Alexis Wilkinson's path to Harvard Lampoon president's chair

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A: I think me even being in this position is some proof that it has changed somewhat. There are graduates alive who remember voting against any women joining Lampoon, and definitely against people of color. But I think it's important that people understand I am not the Malcolm X of Harvard Lampoon. I didn't come here, as much as I might want to, to demand change. There have been a series of incremental changes. I am the fifth female president, and new female presidents now come more and more frequently. No, I don't have radical changes planned. Making people feel they can come to us with their concerns, I want to do that. I'm never going to say, "You're too sensitive about that joke," or, "Look, this is how it's always been done here."

Q: Were you intimidated by the Lampoon at first?

A: Very. I started my freshman year. I came from Illinois, Wisconsin. I have no entertainment background. I didn't know anybody on staff. There were people with friends on staff, brothers on staff, family who wrote TV shows, parents who are New Yorker staff writers. But I liked writing jokes, and even if I saw things wrong with the place — the way it treated women or people of color — the only way I'd change it was from inside.

Q: Going in, not knowing much about the Lampoon, were you at all surprised by its reputation?

A: That it's terribly white and terribly male? Not at all. Even now Lampoon only has four female writers (out of a staff of 19). I had the support to be elected, but the demographics have not changed that much. When I applied to (be part of Lampoon), you would go into this room, and it would be all white guys critiquing your writing. So I knew I didn't fit in and still don't. I'm a former biomedical engineer wannabe turned economics major with no creative background. Plus, comedy-wise, I was very intimidated. These guys have serious chops. And yet, if I'm on staff, then I have just as much opportunity as anyone to shine, right? Why hide?

Q: How exactly does one become president of Harvard Lampoon?

A: It's an election. Everyone (on staff) votes. And a lot of it as simple as seniority. I told the reporter at New York magazine that my campaign slogan was "Alexis Wilkinson: She's Black All Right!" They printed it. But I didn't do that. Actually, I expected to lose. I know it wouldn't be personal if I did. I knew I had weaknesses.

Q: Such as?

A: OK, how to put this? There are people in Lampoon who have a certain view of how comedy works. Let's call it Mean Comedy Lampoon versus Nice Comedy Lampoon. I'm not nice at all, but to some people I'm the queen of nice. Also, that old racist, sexist thing with Lampoon comedy, that politically incorrect thing, I don't represent that side. But there are people, especially veteran Lampoon people, who feel it's completely appropriate. … I'm not saying never write jokes like that or make fun of certain people, but I want an environment where it's not 1,000 voices against one, and if someone is upset, they don't have to feel like they're being too sensitive. Let's face it, this organization is a historically racist, sexist comedy organization. Some things are not OK now. At the same time, there were people on staff who knew I was uncomfortable and looked out for me.

Q: After you were elected, did you get notes of congratulations?

A: I did. From Maiya Williams, Aisha Muharrar (writer, "Parks and Recreation"), Lisa Henson. Henry Louis Gates (who teaches at Harvard) gave me a hug, and it was so magical. He said, "Another Negro first!"

Q: And yet, was it uncomfortable to have your election happen at roughly the same time there was this public conversation about the absence of black women at "Saturday Night Live"?

A: Totally. But I get it. I am at the eye of the black-woman-comedy perfect storm. Still, I wanted people to stop asking me about "SNL." It's too complicated and I hate answering questions about "SNL," considering how unqualified I am to answer those questions. I am 21 years old. What do I know about that place? I feel like saying: Ask (newly hired cast member) Sasheer (Zamata). On the other hand, there is importance to this: I picture myself as a teenager, and I know it would mean something to me to hear this talked about. I hate to downplay it just because of personal insecurities.

Q: It's also hard to say if a new hiring at "SNL" is a corrective blip or a genuine sea change.

A: That's right, and when all of that was going on, I thought: Can you imagine how those people being hired feel? Harvard Lampoon did not hold black-women auditions and then put me on national TV screens every week. Besides, lots of comedy shows are like that: When you don't have people of color in a writer's room …

Q: Diversity in a cast is not necessarily reflective of what's going on backstage.

A: Which is the insidious part.

Q: For your first act as president of Harvard Lampoon you should write a piece titled: "Black Presidents of Harvard Lampoon Do This, and White Presidents of Harvard Lampoon Do This."

A: (Laughs). Oh, I love that. For my first act, Lampoon will get real black and radical, and I can't wait!

Twitter @borrelli

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