Collage by Ruby Aitken, using a photo by Joel Benjamin for Boston.com.
I first heard about Alexis Wilkinson last year, when the 22-year-old made history as the first African-American woman to be elected president of the Harvard Lampoon, the well-known college magazine that often acts as a funnel into the world of television and comedy. She was all over the news and with good reason: Not only has she helped change the face of a predominantly white, male cultural institution, she did it while juggling a hectic school schedule, navigating her way through intense media attention, and reeling from the sudden death of her roommate.
I wanted to know more about Alexis’s life before Harvard and her incredible new job as a staff writer on the HBO series Veep, so I called her over the holiday break to talk about how family tragedy gave her a unique perspective, her competitive spirit, and how she uses humor to connect to the world.
DANIELLE HENDERSON: Did you always have a master plan? I think we have to find our creative way in the world differently sometimes, and it’s not always as straightforward as, “I’m going to be an artist.”
ALEXIS WILKINSON: Definitely not. My mom was born in Wisconsin, lived in Wisconsin, met my dad in Wisconsin, and married in Wisconsin. She said, “If you don’t leave for college, you will never leave—the cost of living is low, people are nice, and you have family here.” She was really mad that I applied to the University of Wisconsin–Madison! I was like, “Mom, it’s early admission, this is just for my own sense of pride.” She accepted that.
Where else did you apply, and what did you originally think you were going to study?
So I applied to 18 schools—you know, the normal amount. What’s the point of playing if you don’t win, you know? I didn’t come to college applications to make friends! This is not America’s Next Top Best Friend! I came here to WIN! [Laughs] I was kind of all over the place, but I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, so I applied to a lot of tech and engineering schools—MIT, Georgia Tech, Cal-Tech, Case Western. The decision came down to MIT or Harvard. I think I knew that even though all of my life had been building up to being an engineer, I wouldn’t be completely happy just being an engineer. I did AP studio art in high school—weird portraits of hands and all that stuff. Where am I going to use my Cray-Pas? How am I going to draw photorealistic hands with Cray-Pas at MIT?
It’s cool that you were able to break out of the process and consider how college could help you be happy all around.
In high school there’s this whole thing where it’s sort of uncool to care about something, or be passionate about anything. There was an awful guy in my freshman year—the sort of guy who was like, “Oh, I could have gotten a 36 on the ACT but why should I try?” And I’m like OK, yeah, but you didn’t. [Laughs] Hypothetically, I could go to the moon, but I didn’t, here I am on Earth talking to your stupid ass. I like stuff! I’m passionate about stuff! I really enjoy stuff, and if people think that’s weird? Whatever. During my freshman winter I was a hometown counselor; I basically went back to Wisconsin and then visited a bunch of high schools to talk to kids about Harvard. It was very cool! And I had so much fun doing it. I love talking to kids. And you know, being fresh out of that process, I was like “All right, everybody calm down! It’s going to be OK! We’re going to all get through this together!”
Was there some sort of influence that made you feel like being yourself and making your own choices was OK?
I think it had a lot to do with my mom. My father passed away when I was four, and my mom was just single forever. She’s still single. And people ask the question like “Oh, so she remarried?” And I’m like, no. [Laughs] I think it’s because she was always working. She worked full-time to support me, and I have a younger sister, so us going to good schools and living this sort of sham lower-middle class lifestyle was very important to her. On the flipside of that, she really expected us to be responsible. We had to work—we had to go to school and do our homework. She didn’t check our grades like other parents; she just expected us to do what we were supposed to do. And we did it, mostly because we knew what the stakes were: If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you will be homeless. [Laughs] These are the options for you—go to work and go to school and get good grades and go to college, or you can do poorly in school and have no money for college and live on the street. Once you realize that there isn’t a safety net, you have an incentive. It was scary, but I was frightened into achievement!
But you also had your own interests and goals that weren’t just survival mechanisms.
