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Jessica Williams Proves the Virtue of Being ‘Woke’ and ‘Kind of a Mess’

75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony
Jessica Williams attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony held at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2016 in New York City. Photograph by Brent N. Clarke — FilmMagic via Getty Images

The late night comedy world lost an angel this week. Jessica Williams, the youngest ever correspondent for The Daily Show, and its first black woman, is leaving to write and produce her own show.

She leaves the industry, which she correctly characterized as, “There’s white dudes everywhere, like all the time,” just a little bit maler and a little bit paler, at least for now.

It’s also a tough day for her boss, Trevor Noah, who is losing one of his most recognizable faces.

Thursday, June 30, is her last field report. #sadface

Williams was a standout from the start, and not just because she was only 22, black and female when Jon Stewart gave her the gig. It was because she was courageous. And that courage led to a really special brand of funny. In an interview with Glamour, Williams shared some advice that Stewart gave her when she first joined the show. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘you need to figure out yourself and your voice, and just let that happen.’”

When you think about it, it’s really the perfect thing for a leader to say.

Williams created funny and awkward segments that touched on issues that she cared about with an unusual mix of compassion, outrage and fresh-faced swagger.

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One of my favorites is when she comforts an transgender woman who was arrested simply trying to check into a hotel – she was there for a funeral, ugh– then attempts (but fails) to help a panel of transgender people come up with badass retorts for the insults they regularly receive, then confronts a chaplain/anti-trans activist who wants to ban the “perverted” transgender people from bathrooms. “Do you think all priests are pedophiles?” she asks. No? “Well, can you apply that same logic to transgender people?” He couldn’t.




Williams has been a bit vague about her future plans, saying only that she is working on a half-hour scripted series for Comedy Central. Her caginess is understandable, given that the public has been eager to weigh in on her career, much to her occasional annoyance.

When Stewart announced his departure from The Daily Show, and Williams’s name was bandied about on Twitter as a replacement, she immediately waved down the compliment citing her lack of maturity and qualifications.



Then a writer from The Billfold accused her of having imposter’s syndrome, and recommended she ‘lean in’ to the challenge. Williams was having none of it. Her final response is now her pinned tweet:



Here’s what Williams told EW about her new scripted series, as yet unnamed:


“I’ve had this idea for a while about a young woman who is a feminist and who imagines herself to be “woke.” I think that a lot of the time, we have this idea that when you are, like, “woke” — and please always put this in quotations! — that you should always have your shit together. But I know that often for me, as a black woman of color, I feel like I’m supposed to represent these ideals and values that I was taught as a young lady. Like I’m supposed to carry myself in a special type of way, but oftentimes I’m, like… I’m still in my 20s, and still kind of a mess. So it’s a show about somebody in their 20s who has all these social ideas, but still does not have it together. [Pauses] And she’s, like, goofy and silly and funny!”


Which, when you think about it, is a perfect thing for a courageous young woman with real convictions who is just figuring herself out to say.

What “diverse” characters can and should be is fully human. Not just props, role models, stand-ins, stereotypes, cardboard cut-outs, or foils for someone else. And messy is about as fully human as you can get. And if you can be messy for a living, then you’re living the comedy dream.

Let’s just hope it’s funny.


When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.