On the Daily Show’s Jessica Williams, the Latest High-Profile Victim of Impostor Syndrome

When Jon Stewart broke America’s collective heart by announcing that he was stepping down from his position of Late Night Liberal Sweetheart, the drums began beating across media land. Stewart’s abdication of the Iron Throne is a challenge but it is also, of course, an opportunity. Who will replace him? What will Comedy Central do now?

Two of Stewart’s scions, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, have already signed lucrative late-night-hosting contracts of their own — in Colbert’s case, twice over. So they’re out as possible successors. Will Comedy Central choose another TV personality from Stewart’s incredible stable of talent and promote from within? Will it go in a different direction altogether? And, most importantly, will the network finally put a lady and/or Person of Color behind the desk?

As the Times points out, the white maleness of Late Night is a perennial problem:

When Jimmy Fallon slid into “The Tonight Show” a year ago, opening up the 12:30 a.m. “Late Night” slot, a similar outcry arose. “It’s time,” bloggers blared. Names were floated. Then Seth Meyers got the job. Soon after, David Letterman announced he was wrapping up his “Late Show” run. Bloggers blared. Names were floated. And Stephen Colbert got the job. Then Craig Ferguson decided to step down. More blaring, more floating — and then the job went to the British actor James Corden.

Now, all these hosts are talented and deserving. Their worthiness is not the issue. The issue is that they are not representative of the available talent. Nor do they reflect the audience. For example, Mr. Letterman’s audience is around 55 percent female. So why are women considered only for “next time”?

Tina Fey, of course, has the answer.

A Huff Po live panel convened to discuss the issue as well.

Tired of speculation, Twitter users began suggesting their own alternatives to Jon Stewart and, in my Twitter feed at least, it took about five minutes to choose a consensus candidate: the composed, acerbic, hilarious correspondent Jessica Williams. The clamor reached her ears as well and she demurred, in a classic 21st century way.

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?

And how insulting that so many press outlets took her tweets at face value despite the fact that they were displaying clear symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves “unqualified.” The AV club opined,

She also probably doesn’t want to make any big commitments at this point, even to a prestigious position like hosting The Daily Show. Ignorant hair-based assumptions aside, this outpouring of support is a great sign for Williams’ career, as it provides tangible evidence of her marketability. And producers are taking notice; Williams tells Uproxx that director Jim Strouse recruited her directly for her part in his new film People, Places, Things, and that she has many offers to choose from right now. So whileHot Tub Time Machine 2 could still be right and Williams may take the position some time before 2025, if her film career keeps growing we might see her on the other side of the interview desk instead.

Bullshit. All Williams needs is a pep talk. Get Luvvie in a room with her, and Jazmine, and Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham. Get Paul Feig in there too, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and George R. R. Martin. Get her the best Lean In group of all time. She will emerge as from a funeral pyre, naked and coiled in dragons, ready to lead.

ETA: I apologize for being insensitive here. I should have underlined that of course the choice belongs only to Williams. If she had said, “I don’t want the job,” I would have left it there. Her saying “I’m not qualified” is what intrigued me, especially since I’ve read so much about Impostor Syndrome lately and that’s so often the language women use.

Again, I want to emphasize that I have enormous respect for Williams. I think she’s talented and funny and great. That said, Williams is not accountable to either old white tastemakers or, as the also talented and funny Wyatt Cenac pointed out, to young opinionated ones like me. The decision is entirely hers.

ETA II (2/18): I wrote that first apology early on, before I had the chance to read Jessica Williams’ full Tweeted response, and then my feed became overwhelming & impossible to sort through, especially with all the curse words, so I missed a lot of what came next. But now that I’m more caught up, I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it. Ugh. I’m leaving the post up, because at this point my stupid blog entry is News, and may it live in infamy. But I apologize, again. I am listening to folks and trying to learn, and I will try my hardest to be more damn careful & thoughtful in the future.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.