A week from Saturday, Alexis Wilkinson, a 21-year-old Harvard College junior, will become the first African-American woman to run the 138-year old Harvard Lampoon. Wilkinson swears she didn’t think about her election’s historical significance, just the rivals she’d need to eliminate to win the job.
Classmate Eleanor Parker, also 21, will serve as second in command and head writer. She admits some hardball may have been involved in two women landing atop the Lampoon masthead, another first for the venerable college humor magazine, which has a long history of populating Hollywood’s comedy establishment with young rising stars.
“I’m from New Jersey,” says Parker, who rows on the Harvard women’s crew team and sounds like someone not to be trifled with. “I blocked the bridges so everyone who wouldn’t vote for me could not show up.”
“It was mostly a lot of physical threats,” deadpans Wilkinson. “And then, sexual favors. Between all of those, it was a landslide for Parker and me.”
OK, calm down. This is the Lampoon, after all, where declarations of fact are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, and where a semiserious discussion of today’s comedy landscape — their election coincides with a broader cultural conversation about women in comedy, and black women in particular — can lead to Parker proclaiming herself “contractually not allowed to discuss race.”
Wilkinson and Parker may downplay the symbolic importance of their election by fellow Lampoon staffers to lead the magazine. But their ascension will come just weeks after “Saturday Night Live,” for one, was drawn into a high-profile discussion about women and comedy and race.
Earlier this month, the long-running sketch comedy series added Sasheer Zamata, its first black female cast member in more than six years, after a widespread protest over “SNL”’s lack of diversity. Two black male cast members had previously announced they would no longer play female characters, fueling the outcry. On a November show featuring guest host Kerry Washington, “SNL” producers acknowledged the awkward situation by running a screen crawl apologizing “for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight.”
Now the Lampoon — an ivy-covered Harvard Square laugh factory that has turned out comedians such as Conan O’Brien, Andy Borowitz, and B.J. Novak — is undergoing what outgoing Lampoon president Eric Brewster calls “the death of the great white male hierarchy.”
For which he could not be happier, by the way.
“The feeling around here and elsewhere is, it’s about time,” says Brewster, a Harvard senior.
The Lampoon’s application process has long been race- and gender-blind, he notes. If you’re funny enough on the page, you get in; try-out submissions come without an ID attached. If you’re really funny, you might get to run the asylum someday.
Wilkinson and Parker, he adds, have demonstrated “virtuosity and diversity of comedic intent” in the mold of recent Lampoon grads now writing for “SNL,” “The Simpsons,” “The Mindy Project,” and other shows. Parker joined the Lampoon staff in the spring of her freshman year, Wilkinson the following fall.
Both Wilkinson, an economics major from Milwaukee, and Parker, an evolutionary biology major from Bernardsville, N.J., say they did not enter Harvard planning to join the Lampoon. But they also cite a long list of comedians whose work they grew up admiring, from Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, and Eddie Murphy to Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and The Onion staff.
As Lampoon writers, they each contributed a chapter to “The Wobbit,” the Lampoon’s bestselling “Hobbit” parody book. Both say their close relationship has been and will be important to maintain as they chart the Lampoon’s immediate future, which includes a website upgrade and making more archival material available online in addition to publishing five annual magazines.
“We feed off each other in certain ways and are very supportive of each other,” says Wilkinson. “That’s really important, especially in a male-dominated place like the Lampoon.”
After getting voted in, Wilkinson was particularly thrilled to hear from writer-producer Maiya Williams, ’84, the Lampoon’s first black female staffer, whose resume includes work on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “MAD TV.”
“I’m a fangirl all over her. I was freaking out,” says Wilkinson, joining in a conference call with Parker while the two remain on winter term break, Wilkinson working in Los Angeles and Parker in Florida, where she has been training for crew season.
The outpouring of support, on campus and off, “is very humbling,” adds Wilkinson. “It’s always surprising when people somehow communicate that this means something to them.”
Wilkinson has already rubbed elbows with media royalty, having interned for Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” show and for authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whom she helped with research on their best-selling political book “Double Down.”
According to Halperin, Wilkinson was chosen for the coveted internship based on her smarts, cheerfulness, and sense of responsibility.
“We had no idea she had those comedy chops, too,” he said by phone from his Time magazine office. “She was every bit as good at research and journalism as she is at humor.”
Since its founding in 1876, the Lampoon has attracted and nurtured a remarkable array of literary and comedic talent, a pool that includes George Santayana, John Updike, and George Plimpton; National Lampoon cofounders Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, of “Animal House” fame; Spy magazine cofounder Kurt Andersen; humorist Patricia Marx, Class of ’75, the first woman elected to the Lampoon; and writer-producer Lisa Henson, its first female president, who now oversees the Jim Henson Co.
Speaking from her Hollywood office, Henson, who graduated in 1983, recalled her own election making national news three decades ago, a position Wilkinson now finds herself in as news of her election spreads.
“This is not a dramatic culture change,” Henson said of the Lampoon, “but a positive milestone nonetheless.”
It should also inspire a more diverse group of Harvard students to try out for the Lampoon, she suggested.
Regarding the durable Lampoon-Hollywood connection, Henson observed, “It still seems really strong, maybe stronger than ever,” although comedy writing jobs are hard to come by, she acknowledged — Lampoon credential in hand or not.
Like Henson, Parker hopes their election will encourage more Harvard women to try out for the Lampoon. The current 19-member writing staff includes only four women.
According to Parker, her primary job will be producing the magazine parodies — “Print media is our kind of thing,” she says — for which the Lampoon is best known, while Wilkinson attends to administrative and other duties. “As president,” Parker says somewhat jovially, “Alexis gets sued.”
“I’ve got my lawyer, so we’re all good,” counters Wilkinson, adding with a touch of envy, “Parker actually has the better job.”
More seriously, Wilkinson says that “SNL” adding a black woman to its cast, plus two black female writers, is a welcome step, but one that should be followed by others and not celebrated as a one-off.
“I wish it had come more organically, instead of this public shaming thing that happened,” Wilkinson says. “For me, the focus on black women is less important than focusing on diversity overall. It’s Asian-Americans and other [minorities], too.”
The problem is Hollywood’s, not just “SNL’s”, she maintains. “Every single late-night comedy show is like that. Pretty much every sitcom, too, even the predominantly people-of-color sitcoms. ‘SNL’ is just one example of a larger problem I see with comedy writing.”
Might both young women wind up writing gags for a living? Wilkinson says she’s already enticed. Parker is not so sure.
“I enjoy writing, but med school definitely seems like more fun," Parker says.
Wilkinson adds, laughing: “But not as profitable.”
Parker: “Exactly. That’s the problem. Ideally, I would heal people with laughter.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.