Disarming People With Laughter
Alexis Wilkinson is a staff writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and wrote for HBO’s Veep. She’s also written for several publications, including Slate, TIME, and The New Yorker.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
ALEXIS WILKINSON: As a black woman, as a young black woman doing comedy, I really don’t want to do what people think I’m going to be doing. I just always want to be able to move, and I think it’s so easy to be trapped in a box of “Oh, this is the sort of comedy you do.” It’s black comedy, or it’s female comedy, or it’s clean comedy or dirty comedy. And you don’t know what I’m going to do; so there. [laughs]
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
MS. PERCY: This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. Except that when I think of Alexis Wilkinson, I want to rewrite that as: humor as a tool for success. She’s a writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and previously wrote for VEEP, a job that she got right out of college, at the age of 22. Before that, she made headlines as the first African American woman to be president of Harvard’s Lampoon magazine.
All of that success is impressive, but what can be easily forgotten is how hard Alexis worked to achieve it. She campaigned to be president of the Lampoon. And in her senior year, she sent writing samples, résumés, email after email, to get her breakthrough TV writing job. This is the same girl who wanted to be a biomedical engineer and, despite having a terrific GPA, applied to 18 colleges to make sure that happened. Alexis cares deeply about what she does, and her work shows it.
MS. PERCY: So the theme of this series is humor as a tool for survival, which I know that you have written about, in many ways, through your writing and just your life. And I wonder if we could just start by talking about who is the person that made you laugh the most, when you were growing up?
MS. WILKINSON: The person who made me laugh the most. Hmm. [laughs] This is so awful. My original thought was, “Yeah — me.”
MS. PERCY: That’s totally allowed. Own it. Own it, girl. Do it.
MS. WILKINSON: No, I mean I think I was — my sister is hilarious, and I make her read everything I write, ever. And I’m going to probably have to start paying her, at a certain point, because she’s going to med school and is like, “So I need to study. So I can’t really read your all your scripts and every little stupid—”
MS. PERCY: Is she older or younger?
MS. WILKINSON: Younger, but only by 18 months, so we’re very close. So she’s very, very funny. And I think she has sort of slightly different taste. Like she always understands what joke I’m trying to make but also is a little — doesn’t like more “blue” stuff that I might do. But I mean I think I entertained myself a lot, when I was younger, just through writing.
MS. PERCY: Did you make your mother laugh, doing that kind of stuff?
MS. WILKINSON: No.
MS. WILKINSON: She doesn’t think I’m funny at all.
MS. PERCY: Really?
MS. WILKINSON: [laughs] That sounds kind of mean. But being a comedy writer, or viewing comedy as a skill, is not really a thing in my family. Not that you wouldn’t think your relatives are funny or something like that, but it wouldn’t — I was never noticeably funnier than anybody. It was never like my mom was like, “Oh, that’s my funny kid.” It’s just like, no, I’m just weird and make too much noise a lot of the time and sometimes — and occasionally inappropriate. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: That’s so interesting, because I know your dad was a chemist, right? And your mom was a computer engineer. So you’ve said you were a big math and science nerd growing up.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah!
MS. PERCY: So I’m wondering, when was — is there a moment, because there may not be, but was there a moment when you realized, I’m funny. Like you made someone laugh, and you’re like, no, I’m really funny.
MS. WILKINSON: I mean I always kind of — I have a really big need for constant validation, so I definitely — really, the positive reinforcement of making people laugh, I always really sought that out, and it was like, “Ah, yes, put it into my veins. Aagh, I need it!” But I think it — I had never really, again, appreciated it as kind of a skill, an important skill on its own, until maybe my senior year of high school, when I’d already gotten into college, and I started a sort of satirical little newsletter with one of my best friends, who — we had been co-captains of the debate team together. My friend, Joe. Hi, shout-out to Joe, who was at Princeton. He’s a genius. Love him to death.
And so we started this little satirical Onion-style newsletter, just one page, front and back, black-and-white, and articles about, you know, the hamster being concerned that the snake moving into the science room was ruining the neighborhood.
Stuff, really — stuff like that. And we just did it because it was fun, and we just thought it was amusing. But I think having positive reactions to that and having teachers and other students really look forward to it and being like, “When is Amateur Knight?” We called it Amateur Knight. We were the knights. [singsong voice]: Pun!