Yeah. Both of my parents were scientists; my dad was a chemist and my mom is a computer engineer. It was an achievable thing; I saw that people studied this and they did well, and enjoyed it. My mom would take me to work sometimes, and I went to work with my dad when I was really little. Other families think math and science are scary, especially for girls, but for me it was like, “That’s what my mom does. I know this is something girls do.”
You seem to be really good at taking things as they come and giving yourself options.
My dad passing away when I was really young sort of allowed me to see how you can sort of “do everything right” and still have it all go away. Both of my parents were kind of the one child in their families who did the right thing, and they went to college, got master’s degrees, got married THEN had kids, and it can all just fall apart. [My dad] had colon cancer; he was fine at the beginning of the year and dead at the end of it. You know, that’s just it. And nothing you could have done would have fixed that. And that meant we went from sort of the richest people in our family to a single mom with two kids. When you see a BMW repossessed, it sort of does something for you. [Laughs] Like, Oh, OK, all right, so life isn’t fair? Chill. But I think you see how the best-laid plans go away, and for me it was always makes sense to have a Plan B. I need to be able to support myself, so I have to have an education and things in place to do that.
So you go to Harvard, and you’re going to be an engineer. Was joining the Lampoon part of your backup plan, or just an outlet to do something different?
I got into school and I almost immediately switched from engineering to economics; I didn’t want to do engineering anymore, but I still really liked numbers. When I told my mom I was switching concentrations she was upset. She was like “Oh god, please don’t say you’re going to study philosophy. What are you, Socrates? You’re not Socrates.” I told her economics, and she was like, “You’ll work for a bank or for the government, it will be fine.” I think joining the Lampoon was a big part in sort of owning my belonging at the school, though; it’s not an easy thing to get into, and I’m sort of proving to myself that I can do this, and I’m as smart and funny as these people who have 10 times as much money as I do.
Did you always want to be president of the Lampoon?
I knew I wanted to run, but I was still shocked to be elected. That year was one of the hardest years of my life. There was just so much going on, and so many different pressures, so many life changes were happening at once. Becoming president of a place with a legacy comes with a sense of responsibility and baggage. There were definitely times when I felt like this is just too much, it’s so many responsibilities, so many people looking to me for answers. Sometimes it felt like I was being held to standards that other people weren’t being held to—you know, I have to be everybody’s everything, and I can’t. And then the media stuff was happening, and I was also trying to figure out whether or not I wanted to be a comedy writer for real. My roommate also passed away. There was just so much going on at once. It definitely took some trips to mental health services to work stuff out. I felt like I was navigating a lot of layers all of a sudden—I had to please myself, I had to please my family, I had to make sure I didn’t drop out of school, I had to make sure Lampoon didn’t impeach me, I had to make sure that whatever the media was saying about me was positive, and I needed to start becoming a comedy writer. And I was in college! So it was a lot of sort of all cascading at once. But I think it was definitely a growing experience, and I think I’m so much tougher now.
How did you get into TV writing? You got a job on Veep right after you graduated.
Um, I’m hashtag blessed [Laughs], but after I became president I talked to a lot of people, and after taking stock of everything I felt that it would be stupid of me not to at least give it a try. The great thing is I had people paying attention to me, so I needed to develop the body of work to show that any positive assumptions they have about me are right. I had a breakthrough over winter break; I watched Obvious Child and cried. I was like, Oh my god, I’m gonna be Jenny Slate and I’m gonna have to get an abortion and what am I gonna do?! [Laughs] I’m going to be doing stand-up in dingy bars and my stupid boyfriend will cheat on me with another girl! So, once I projected all of my emotions onto Jenny Slate’s character, I took a step back, I stopped crying, and I panic-applied for an MFA.
I just want to go back in time and give you a hug and tell you to take a nap.
