From when we met the first time, he was like, “The stuff’s on the page, but also I’m very loose. I like my actors to improvise.” So, it just felt like it would be a good time. For me, I found it delightful, so that’s what I found most important.
Are you getting a lot of offers right now?
Yeah, which is really cool.
Every time you do a Daily Show segment, the Internet loves it.
Yeah, that’s cool. I’m really excited for people to see this film because I’m excited for people to see that I can act and do subtleties, which is really cool.
And The Daily Show has a definite and consistent tone, as opposed to this film.
It’s kind of go big or go home; that’s the only way it will work. That’s the way that machine goes. So, every night, go big or go home. Every interview, go big or go home. It’s nice to show up and do a film and sort of take your time with it and explore nuances and be able to quietly improvise.
Jim let you do that?
Yeah! He let me go crazy, which is nice.
A lot of directors don’t want that.
Totally. Sometimes I’ll go and audition and I love to improvise, but they’ll be like, “Can you just do what’s on the page?”
Jon Stewart is mentioned in this movie. You can’t escape him.
Oh, yeah. Everybody loves J-Stew.
It’s your first big movie and he is still a part of it.
It’s OK, I love talking about him. He’s the best boss – the best boss. And I feel good not having to, like, lie.
How did you get that job? You’re the youngest correspondent they’ve ever hired.
I’m kind of not sure how I got it. The Daily Show says they saw my UCB tapes for an old pilot that I did, then they called me. But I was auditioning for another movie, The Campaign, the Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis movie. And the casting director was like, “You’re not quite right for this, but they’re casting for The Daily Show right now, maybe you should submit a tape.”
That’s a very different alternative to a movie. You’d think they’d recommend another movie.
Oh, it’s Allison Jones, the best casting director ever. It was really cool, she just had a gut feeling about it. The thing that I did was I didn’t look at Colbert’s stuff or Samantha Bee’s stuff – I just tried to give my own stamp and my own take on it.
I would assume they don’t want another Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee.
I think Jon hires what he feels is appropriate for the moment. So, that was really neat. And I thought I would have a part-time job, but it was an election year so they made me full-time.
Did you ever audition for SNL?
No. I wanted to. It was my dream, but I got The Daily Show first.
The Daily Show has almost caught up with SNL as a launching pad.
We do have good alumni. And SNL is just such a legendary launching pad. I have a couple of friends on that show and they’re amazing. But a lot of people say that, too, that The Daily Show is a launching pad for talent. So it’s nice to kind of be on a show that is still relevant that people are watching, too, like SNL is.
The last few years, The Daily Show has had a very diverse cast. SNL got some heat a year or so ago for not having any African American women on the show at that time. What were your thoughts on that?
I was just like, “Oh, hell yeah, I know like 50 black female comedians that would be perfect for that.” Then they hired two wonderful people. Yeah, I was like, “OK, cool, well fix it because there are a lot of them that are amazing.”
I can’t keep a straight face when Leslie Jones in on the stage.
She’s a beast. Male or female, black or white or whatever, she’s a beast…Sorry, I’m just looking at Lily Tomlin. Do you think I can say “hi” to her?
Hold on. [Williams races across the room and introduces herself to Lily Tomlin.]
How did that go?
It was great! I was so scared. But she was great, she loves my hair, so that felt good.
Last year, sitting right here I was interviewing Anne Hathaway, but Ted Danson was sitting near us and I felt nervous – and he had nothing to do with the interview.
They’re not real people! I mean, they are human, but if Angelina Jolie walked in right now, I’d be like, “What?” Because she was Tomb Raider when I was a kid. It’s so beyond fame.
Because these are the people you grew up with.
They’re like real.
And now you’re a role model for people.
But I’m not trying to be.
But there are people who thought it was impossible to be on something like The Daily Show who probably don’t feel that way anymore.
I hope so. You know, we’re talking about a lot of diversity stuff – with People, Place, Things too – I’m excited. I’m mostly excited because that means there are stories that haven’t been told yet … the other side of looking at the need for diversity is, “Oh, shit, there’s nothing here. Now’s the time for me to make that thing.”
I have an idea.
You should do a movie with Lily Tomlin.