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. WILKINSON: And — hilarious, right? So: highbrow stuff. Stuff was real highbrow.
MS. PERCY: You guys must have been so popular. So popular. [laughing]
MS. WILKINSON: [laughing] Right? The coolest kids. But, I mean also, that’s the other thing. I think I’m — I feel like you sort of do an autopsy on your high school experience. I’m like, was I popular; was I cool? I don’t know. And especially, I think, my school didn’t have really super-set cliques that were — it wasn’t clear, like, here’s the hierarchy. And I sort of mostly just floated around. I wasn’t — I was well-known and not disliked. I did a lot of stuff. I was in debate and mock trial, and I tutored, and — oh, god, what else did I do? Volleyball.
MS. PERCY: It sounds like you did so many activities. Then I was like, when did you have time to just chill?
MS. WILKINSON: Didn’t. Didn’t.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] That’s how you got into Harvard, no kidding.
MS. WILKINSON: Exactly. Chill was not on the agenda. [laughs] I mean, again, even telling jokes or something, I had to have a newsletter.. “We’re going to make this an extracurricular!” Like, what’s wrong with me?
MS. PERCY: So one of the things that I read, that you wrote in Lenny Letter, it was called “Owning It.” And I love what you’re writing about, about owning spaces. And you said, “I have strong feelings about space and things. At the worst times in my life, I haven’t had a lot of either, and I think that’s true for most people. People need space. People need to feel like they have some semblance of control over their environment. People need a place to belong.”
And that resonates so much with me and, I’m sure, with so many people, but especially people of color. And you’ve talked about what it was like growing up in Milwaukee and going to Harvard, and I wonder how humor helped you kind of take control of those spaces.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah, I think — I wouldn’t say that I was, or am, a real — I don’t perform, primarily. I do occasionally, but I’m a writer. And so I think I always feel like, when you say you write comedy or something — I mean it’s a classic thing: You can sing? Sing me a song right now! And so it’s like, oh, you write comedy? Tell me a joke, tell me a joke!
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Exactly.
MS. WILKINSON: You’re like, “God, oh, my god, I’m going to kill myself. Stop.” And so I think — I don’t think I’m the sort of person who naturally takes control of those spaces by telling jokes and being a big character. But I think a lot of times, using — on an individual level, especially just dealing with people, like using humor to disarm them, and also just in my own head, to sort of take apart those things that were happening and make them funny to myself so that I didn’t focus on them anymore. And then turning them into “Oh, this horrible thing that happened? That’s actually a funny story, because of [indistinct]” and sort of being able to weaponize it.
It’s funny, and this is only the — especially using the word “weapon” — only the most obvious, especially coming from a place like Veep: Insults, a very clever insult, can do a lot. If you get the person you’re insulting to laugh, that’s really a great feeling. And I remember once, I had just been elected president not too long ago, and I was doing this internship, and I had my email out in public, which I will never do again. Nobody needs to talk to me, ever.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Terrible mistake.
MS. WILKINSON: And especially not random racists from the internet.
MS. PERCY: Ugh.
MS. WILKINSON: And so I got this really long email, and the subject line was like, “Alexis Wilkinson, you make me want to vomit.” And that was the first time I had gotten something so — I was, like: Oh…hello… how can I help you, sir?
MS. PERCY: Exactly. What are you even supposed to say to that?
MS. WILKINSON: Right. “Okay…I don’t…why did you…” And so I read this long thing, and it was clearly racial and just weird and that I was some privileged, Obama — it was not about me. It had nothing to do with me.
MS. PERCY: Yeah; at all.
MS. WILKINSON: And I remember — and this was probably the only time, or one of the few times, I’ve ever responded to stuff like that. I just — I’m very good at mute, block, delete, I don’t care, you’re not relevant to my life, whatever. But I just thought it was so funny and so specific, this vomit. He kept just saying he was going to vomit, over and over again.
MS. WILKINSON: And I wrote back, a not very long response, but said something like,
“Hello sir, thank you so much for your kind message. It is so great to know that people like you are out there, and you are the reason I continue to do what I do. And thank you so much for assuming so much about me. I’m sure my single, widowed mother, and my family and stuff, I’m sure they would really appreciate that you appreciate the struggles that we all have gone through! And if you’re still feeling nauseous, may I recommend Pepto-Bismol? Here’s a link. I have a coupon. That’s for you. Cheers, Alexis.” And he wrote back and actually said something like, “Okay, that was kind of funny.” [laughing] I think that’s what he said!