But it made me feel so much better! Most people hire TV writers in the spring, but I’m in school; even if a lot of shows were offered, I couldn’t start! I needed to graduate. So I was like, What can I do in the meantime, even if I have to wait until next spring before really kind of getting my stuff together? I had a manager who I had interned for, Adam, and he’s like my dad basically. He actually spotted me the plane ticket to come out here because I didn’t have any money. We have trustees on Lampoon, who are typically older grads, typically successful in their field. The new board of trustees had been elected. I knew they would forget—there was a lot of stuff on their plates, and this is not a super high priority. So I waited, and when then said, “I’ll do it.” In a completely self-serving move, they got my issue of the Lampoon, and I wrote all the non-Boston trustees a little note that said “Hey! How are you doing? Here’s the latest issue. Just so you know I’m graduating at the end of the year, if you hear of something let me know!”
That’s a boss move.
I wrote them all, and one of the new trustees was Dave Mandel, who is my boss now. At the time, I didn’t even know he was working in television; he wrote The Dictator, and was doing a bunch of movie stuff. A couple of weeks after he got my note he emailed me, and said “Oh hey, yeah, send me some writing samples, and if I hear of anything I’ll let you know.” They pretty much all reacted that way, really nicely, like “Oh, give me a writing sample” or whatever. And maybe a month goes by, and Dave emails me, and says, “Here’s my phone number, call me.” I called him, and in one phone conversation he said “Hey, I’m taking over Veep, do you want a job? You have to move to L.A., you can start the week after you graduate.” I asked if he could give me a week. I don’t even have an agent yet! Should I ask an agent? Who’s going to negotiate this deal? I don’t know how to negotiate anything! I had all these questions. I called Adam I was like, “I have a job, Adam, I have a job!”
I love that you were able to give yourself enough time to figure out how this could still all be part of the larger experiment of your life.
Right. I thought, I’ll do this, and who knows—maybe I’ll hate it. And then I still have a degree, I can still figure something else out, maybe moving into the business side of the industry or something else. The fact that Dave was the showrunner helped; he knows what my strengths and weaknesses are, he knows I haven’t worked for a show before, he’s not going to have expectations of me that I can’t possibly achieve. He’s been such a good mentor to me. I mean, he’s been in the industry for longer than I’ve been alive. He’s really respected, so being able to work with him and everybody else has just been a blessing. He definitely didn’t have to take a chance on me writing for this show, but I think people see you as an investment, and that’s very flattering because I see myself as an investment. The types of jokes I make have expanded so much because of this job, and the characters I write are so much richer, so I definitely feel like this was the best choice I could have made.
Were you at all intimidated that at its core Veep is a political show?
I think that was one of the more comforting things about the show; I studied economics, but I had also worked for [Harvard’s] Institute of Politics. I’ve always been interested in politics. I’ve also been the lady president of something. I hadn’t even thought of that and Dave was like, “You know something about that.” Bossing around old white guys is all I know how to do. [Laughs]
I like that you’re not waiting for permission to try different things, even if you have no idea how to do them.
Definitely! Comedy writing and college can feel so mysterious, and there’s just not that sort of clear path. I never would have called myself a writer before I got to college.
How are things now that you’ve come through this intense year? How do you think you’ve developed as a writer?
I have a way to tell stories that allows people to understand things, and I think humor can be such a tool to help understanding. To laugh at something, you have to understand why you’re laughing. There’s a visceral response, but there is also an understanding of why that is funny. Humor comes from surprise, and being uncomfortable. And it allows people to sit in that discomfort for even a second. I think so much of that opens you up to accepting other things, and questioning other things.
Humor is a tool of survival, but you’re also helping other people get through life.
I talk to teenagers a lot; being a resource is something I really, really like! And it’s part of the reason I do what I do. I just like being a resource to others; I think that as a young person you have to see it modeled for you, you have to see sort of a way to do it, you have to be able to access it in some way. And if I can be that point of access for them, then we’re going to see all sorts of people coming up in this space, and we’re going to see all sorts of stories being told, and that’s going to reflect on the culture. It’s a beautiful feedback loop. ♦