The Tom? I know. Oh, my gosh.
You call her “The Tom”?
I’m going to pitch her right now. “Me and you, you’re my mom.” No, “I’m your mom.” She’s like, “No. Get out of my face.”
I’d watch that movie.
You would? If I was her mom in a movie?
If you were her mom?
There would need to be some explaining.
Most importantly, the age question.
It’s science fiction.
So it’s like Benjamin Button?
Oh my gosh, yes! It’s like Benjamin Button.
On Mork & Mindy, Jonathan Winters played Robin Williams’ son. It could be like that.
Yes! Love that! Wow, that was a Mork & Mindy reference. My mom loved Mork & Mindy.
It’s the only other example I could think of that would work.
When I was growing up, my mom only talked about Mork & Mindy and Roseanne Roseannadanna.
So you grew up watching a lot of Gilda Radner?
No. I grew up and my mom talked to me about Gilda Radner, like one joke removed. So, I know every Gilda Radner joke, but I haven’t seen them.
Did your mom present them in a funny way?
No. I grew up with, kind of for me, a golden age of SNL. I had Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph.
Gasteyer! We don’t talk about Ana Gasteyer! She’s amazing. She’s a beast.
I agree. People don’t talk about her enough.
And she’s also a great actress.
The Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch era came right after this, and they, rightfully, get a lot of credit for changing SNL for the better for women. But we don’t talk enough about Gasteyer, Oteri and even Molly Shannon.
Molly Shannon was able to lift up her skirt and show grandmother panties and have it not be sexual and not be sexualized and just have it be really funny. She could do what she did with her body and, as far as feminism is concerned, is unbelievable. And she really sort of set that tone.
Do you read the Internet about yourself?
We look at stuff that people write. We look at critiques and critics.
Should you be doing that?
Do they warn you not to do it?
That was the number one thing the correspondents told me, don’t read about yourself. Everyone was like, “You’ll kill yourself.”
But you do.
Does it hurt?
At first, but now I don’t care.
Most everything I’ve read about you is positive. You seem very popular on the Internet.
You know what it is? People get very possessive about their shows. You’re probably a little possessive about SNL because you’ve been watching it for a really long time.
So with me being on The Daily Show, people are critical because it’s been on for a long time. People love Colbert, so everybody is always comparing me to Colbert or Corddry or Riggle or something like that. So it starts off, people can be very mean and critique the show and talk to you about how you can improve, which is crazy because you’re doing a really hard thing – a very vulnerable thing. I am in no way an athlete, but it’s how I feel about people who are fans of sports and how people can look at it and be like, “Fuck Kobe, I can’t believe Kobe didn’t land that shit.” So, at first, that was really hard because I really care and it’s very distressing. I want to make sure that you like it and you think I’m good for the show. But that was driving me crazy, so now the more that I do the show, the more I care less a little bit.
I do think people get used to their favorites.
Then when someone new shows up, it’s hard to get used to it. Like, Taran Killam shows up on SNL and it’s like, “Who is this guy?” Now he’s brilliant.
Right! Yep. And I got a lot of when I first started on the show, “Oh, a black woman is just on the show because Jon needed a black woman.”
People said that?
Yeah, like, “Who’s this fucking black lady doing the show now? Jon only hired her because of this.” I got a lot of that.
That’s a f*cked up thing to write.
Yeah, that’s a whole different realm. And you know, I’m just like, “I’m not going anywhere.” And now they know I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to quit. So they just know I’m not going anywhere.
Do you submit pitches for the show?
You don’t have to, no.
They’ll write for you?
Yes. At this point, they know my voice. I remember when I first started the show, I asked Jon, “What’s my character?” He was very chill, “You’ll figure it out, don’t worry about it.” I was like, “No, but tell me! I need to know!”
You really seem to have enjoyed the experience of doing this film.
And now you have the Mork & Mindy reboot coming up with Lily Tomlin.
Oh, that Tomlin film is going to be hot!
If this happens, I get a cut.
If I don’t, I’ll be mad.
That’s your money. You should be mad.
More likely, it will bomb and you will be like, “This is on you.”
Yeah, nobody is going to see this.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.