African-American Woman To Run Humorous 'Harvard Lampoon' Magazine

The humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon was founded in 1876, but for the first time, an African-American woman will run things. Host Michel Martin talks with President-elect Alexis Wilkinson and Vice President-elect Eleanor Parker about their plans for the magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to switch gears now and talk about comedy, which is - perhaps not surprisingly - not all fun and games. Take, for instance, "Saturday Night Live." That program was criticized this year for having no black women as part of the regular cast; in fact, there has not been one since 2007.

But we've caught up with two women who are about to make history. Alexis Wilkinson will be the first African-American to serve as president of The Harvard Lampoon, the venerable, undergraduate humor magazine founded in 1876, whose writers have often been on a pipeline to many of the major comedy shows. She's also the first African-American female, needless to say, to lead that institution.

And she's with us today with her partner in comedic crime, Ellie Parker, who will serve as vice president - and this is also the first time two women will lead that organization - and they are both with us now. Welcome, congratulations to you both.

ELEANOR PARKER: Thank you very much, Michel.

ALEXIS WILKINSON: Thank you. Thank you. It's an honor.

MARTIN: So Alexis, did you know at the time that you went forward for the top job that you would be - if elected - the first African-American president, certainly the first African-American woman? [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Wilkinson is first African-American female to serve as president.]

WILKINSON: I mean, I definitely knew, just looking around, that it was very possible. It wasn't really until I went and talked to some of the older grads where, you know, I literally went up to a trustee and said, you know, has there ever been a black president before? And he was like, no. So after that I, you know, realized that would be the case. But it wasn't at the forefront of my mind when I was running.

MARTIN: Well, how do you run for this, by the way? Do you campaign? Do you have to write jokes? What do you do?

WILKINSON: Well, Parker and I have both been on staff - she got on her sophomore fall, I've been on since freshman spring - and so it has a lot to do with seniority. We both write - we wrote for the parody we just put out, we write for the magazine, we've held positions. And so it has to do with sort of your commitment to the place. It's not really like a formal campaigning process, I wouldn't say. It's just more about showing that you can, you know, do the job at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Ellie, since your both making history - 'cause this would be the first time in The Lampoon's run that two women will be in the lead - do you think that that might change things in some way? And if so, how?

PARKER: Well, we're hoping that this change changes the landscape of compers (ph) of people applying to be on the magazine - hoping that having two women at the lead of the magazine encourages women on campus to apply and get involved and get excited about writing comedy. But otherwise, you know, we're just hoping to pick up on the great work that was done by our predecessors, Eric and Ben, and just focus on keeping the comedy going.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting - your election comes at a time when there's been a lot of conversation this year about the whole question of who gets a shot and so forth. I mean, you note that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are, for the second time, going to be hosting the Golden Globes.

PARKER: Right.

MARTIN: And they got that because people thought that they did such an outstanding job. But as you also note, this whole thing earlier this year about "Saturday Night Live" and the casting. And there was this whole thing...

WILKINSON: Kerry Washington.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, Kerry Washington came in - well, she was scheduled to host anyway but there was this whole thing about, well, the two African-American male members of the staff kind of had a public disagreement about this.

WILKINSON: Right.

MARTIN: With one person raising the question of the diversity of the staff and saying, it's not OK that there are no black women on the staff. Whereas the other person saying, you know, they couldn't find anybody, essentially.

WILKINSON: Right, nobody was ready.

MARTIN: Nobody was ready. Nobody was ready. And I just wondered how did you respond to that whole debate and discussion?

WILKINSON: Well, it kind of, in a lot of ways - not only being a member of The Lampoon and now the president - sort of hit home just because "SNL" was one of the few shows I was allowed to watch. Growing up I wasn't allowed to watch, like, "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons" and a lot of things that sort of inform Lampoon writers' sensibility. But I was allowed to watch "SNL" if I stayed up late enough. And so, like, Maya Rudolph and, you know, Kenan Thompson and all those people meant a lot to me. And so the discussion definitely made me think more about representation and what it means in comedy.

And honestly, as a writer, I think we pay a lot of attention to the performative aspect of comedy, but as far as the number of performers go, there's way more gender and race equality in performance of comedy than there has ever been in writing. Like, no one is paying attention to the fact that, like, there are absolutely, like, no people of color writing for - and, like, shows - a lot of shows that are predominately black don't have any writers of color in the writers room. And to me, that's insane, like, it's 2013. And so those are sort of things that I get more riled up about.

