Alexis Wilkinson is a senior at Harvard University where she is president of the Harvard Lampoon. On Twitter she writes really good jokes and social commentary, often in the same tweet.
The weather for my drive from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts is so perfect it’s a sin to wear sunglasses. I’m on a college visit unlike any other college visit I’ve made…with my children…to my children, and considering how weird it is to be visiting Harvard. The name is so iconic that it may as well be a destination in outer space (“Oh hey, I think I’ll go to Saturn!”) or a Joseph Campbell myth, than an actual college where teenagers go to matriculate and obtain degrees. That’s just way too pedestrian an undertaking for a place this fancy.
My AirBnB is convenient for walking everywhere, or at least I think it is because I am hella GPS-dependent right now and also a terrible map-reader. But I’m spooked at the thought of driving and parking in a city with streets that look to be about 18 inches wide and made of cobblestones, so I’m walking no matter what. Alexis is busy until 8:30 but I’ve got work to do, so I Yelp “good bars for writing” and head to People’s Republik, which is something I just have to see in a town this wealthy. I’m two steps in when the smell of stale beer hits me and I think, a) Those Yelp reviewers were drunk Communists, and b) I am just too old for this.
She will, over the next three hours, disprove Jerry Seinfeld’s adage that no one who is beautiful can be really funny.
I reroute to Daedalus, the place we’re meeting later. My waiter is delightful. My salad is great. There is no beer smell. And I have a good two hours of writing done by the time Alexis Wilkinson appears at the top of the stairs to the second floor. I jump off my bar stool to give her a hug and am delighted to see that she’s taller than I am. She will, over the next three hours, disprove Jerry Seinfeld’s adage that no one who is beautiful can be really funny.
I’ve recorded a lot of these conversations. There’s plenty of chatter, most of it my own talking which has made me loathe to ever speak again. But that annoyance is offset by the number of times I’ve heard a participant say something and thought, Oh this is so good.
My entire conversation with Alexis Wilkinson is like that. I laugh at everything she tweets, so I knew it was going to be entertaining. I just didn’t realize I’d want to put the whole darn thing on the website. But even a recording doesn’t do her justice—it’s moments like these when I want a documentary filmmaker as my wacky sidekick.
The waiter brings her a menu and when he leaves I say, “You’re old enough to drink, right?” When she responds, laughingly, in the affirmative, I tell her I was prepared to order something for her but I’m thrilled we won’t be breaking any laws. She’s trying to eat and I’m plying her with questions (a situation with which my children’s friends are all too familiar) and when I realize this, I offer to talk so she can get some food down. “Do you have any questions?” I ask lamely, “I mean you don’t know me, so I’m happy to answer…”
“Oh I googled you,” she says between bites of mashed potatoes, and then in the tone that lets you know a joke is coming, “Cause you could be crazy and I was not looking to get stabbed,” which feels like sort of a moral victory to me. If it tells you nothing else, the Internet will reveal that I am not a stabber.
She asks a couple of questions about the project and how I chose people and I am again reminded of that wonderful line from Invisible Man, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Were these the voices I could hear when I felt invisible? People whose lives were active and resonating; encouraging, even when they were as young as this twenty-two year old sitting across the table? With each person I’ve met, it becomes clear, Oh this is who you are. This is why your voice means so much.
She grew up in Milwaukee and I ask if it was important to go away for college.
“My mom was born in Racine. She went to Marquette and she said to me…” Here her voice drops to the most reasonable Mom-advice tone you can imagine, “‘If you go to school here you’re going to meet a nice boy and get married and the cost of living is so low that you’ll just stay here and you’ll never get away from this Super. Caucasian. State.”
There were 18 colleges on her application list. “I had a whole spreadsheet system!” she says with equal parts pride and disbelief, “There were submission columns for the FAFSA and all the required components. And then I had them ranked and sorted by preference, financial aid, difficulty of admission, whatever, and color-coded them Red/Yellow/Green. I mean once you have that many, you can do a lot with the data.” (At this point I remark that IRL sociologists Tressie McMillan Cottom and Zandria Robinson would be so proud.)
She tells me that Cal Tech and MIT (where she was accepted) were her two early action choices, at which point I’m thoroughly confused.
“Wait,” I say, “those are like mathy schools.”
(These are the sorts of legit adjectives you can expect from an English major.)
“Oh yeah man,” she says laughing, “I wanted to major in biomedical engineering. I mathed so hard! I wasn’t always just a joke writer!”