MS. PERCY: Did he really?
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah!
MS. PERCY: Look at that.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah, right? Look at that, look at that.
MS. PERCY: You made a racist laugh. Look at that.
MS. WILKINSON: [laughing] Right? Right, he was like, okay, that was kind of funny. And I was like, that’s right, you son of a bench.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] That’s the most you’re going to get out of that guy.
MS. WILKINSON: And get out of my inbox. Begone! So, you know, I think that’s a good example. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: One of the things I really kept thinking about, in reading about you, was, you’ve been the first, in so many ways. The first black woman to be the president of Harvard’s Lampoon. One of the youngest, if not the first, young, 22-year-old comedy writer to be hired. That’s a lot of pressure, and I just kept wondering, how did you deal with that?
MS. WILKINSON: I didn’t.
MS. WILKINSON: No, I think — I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I think — you know, we were talking about how much stuff I did in high school. And I think I have learned, now, to be a little easier on myself, just generally, and also just not to — I’m trying to think of the right way to say this. I think sometimes you just need to just, like, telescope out, really far out in a certain situation, to just say, it’s okay.
If I focus on any one given thing, or focus on what one person might be thinking or letting one person or one group of people down, then I can freak out, and I can feel a lot of pressure and feel like a pressure cooker, because I’m in this small space. And so I try to, whenever I’m doing that to myself, just sort of be like, okay, okay, let’s really take stock of everything. Where are you right now? What are you doing? How are you feeling?
And sometimes, especially when I first moved out here and when I started working at VEEP, and I was so scared and so nervous, and I was just, like, oh, my god this is a huge mistake, and imposter syndrome started — like, oh, my god, the jig is up. It’s up. I am going to humiliate myself, and it’s going to be the worst thing that’s ever happened — and I think I realized: I am 22 years old. I have a great job. I live in California. It’s great. I have a great boyfriend. I have great friends. Everything is fine. It’s all fine, you know? And I’m not poor anymore! [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MS. WILKINSON: It’s fine. Everything is fine. And so I think sometimes just really trying to big-picture it and just — that really helps me stop from just cannibalizing myself about the little things.
MS. PERCY: I have to ask, how is writing for VEEP? I mean you wrote there, and I saw on Twitter, as well, that another writer, Rachel Axler — is that how you say her name?
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah!
MS. PERCY: She credited you with one of my favorite lines — when Jonah was running for Congress — “Believe in yourself so hard. Believe in yourself so hard.”
MS. WILKINSON: [laughing] Yeah, yeah.
MS. PERCY: But I wonder how the transition from writing from VEEP to Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been, because they’re very different tones.
MS. WILKINSON: Oh, yeah. And you can’t swear, really.
MS. PERCY: No.
MS. WILKINSON: You can’t even say “scumbag.” What the fork? Like, I don’t — I went from a show where you could have a whole episode centered around the word “cunt”…
MS. PERCY: Literally.
MS. WILKINSON: To a show where I can’t even say “scumbag” without — it’s like, “Oh!” And you can’t say Santa isn’t real. Like, what is going on? What is this? [laughs] So that’s been a hard adjustment, just taking all the fun, colorful swears out of my life.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. It’s a fine line.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah, yeah.
MS. PERCY: Well, I’m so curious, there’s a — I remember reading in an interview that you did in Playboy, very, very…
MS. WILKINSON: Oh, boy.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, yeah. No, no—
MS. WILKINSON: Fun times. My mom loved that.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. WILKINSON: Loved it.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] You weren’t posing in Playboy; we all read it for the articles.
MS. WILKINSON: I know. It doesn’t make a difference. She doesn’t care. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: You talked about how the first time you wrote a dark joke for VEEP, anonymously, that when people found out it was yours, the writers were shocked. What was the joke? I’m so curious.
MS. WILKINSON: Oh man, I’m going to mess it up. It was — Furlong, Roger Furlong, a character, was talking to, I think, Dan and Amy, when they were doing the recount stuff. Or maybe Dan and Amy and Jonah. I can’t remember the exact context now, god. It’s been so long.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] It’s in the past.
