As one of the youngest correspondents on The Daily Show With John Stewart, Jessica Williams has entertained millions with her wit, critical eye, and insightful social commentary. Whether she’s tackling topics like racism and sexism, or challenging a far left-wing supporter on their ideologies face-to-face, she does so with hilarity and authority. But while her career is extraordinary (in addition to the Daily Show, she also starred in Nickelodeon’s Just for Kicks and guest-starred in several episodes of Girls), her fears about moving out of her parents’ home to go to a new city and struggles with dealing with criticism are completely relatable. Here Jessica tells Cosmopolitan.com how she went from being a sassy child to an indispensable member of the Daily Show team:
The first time I remember making somebody laugh was in the first or second grade. I had a favorite day care instructor and I used to be her favorite kid, which I loved. Then she started to have babies and I got jealous. She had one and I thought, “OK, this is kind of fucked up. What about me?” When she got pregnant again, I heard her say, “I need to stop having all these kids,” to a coworker and out of nowhere I said, “Well, maybe if you just kept your legs closed that wouldn’t happen!” I don’t even remember thinking about it and I don’t think I fully comprehended what I said, but I remember being like, I’m funny. I wasn’t her favorite anymore, obviously, because that’s a messed up thing to say, but it was my first sense of what “witty” was.
I grew up in Los Angeles and like many kids, I wanted to be a Disney star. I remember I saw this advertisement with a kid on it that said, “Make your kid a child star.” I grabbed it and showed my mom. She was fine with me pursing showbiz as long as I still focused on school. Both her and my dad were super supportive. Unfortunately, that ad turned out to be a big scam. It’s just people who tell parents their kids can be big stars, then offer you a bunch of classes and charge you an absurd amount of money for headshots — I wish I knew what their name was, because if they are still in business I would tell them to go fuck themselves! You don’t need to go to school for that — you’ve either got it or you don’t!
This did get the ball rolling though, and I got an agent and started going to auditions. My big break was booking a Nickelodeon show called Just for Kicks with executive producer Whoopi Goldberg. I was in my high school English class and my parents walked in with my principal and they were like, “Jessica booked her first job and she’s going to be on a show.” I should have been absolutely mortified, but it was very sweet at the time and I was so excited. It was my first big job. I did it for one season between the ages of 15 and 16. That was my first taste of acting on TV and that’s when I realized that this was within my reach.
Landing that job changed me because it allowed me to see what I was capable of doing. You know when you have dreams of what your life is going to be? Well, I could see those dreams more clearly. But when the show got canceled, I thought, I’m never going to be funny again, I’m never going to dance again, I’m never going to act again. I was in a funk for a while, until I tried out for my high school improv team. When I started doing improv, I was like, Oh wow, I am funny and I can still do funny stuff. I continued improv at California State University too.
I joined Upright Citizen’s Brigade [an improvisational and sketch comedy group] in LA while I was in college, and everything just cracked open for me because it’s such a breeding ground of creativity. It was great because I got to see other people be super funny and see other women be super funny, which was nice and refreshing. It was inspiring because everyone was working on their own projects. It kept me on my toes too; I can be pretty competitive, and being in this pool of talented people I had to try to keep up and stand out. I was auditioning for everything I could. Then I got an audition for a Will Farrell movie with this awesome casting director Allison Jones. She came up to me after I auditioned and said, “You know, this may not be right, but they’re casting the Daily Show. Maybe you should submit a tape.” I was like, Sure, why not? I was still in college and had a lot going on, but I went in and I read for the part. A few days later, I got a call saying that John [Stewart] saw my tape and [they] wanted me to come out and audition for him in the New York studio. It was crazy. I screamed! But it was right before my midterm exams so I had to tell my professors that I needed to push them back. They were all like, “Of course!”
Before my audition, I didn’t look up any of the other correspondents. I wanted to be as much myself as I could. I’m not going to do Samantha Bee’s stuff, even though she’s amazing. I’m not going to try to be like Colbert; he’s a legend. I just made sure to go through all the material and know everything that I was talking about and make it the most “Jessica” as I possibly could. When I went in the studio to audition for John, he was super friendly. I could hear him whistling down the hallway, which made him seem very human. Then he shook my hand and said, “Look, I already saw your tape. You don’t have to impress me; just be present with me and have a good time.” I was like, “Hell yeah!” That was such an amazing thing because I’d been on so many shitty interviews for things like jobs at the mall where the guys interviewing me were such condescending assholes because they knew they had something that I wanted. With John, it was not that at all. I could just relax and be myself. As soon as we were done with that audition, I knew it was mine. It was like when dating goes really well, like when things are cool and there’s no beating around the bush or any games. He didn’t not call me for a while; he let me know up front that yes, this is happening. It was awesome.