The math/science thing is in her DNA. Her mom is a computer engineer, her dad (a “straight off the boat Jamaican” who did his Master’s at Marquette) was a chemist, and her sister is pre-med at Yale so you could say smart runs in the family and you would be correct. But as #IRLProject member Derecka Purnell taught me, “The dream is free. The hustle is sold separately.”
Both were rewarded with her Harvard admission, appropriately celebrated with high school joie de vivre. “I called my best friend screaming and she came over and got me and we drove around blasting the Harvard fight song out of the car. Then we toasted with crimson colored cupcakes.”
Four years later she’s no longer majoring in biomedical engineering, but you can still see the joy of that moment on her face, the first step on a journey to being the first Black female president of the Harvard Lampoon.
“My senior year I started a satirical newsletter called Amateur Knight [<HS mascot reference] with a couple of friends. It was just one page front and back with a comic, and we wrangled an English teacher into being our advisor so we could be an actual club.
We went in on housing discrimination, but the administration just thought it was funny cause it was about hamsters.
“Like, we did this one piece about a snake getting moved into the life science room because his cage was close to the hamster cage. We did a front-page story with the headline, Hamster Concerned About What’s Happening to the Neighborhood and an article about property values dropping. We went in on housing discrimination, but the administration just thought it was funny cause it was about hamsters.”
She crosses her arms and assumes the jocular authoritarianism of a high school principal, “Oh the hamsters, yes, very funny, Alexis. I enjoyed that.”
It was one non-traditional activity in a year that was full of them. A couple of months in, her mother, a single parent since her father’s death when she was four, took a job with the state of Louisiana. The recession was in full swing and this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Alexis was 18 at the time, so she and her sister Rachel, a junior, lived alone for the rest of the year after insisting they didn’t want to move.
“My mom came home about one weekend a month and helped us get groceries and stuff. I think it says a lot about her trust in us that she let us do it, which I really respect. I think she knew that the house would get a little messy and we’d probably eat pizza way too much, but she never worried about us doing anything like skipping school or getting into trouble.”
She laughs as she considers the possibilities, “I mean, we were such nerds that I had to convince my friends to have a party. I was like, ‘This guy I know said he’ll buy us wine coolers and we can play Rock Band!’ And they were like, ‘I don’t know. What if my mom finds out? I have to take my little brother to soccer practice.’”
I think about my own experience as a single mom who got laid off during the recession, and am amazed at how beautifully this family navigated a year with little parental supervision, save the moral compass so obviously present in these two extraordinary young women. They had jobs and homework and volleyball practice, extracurricular activities galore, and no one was around to make them do any of it. It’s a teachable moment for helicopter parents everywhere.
College was just another day at the office.
“Except I didn’t have all the activities in addition to school, so when I was trying to figure out something to do with my time, I remembered how much fun our little paper was and then I googled “Harvard humor magazine” to see if they had anything like that.”
I hold up my hand to hit the pause button. She’s ready to move on to the part of the story we both know is coming next, but I need a minute to rejoice in the lovely and unselfconscious naiveté that was clueless about the Harvard Lampoon and is still willing to admit it.
She continues, “I looked it up on Wikipedia and thought, Hmm seems pretty legit… been around awhile…138 years to be exact,” she says in her most self-deprecating voice.
From the first informational meeting (at which Jonah Hill inexplicably showed up) she was hooked. Her major changed from Engineering to Economics/Psychology, but her real passion was the Lampoon. Running for president was a labor of love, the cost of which becomes evident as I ask about being a young Black female in a high profile position.
It’s late. The waiter has collected our empty tiramisu plate and the check, and I’m both exhausted and concerned about stealing time from someone whose night is far from over. But I snap to attention as her words unfold. The humor that has been so easily on display, is set aside for truth telling.
There are people, especially women and people of color who hate Lampoon and there are Lampoon people who hate me. So I’m still out. I’m not anti-Lampoon enough for some people and I’m not old Lampoon enough for others.
“I always felt like the odd one out. My high school and my neighborhood are predominantly white. I mean, there’s still a busing program there. And then I get to Lampoon and I should be in, right? But I’m not in. There are people, especially women and people of color who hate Lampoon and have expressed that to me and there are Lampoon people who hate me. So I’m still out. I’m not anti-Lampoon enough for some people and I’m not old Lampoon enough for others. And that’s been kind of an existential crisis on my part.”
It should be noted that there is no self-pity in these words, nor even any anger, which would certainly be justified. It’s like she’s giving me instructions for a recipe—This is what you do. This is how it is.