MARTIN: Ellie, what about you? I mean, there's been less conversation about women in comedy I think in part because...

PARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Of Tina Fey and her success both as a writer and as a performer. But what do you have to say about that?

PARKER: Yeah, I think it's an interesting question and one that comes up in fields outside of comedy, too. You know, certainly in politics as well, if we want equal representation should we be going out and recruiting women for this, are women just not interested in comedy? And I think it's a really challenging question.

MARTIN: Has anybody ever said to you, you know, there is this whole thing - and I hesitate to bring it up because it's kind of one of those tired stereotypes, but I still feel like I have to ask this question - are there people who still think that women just aren't that funny?

WILKINSON: I mean, I think those people definitely exist. I think they're learning to hide that a little bit better maybe. But I think it's a lot to do with sort of socialization. I think, you know, women are trained to be looked at and not to be laughed at. Like, we're very used to laughing at when a guy says something. And it's very - I think women are socialized to laugh at a guy's jokes even if they aren't funny. And I can't remember if it was Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, but one of them said - I think she was accepting an Emmy or something and said, you know, if a guy makes a joke and it's not funny, you don't have to laugh.

And I think that's something that - I mean even if you just think about in your daily life, you're very used to, you know, just a guy making a joke and it's not funny but everybody laughs anyways because that's what you do. But if a girl does the same thing, it's not perceived in the same way. So I think a lot of it does have to do with just the way we socialize growing up.

PARKER: Yeah. Also I think so much of comedy...

MARTIN: That's Ellie. That was Alexis speaking just now. Now it's Ellie. Go ahead, Ellie.

PARKER: I think so much of comedy is confidence and when you feel like you are like the other people in your community - for instance, a humor organization - I think you feel more comfortable and that makes it just easier to make jokes. And so when you feel like the odd man out - or in this case the odd woman out - definitely that, that is a barrier to comedy.

WILKINSON: Odd boob out.

MARTIN: Well, you know it's interesting, does either or both of you see yourselves having a career in comedy? I mean, one of the reasons we're talking about this is that Lampoon staff members have gone on, many of them, to have distinguished careers both in comedy and in other fields related to the culture - like writer John Updike and, of course, there's the late night host Conan O'Brien. And - I mean, there are too many people - people writing scripts in Hollywood - I mean, really too many to name. So that's part of the reason this is news. So does either of you see yourself going in that direction? I mean, Ellie, I'll start with you, and then Alexis, I'll ask you, too.

PARKER: Yeah, possibly. I've definitely - I've always been interesting in writing. Comedy writing has only more recently become an interest of mine, but yeah, I definitely am keeping that door open.

MARTIN: Alexis, what about you?

WILKINSON: Yeah that's - right now that's sort of my plan after I graduate, to, you know, move to New York or LA and try to figure things out in that regard. And I'm working on a screenplay and a couple of other things. And I've been lucky to have, you know, the Lampoon network. And also, Harvard just has really great creative writing classes so I've had opportunities to work on that.

MARTIN: Is it a tough sell for the parents? They say I sent you to Harvard so you could write jokes, I don't think so?

WILKINSON: Yeah so my mom is a computer engineer, my dad was a chemist and I applied as a biomedical engineering concentrator. And so now to be a funny girl, that's definitely a little bit of a shake-up. But my mom has been really, really supportive - more supportive than I thought she would be because she sees that I'm taking it very seriously and, like, I take my, like, Lampoon involvement very seriously. And, you know, I'm not just saying, oh, yeah, I'll go to LA, I'll write jokes. Like, I'm trying to do it in - seriously write jokes as I can.

MARTIN: Well, maybe there will be some jokes about biomedical engineering, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know, right?

WILKINSON: Those enzymes, hilarious.

MARTIN: Alexis Wilkinson is the president-elect of Harvard Lampoon. She will become its first black president and its first black female president. Ellie Parker is the vice president-elect. And they were both kind enough to join us from member station WGBH in Boston. Congratulations, once again to you both. Happy holidays and thanks for joining us.

PARKER: Thank you very much.

WILKINSON: Thank you.

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