Jessica Williams Delivers Laughs and Insights

jessica-williamsIf one thing is clear after her Friday night show in Dinkelspiel auditorium, it is that Jessica William gets it. She gets how silly those “fucking dumb little hoverboards” that people ride around campus are. She gets how hard it is to look cool smoking weed. But as she captivated an audience for two hours on Friday night, Jessica Williams showed that she not only gets pop culture references and just how hipster Portland is: she also understands the struggle of growing up and realizing the world is an unfair place, and the anger and frustration and sadness of being treated as a second class citizen, and the conflict between what you’ve been raised to believe and what you feel is right. The audience laughed, but it also listened and reflected as Williams combined hilarious anecdotes and rants with insight and introspection.

Without a doubt, Williams speaks that language of college students. “This is dope as hell!” she exclaimed as she walked on stage. While part of the charm of her former boss, Jon Stewart, was being slightly out of touch with technology and pop culture, Williams–who was hired to be a correspondent on the Daily Show while still in college and is currently the youngest correspondent–is just the opposite. She’s completely on top of it, and fit in perfectly with a college crowd. Throughout the show she was upbeat, engaging, and relatable, making fun of that one friend who is always trying to “turn up” and “dropping fuckboy wisdom.” (Her tip to fuckboys? Don’t be weird.) She killed the audience with a story about buying a bunch of incognito flasks on Amazon Prime in preparation for a Billy Joel concert.

However, interspersed with jokes about “boobie flasks” were genuine reflections on sitting next to racist Long Island housewives who seemed like they had “never talked to a black person before,” and on the tension between feminist values and real life opportunities–like being offered front row seats just for being an attractive woman. She joked about internally debating feminist theory as she rode in an Uber with her friends to a strip club in Portland. She struck a nerve not only with the pop culture that college students consume or the ways they act–she also tapped into the internal conflicts that they face as they transition into adulthood.

Apart from her jokes and impressive ad-libbing, the real strength of Williams’ performance was her openness about struggles she has faced–and continues to face–growing up as a black woman. The audience held its breath as she reenacted her mother telling her–after she had gotten C’s in school–that she would always have to work twice as hard just to be seen as equal to an average white man. She joked about using her white boyfriend as a “resource” when dealing with the cops, but in the same breath recounted being ignored and then harassed by a cab driver, and how devastating it was to realize how subtly and casually racism can happen. She talked about being raised with Christian values that she felt conflicted with her morals. She got angry about the unfairness of society and implored the audience to get angry about it, too.

Her criticism of society was poignant and specific. “Our society is based on the idea that you need to be Christian, white, and straight,” she said. “So if you’re not, what do you do?” She pointed to underrepresentation of minorities in both television and comedy, and to standards of beauty that glorify white skin and blonde hair. “You grow up being told you are not as beautiful as a white person, you are not as smart as a white person, you are not are not as capable as a white person,” she said. “How are we not screaming right now?”

If you’re lucky, when you go to a comedy show, it will be entertaining. While Williams’ show was definitely that, entertainment was not its only purpose. For people who have suffered discrimination and marginalization, Williams was there to say that they were not alone. For people who haven’t, she was there to make sure they knew just how hard it can be, and to ask them to listen, and not belittle other people’s pain. It was also to celebrate the women that have influenced her–from her grandmother, whose “Ursula-shaped” body she found to be the most beautiful in the world, to comedy greats like Maya Rudolph and Molly Shannon–and it was to celebrate the opportunity to reflect on these intense and complicated feelings.

Towards the end of the show, Williams discussed about getting cast on the Daily Show (which involved much screaming outside of a Panda Express) and the elation and terror that came with it. Not only did she deal with mass racism for the first time (thanks to Twitter trolls, who now, she joked, just fuel her ovaries and make her stronger), but she also struggled to figure out how to express herself in a funny, genuine, and meaningful way. She showed this clip of herself on the Daily Show–the first time she felt that she really nailed it. What worked? Harnessing her feelings and using them as a tool of self-expression, instead of putting them to the side.

While the audience clearly enjoyed her jokes, what I think was memorable about the show wasn’t her stories about over-elaborate Easter celebrations or her advice to douchey college boys (although let’s hope they remember some of it). What gave me chills and brought the audience to their feet was her passion and her anger and her sadness. It was her vulnerability and strength. And, at the very end, it was her message: that women, people of color, and LGBT people are valid, that our feelings are valid, and that with our anger and sadness, we can create “amazing shit.”

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