“In 138 years, there have only been three women of color. ‘Black Girl Lampoon’ is just three people. Both of them have been very supportive and understand very specifically how it’s hard. Like we do honor initiations for famous people in comedy and we’d never initiated a Black woman before and I was like, I’m not leaving this presidency without doing that. So I got down on my Black girl knees and begged Whoopi Goldberg’s agent to put us in touch with her and we initiated her. But Whoopi should have been here ten or fifteen years ago!”
Another invitation was sent to a male comedian of color and refused with a stinging expletive about the organization.
It’s clear she has no hard feelings toward the man, yet the weight of his rejection is still visible as she reflects, “I understand why you’re mad, but you don’t know me– don’t be mad at me. Lampoon isn’t going anywhere and all you can do is get in and try to make meaningful changes. I’m not here to represent some old model, but I’m not there to set it on fire. It’s hard to find people who understand that.”
We put our coats on and walk downstairs into the chilly darkness. It’s nearly midnight and I’ve got a long walk back and plenty to think about. Alexis, on the other hand, has the energy of someone who’s just had her morning coffee. The dorm is close she says, as she turns right and heads toward campus.
The next day is gloriously sunny as I pack up the car with plans to leave as soon as our meeting is finished. The parking space I saw the night before is available, my shocks are handling the cobblestones beautifully, and I notice in the daylight what I couldn’t see last night—Lampoon Castle is one hilarious looking building.
I knock on the door, feeling like there should be a secret handshake when Alexis opens it. Most of the rooms are off limits for outsiders, but I get to see a couple, one of which is the round Lampoon library. It’s the most entertaining historical tour of my life as she regales me with stories of celebrity visits, staff mishaps (don’t ask), and the 17th century blue delft tiles that run along the walls.
Back issues of the Lampoon are lying on the massive built in desk, and she grabs a few and shares favorite entries, happily boasting about the comedic gifts of her fellow staffers. She tells me about raising $80,000 to do the Lampoon’s first digital parody project, a spoof called Huffington Psst.
I felt like I needed to prove myself and get results on the table so no one could say that I was only there because I was different. That’s what I want people to remember more than that I was just a special snowflake.
“I was surprised to be elected, but I felt like I needed to prove myself and get results on the table so no one could say that I was only there because I was different. That’s what I want people to remember more than that I was just a special snowflake for a year. Cause that’ll be gone in a month.”
Such pressure, even self-imposed, has been good preparation for the high stakes comedy writing jobs she’ll be applying for next semester. Her businesslike approach has always been evident in the steady stream of jokes on Twitter. But here, with sun streaming in ancient glass windows, something else is clear—Alexis Wilkinson treasures the Harvard Lampoon with the unguarded and effusive delight of first love.
She’s interned for Jimmy Fallon, has a Hollywood manager, and has met more than her share of famous people, but at this moment, looking every bit the college kid she is in a t-shirt and jeans, it’s obvious that she has no greater joy than the work, the people, and this place itself.
Where do you go from here, I ask. What’s the ultimate goal—an honest question if I keep in mind the screenplay she’s written, the journalism, entertainment, and political internships, the countless office/waitress/babysitting jobs that have kept her afloat. Where does it end in your wildest dreams?
Her gorgeous smile reappears and she answers without hesitation, “I want to have the Shondaland of comedy,” she says, invoking the name of television’s most powerful female production company, HQ for producer Shonda Rhimes. “That woman has managed to subvert everyone’s expectations, sneak diversity into your favorite shows, and do exactly what she wanted to do. That’s my ultimate goal.”
The light is fading and a few Lampooners have arrived. Alexis hides the Boulevard beer I brought—“I want to make sure I’m the one who gets to open these,” she says before telling me goodbye. I speculate about how long it will take someone to find them as I set the GPS for a return to the Upper West Side of New York.
I switch on the playlist marked “Alexis,” the perfect mix for a solo driver dance party, and then Frank Ocean’s Super Rich Kids comes on. Twice, I hit the replay button as soon the song ends.
The maids come around too much/Parents ain’t around enough/Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar/Too many white lies and white lines/Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends
I think of something Alexis said when she was telling me about the culture shock of her freshman year, of meeting people who couldn’t understand the disaster of a broken computer or an unexpected $300 bill, “You will never know what it means to make $5.25 an hour. Work and have it matter because you need to get from Point A to Point B, working peasant hours at peasant wages.”
What would it be like, in the midst of that stress, to find the job that you loved more than anything else in life? Imagine the dance on the head of a pin it would take to do it amidst the criticism of friends and enemies. We celebrate our trailblazers, but the truth is we have no idea how much it costs; the private moments, the outsider’s path.
It’s late when I arrive in Manhattan, but I’m wired and can’t sleep. I turn on the television, put up my feet, and think about the day I’ll watch a show from Alexisland.