Jessica Williams Charts Her Course: ‘I Know What I’d Be Incredible At’


“For me, so far, confidence has been a journey, not a destination,” Ms. Williams said. “It’s cool to see a woman be like, ‘This is what I want — this is what I don’t want.’ It’s good to see someone making choices for themselves.”

Over breakfast at a Clinton Hill cafe near her home, Ms. Williams, 27, sometimes spoke like a human Twitter feed, punctuating intentionally corny jokes with an audible LOL. She confessed to waving back at another restaurant patron who thought Ms. Williams was waving at her, though the gesture was intended for someone else. (“I didn’t want to invalidate the interaction,” she said meekly.)

This was hardly how she came across on “The Daily Show,” where from 2012 to 2016 she played a no-nonsense correspondent who fearlessly addressed issues of racism, sexism and Beyoncé criticism.

Ms. Williams, who landed the position at 22, said it was “the biggest job I’ve had in my adult life.” It just wasn’t quite the trajectory she imagined for herself.

While growing up in Torrance, Calif., where her father runs a security company and her mother recently retired from the state Department of Transportation, Ms. Williams took inspiration from her maternal grandmother, who turned her onto comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park.”

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Chris O’Dowd and Jessica Williams in “The Incredible Jessica James.”

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Netflix

“There’s milk-and-cookies Grandma, and there’s Colt 45 and Atlantic City Grandma,” Ms. Williams explained. “She was the latter.”

In her teens, Ms. Williams appeared on the Nickelodeon series “Just for Kicks”; as a college student at California State University, Long Beach, where she studied film and electronic arts, she continued to perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and to submit herself for auditions. After putting herself on tape for “The Daily Show” in 2011, when it was hosted by Jon Stewart, Ms. Williams received a fateful call from her manager: “She’s like, hold onto your butt,” she said.

Mr. Stewart said in an email that Ms. Williams immediately distinguished herself with a presence that was “so funny and electric.”

“I hate to sound cliché,” Mr. Stewart said, “but some people have it, and it was so apparent from the tape we had on Jessica. I can’t even talk about it without going into my old Jewish man agent voice. She made great choices, surprising choices. Thirty seconds in, we were trying to figure out how to get in touch with her. We couldn’t believe it when we found out she was still in school!”

During her “Daily Show” tenure, Ms. Williams helped create the WNYC podcast “2 Dope Queens,” on which she and Phoebe Robinson, her friend and a fellow comedian, swap stories and host performers, with an emphasis on women, minority and L.G.B.T.Q. guests.

“We try to make sure we’re the stars of our own narratives,” Ms. Williams explained.

It’s a maxim she tries to apply to the film and television roles she seeks out, and those she does not pursue. Though fans expressed some disappointment when she said she did not want to be considered for Mr. Stewart’s job when he left “The Daily Show” in 2015, Ms. Williams said it was an easy decision.

“I know what I’d be incredible at, and I know what I wouldn’t be as great at,” she explained. “I didn’t want to insert myself into that narrative to please everybody else. I was listening to my heart and making sure I honored what I was truly excellent at.”

Ms. Robinson said Ms. Williams has been careful to step back and assess the bigger picture at moments when expectations can feel overwhelming.

“I can’t even imagine dealing with all this attention on her — wondering if people really want to be her friend or if they just want access to Jon Stewart,” Ms. Robinson said.

She added, “She’s giving herself opportunities to be a normal person and not have capital letters Jessica Williams be the thing that defines her.”

Those outlets can include smaller roles in films like “People Places Things,” an independent 2015 comedy written and directed by Jim Strouse.

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