MS. WILKINSON: But basically he said something to the effect of: “I’ve been doing this since before your mother was throwing herself down a flight of stairs, belly first.” And so that was my joke.
MS. WILKINSON: And that got a — when it was read — a big “ooh.” [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Why do you think the other writers were shocked that that came from you?
MS. WILKINSON: I mean they didn’t know me that well, at the time. I mean I think on that show, particularly, the British writers that were working there at the time, they sort of had the reputation of doing this really dark stuff. So I think they just sort of assumed that it must have come from one of them. And also, I was kind of still warming up, and so I didn’t really make big swings that often with my jokes, where it’s like, okay, this is going to go awesome, or they’re going to be like, I don’t get it, or ew, that’s gross and terrible; don’t say stuff like that. [laughs] But I mean that never happens. But you learn that. So it’s really validating — again, to the veins! — when you can surprise people.
And I think that’s the other thing that — particularly as a black woman, as a young black woman doing comedy, I really don’t want to do what people think I’m going to be doing. And that’s just always been kind of a personal thing for me. I just always want to be able to move. And I think it’s so easy to be trapped in a box of, “Oh, this is the sort of comedy you do.” It’s black comedy, or it’s female comedy, or it’s clean comedy or dirty comedy. And, you know, you don’t know what I’m going to do; so there. [laughs] You have no idea what I might say or what I might do or what I might be working on and what topics interest me. So I always am just striving to keep my portfolio diverse in that way, so that way I can always have a job, [laughs] because I can do a lot of different stuff.
MS. PERCY: Exactly. That’s that hard worker in you, clearly.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah, yeah, something like that. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Well, in that same Playboy interview, I love that you said that you wanted your epitaph to be: “Alexis Wilkinson, here she lies, a funny-ass bench till the end.”
MS. PERCY: That’s perfect.
MS. WILKINSON: [laughing] That’s such a weird quote. Gosh. What’s wrong with me?
MS. PERCY: This is why your mother was horrified.
MS. WILKINSON: Right? Why do I say the things that I say sometimes?
MS. PERCY: No filter.
MS. WILKINSON: Yeah. I guess, right? I don’t know.
MS. PERCY: So a last question for you. I wonder, what does humor, what does laughter — and joy, really, because I think they’re all tied together — what does it give you that you find nowhere else, that you’re grateful for?
MS. WILKINSON: I think it gives me release. And you see it in real life, where something really, really bad happens, like, truly bad. You’re at a funeral or something, and then you go into the bathroom, wash your hands, and you just spill water all over your — and you make eye contact with your aunt or something, and you both just start cracking up uncontrollably and just die. And it’s not that that was so funny. It’s just sometimes there’s just too much tension, or everything, and you just have to let it go.
And I think laughter is such a great natural, physical response to do that, and I think that’s what it’s for. And so sometimes I think — I mean I can’t tell you how many times where I’ve been really, really crying, and then you do that whole — I mean I try not to cry more than maybe a couple of times a year, because when I do, typically everything comes out at once, and I end up doing that little kid, like, [panting] double clutch, I can’t even breathe, falling-down…
MS. PERCY: Yeah, it’s the Oprah ugly cry.
MS. WILKINSON: Right? Right. So ugly, sniffling, snot is everywhere, I’m crawling on the ground, uncontrollably wracking my body. And then, the amount of times that evolves into just being like, [simulated laughter] “Oh, oh, oh, god!” You know, laughing. It never fails to surprise me. [laughs]
But, yeah, I think it relieves a lot of tension. And I think for me, especially, just the experiences I’ve gone through and just dealing with a lot of death in my life, like my father and aunts and uncles and grandparents and my roommate, and I think sometimes you just have to really let all that stuff go. And for me, being able to tell jokes and being able to laugh is so much a part of that.
[music: “Ladyflash” by The Go! Team]
MS. PERCY: Alexis Wilkinson is a staff writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where she brings us hilarious moments every single week. And if you’re on Twitter, follow her at @OhGodItsAlexis and witness one of my favorite things: Alexis rewriting the lyrics to famous songs, such as “Hold Me Closer, Uber Driver, Count the Headlights On the Highway” to the tune of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “Ladyflash” by The Go! Team]