But I had to tell the producers that I couldn’t start until January because I had to go and do my finals! Those were the hardest finals that I’ve ever done because I was just so ready for my next chapter. Finals and tests felt like bullshit when I was about to go move to New York and be on the Daily Show. I did not do well; I got solid C’s.
So I moved to New York. It was my first time moving out of my parents’ house. I packed up all my stuff and got a Craigslist roommate and moved into a really small bedroom. You know in the Tom Hanks movie Big, when it’s his first night in New York and he’s super scared because of all the sounds and sirens? That’s what it was like for me too. I adjusted, but I was lonely for a while. I would go to work and come straight home. It was really hard to pick up everything and move to New York and let go of that previous life. I love LA, I grew up there, and a lot of my friends still live there. LA is this beautiful, lazy place; you can coast there for a really long time. In New York, it’s a lot more of a hustle. Everyone’s got a thing that they’re doing. And there’s always a new hot spot to try. I found it all very overwhelming.
I had to learn to be kind to myself and not be harsh [to] myself about being lonely or being nervous about the job or nervous about making friends. I made myself go out of my comfort zone: I’d go to a bar with new people even if I didn’t feel like it and I went to a lot of places alone, which I still love to do. I had to learn not be afraid to sit at the bar alone and eat. And like every other New Yorker, I also started going to therapy, which I love. I think everyone is like, “Oh, your teen years are so angsty,” but I’m so angsty now that I’m 25! I’ve been angsty for the last three years and I think I’m going to be angsty until I’m 30. Now I love New York and I think it’s great how it’s toughened me up.
One thing that really drives me is not having a backup plan. I never had a Plan B, it was always comedy or acting — there was really no other option for me. It just had to happen. It may not be the most responsible technique, but I think it’s working for me. I still don’t have it all figured out, but I don’t want to be doing anything else.
When I first started out at the Daily Show, I was obsessed with figuring out who my “on-camera persona” was going to be. What’s my bit? I remember I would go and ask John, “What’s my character? How should I act?” And John would always be like, “Chill, don’t worry about it, you’ll get it, don’t stress out about it, you’re young, you’ll get it.” That didn’t help. I just wanted the answer! Now I’m starting my fourth year and I’ve done so many things, but I’m still kind of figuring it out. I have a better sense of the topics I like and I know what inspires me. I’ll discuss anything but I have things that I enjoy doing more than others, so I gravitate to those bits. I’m particularly interested in women’s issues and things that affect the African-American community. I like to expose hypocrisies. The racial profiling on Wall Street bit I did was the first time I thought, Oh yeah, this is right, this feels good. I like to push people out of their comfort zone and make them think — and laugh!
One role I’m not comfortable with is being a role model. I just can’t think of myself like that because it gives me too much anxiety. That’s something I’ll have to go and talk about with my therapist on Wednesday. When I think about being a role model, it gets in my head and takes the fun out of it. I end up just worrying about how I should be or what I should represent and that I have to be politically correct. It just doesn’t feel natural or organic or authentic to me. It’s especially difficult in the comedy world. We have to push the envelope; we have to take it too far to figure out how to walk back; that’s part of the process. Seeing how far I can push a topic is challenging and rewarding. Sometimes it might offend — and that’s not the goal; political correctness is a good thing — but at least it’ll make people talk.
It’s a really creative and collaborative environment at the Daily Show. For my segments, either the writers will come to me with ideas or if something tickles my fancy, I’ll pitch it. It’s all about who’s the best fit and who’s available, and then that’s the correspondent on the piece. I can find out tomorrow that I’m going to Alabama and then I’m on a plane to Alabama — for better or worse. That type of unstructured schedule isn’t for everyone, but I love it. I’ve seen a lot of America since I’ve been on the show — a lot of Middle America in particular. It’s super interesting: the landscape, the towns, the people; it’s so interesting. That sounds super generic: “I love America,” but I really do. I love being able to travel around the United States and meet people and see places I normally wouldn’t have had the chance to.
There is a downside to being in the public eye. One of the biggest challenges for me was dealing with how critical people can be. It really bothered me at first because I really like being liked. I felt I needed to be accountable to every single person who watched my work. Now I know that not everyone is going to be happy with what I do, no matter what, so I might as well do what I want to do.
In addition to the show, I’m really passionate about creating my own projects and getting back into scripted stuff. Lena Dunham is a good friend — I did some episodes of Girls with her last season — and we’re working on a project together now that I’m really excited about, but I can’t discuss yet! It’ll be really good. I also have a film premiering at Sundance that I acted in called People, Places, and Things, directed by Jim Strouse. My goal for this year is to just continue to be authentic and put as much “Jessica” into my work as I can. I want to be myself and become comfortable with that — and I want to get a Pilates body.