Jessica Williams Is Not Ours — and She Shouldn’t Have to Be

By
Share:

The past three years have seen an astonishing amount of turnover in late-night television. David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and now Jon Stewart have opted out; Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver have switched jobs. These changes have been, rightfully, used as an occasion to talk about the overwhelming white maleness of the late night landscape, in no small part because, Larry Wilmore and Chelsea Handler excepted, the main beneficiaries of one wave of white dudes resigning has been yet another wave of white dudes. It’s no wonder, then, that The Daily Show‘s legion of (largely progressive) fans seized on what seemed like a genuine shot at representation.

“Honestly, Comedy Central, just give the job to Jessica Williams,” wrote Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff the day after the network announced Stewart’s departure. Many, to put it mildly, agreed; a Mic piece with a near-identical thesis has 34,000 notes on Tumblr and counting. A throwaway joke in, of all things, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 started to seem scarily on-point. Then Williams took to Twitter to clarify that she’s not going to be in Stewart’s chair anytime soon, describing herself as “extremely under-qualified,” “super not right for it,” and jokingly citing her age.

At that point, extreme enthusiasm morphed into extreme disappointment. (“I’m not, like, dead,” she reminded her followers.) Then The Billfold’s Ester Bloom wrote a post calling Williams “the latest high-profile victim of impostor syndrome”:

How modest! How self-effacing! You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch. Jessica Williams, respectfully, I reject your humility. What on earth does “under-qualified” mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?

Williams evidently thought there was something Bloom was missing, taking to Twitter once again to respond. “This, quite honestly, hurt my feelings,” she wrote. “Is it possible that I know &love myself enough to admit what Im not ready for?”

Bloom has posted an addendum to her piece, apologizing for insensitivity and clarifying that “the choice [to not host] belongs entirely to Williams.” That hasn’t stopped her from getting caught up in Twitter’s collective ire the very week the New York Times ran a massive story about social media takedowns. I have no desire to add to that pile-on, but I do think Bloom’s post, and the collective disappointment it exemplifies, says something about the burdens we place on public figures who shoulder the weight of others’ aspirations as well as their own careers. (TIME‘s subsequent post about Williams’ Twitter statements, meanwhile, which originally accused the comedian of “firing back at her fans” without mentioning the Billfold piece and was corrected after Williams spoke out again, says something about the way that certain segments of the media have prioritized being the first to report on controversy over understanding and contextualizing it.)

Williams is a brilliant comic who’s given The Daily Show some of its most memorable pieces of the last few years. Those pieces, not at all coincidentally, tend to speak to the experiences of women and people of color. There’s this segment on college sexual assault; there’s this takedown of the military’s policy on black women’s hair. Williams’ commentary speaks to an audience that is not used to seeing its problems even articulated in the media, let alone turned into razor-sharp satire.

She also genuinely might not be the right choice to follow Stewart. I’ll admit the furor over Williams as possible host has made me slightly uncomfortable from the start, and not just because of what someone practically my age landing The Daily Show would do to my self-esteem. For one, Williams is right; she’s very young! Which isn’t to say she absolutely couldn’t run a writers’ room if she had to, but it’s also perfectly OK for a 25-year-old to believe she’s not ready.

More importantly, though, the gun-jumping cries for Williams to get the job were always about more than Williams. A black woman in a major late-night gig would mean a tremendous amount to a tremendous number of people. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that — or, at least, there isn’t as long as we separate our collective desire for representation from the career of a specific entertainer.

The excitement surrounding Williams’ potential hire was a direct and obvious result of the fact that she’s one of very, very few black women who currently enjoy mainstream success in comedy. (Only Saturday Night Live‘s Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones also get regular late-night screen time.) And hard as it is to admit, the spotlight that gets placed on marginalized people who break through against the odds often becomes an unfair equation of their success, or lack thereof, with that of other marginalized people. Freedom from that equation is yet another dimension of white male privilege; I haven’t seen anyone asking what James Corden’s ascension to the Late Late Show means for white British guys.

No one should be angry, or even more than mildly disappointed, that Williams won’t be the next Daily Show host. We should absolutely be angry, however, that there’s such a need for representation that Williams found herself in the middle of a hype hurricane. It’s not on her to be the Daily Show‘s next host if she doesn’t want to be. It is on Comedy Central to not pick another white dude. Let’s reserve our scrutiny for them.