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

Wilkinson grew up in Wheaton, graduated high school in Milwaukee and this year becomes the first African-American woman to run Harvard Lampoon

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A few years ago in the New Yorker, Tina Fey, in an essay about her time as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” broke down the show's writing staff into two fundamental groups: “Harvard Boys and Improv People.” The latter (which includes Fey, John Belushi and Bill Murray) are visceral, loose, often rooted in Second City theatrical training. The Harvard Boys (of whom she includes Conan O'Brien and Al Franken) tend to be “hyperintelligent” and headier: “If you're sitting at the Harvard Lampoon Castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing so that it is exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat.”

Alexis Wilkinson is no Harvard boy, and she's never been a performer.

Indeed, some day, should she end up writing for "Saturday Night Live" (and her odds look promising), she will not slide cleanly into either of Fey's types: Wilkinson, 21, grew up in Wheaton, graduated high school in Milwaukee and on Saturday becomes the first African-American woman to run Harvard Lampoon.

As incoming president of the venerable 138-year-old, sacred-cow-skewering humor magazine, Wilkinson, a Harvard College junior (studying economics, with dreams of writing for television), will oversee a comedy institution that has served famously as an unofficial feeder to not only "Saturday Night Live" but also "The Simpsons," "The Office" and The New Yorker. Without Harvard Lampoon (which still publishes five times a year), there would be no National Lampoon (which published its last issue in 1998); without National Lampoon, there would be no "National Lampoon's Animal House" or those Chevy Chase "Vacation" movies.

The point being, Wilkinson — who will, in fact, edit Harvard Lampoon from the organization's brick castle just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. — becomes chief steward of an enduring legacy, albeit one as known for being overwhelmingly white, male and politically incorrect as for famous alumni like John Updike.

Said Maiya Williams, Lampoon's first black female staffer (and producer/writer on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "MADtv"): "I was there 30 years ago for Lampoon's first female president (Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim Henson and now CEO of the Jim Henson Co.). Later I even ran for president. Conan O'Brien beat me, which made it sting less. Still, as a woman (at Lampoon), you were in a locker-room mentality and learned to roll with punches. Alexis must be very well-liked and funny. Because it's never easy to break any barrier."

Wilkinson, whose No. 2 in charge and head writer, classmate Eleanor Parker, is also a woman, becomes president at a poignant moment: Not long after a public debate about diversity in comedy that resulted in "SNL" hiring its first black female cast member in years (along with two black female writers).

Said Eric Brewster, outgoing Lampoon president: "The attention Alexis has gotten surprised us. Probably because to us, at Lampoon, we just thought we had elected a hilarious writer. We really never considered outside consequences.

"That said, we are hyperaware of the lack of diversity in comedy, which is one of the reasons the Lampoon has been dominated for so long by white men. So now we're into reverse engineering."

All of which is fine with Milwaukee computer engineer Regina Wilkinson, who said she is proud of her daughter. "But my initial reaction when she told me about Lampoon was that she's spending too much time on comedy," she said. "Alexis told me, 'Mom, this is what I'll be doing, and I'll get an economics degree.' So there was no stopping her, which is fine, I suppose. It's not like Harvard gave Conan O'Brien a comedy degree either."

Alexis Wilkinson, who recently finished an internship with "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and a Los Angeles production company, spoke by phone from Cambridge. This is an edited version of a longer conversation.

Q: So, were you a funny Midwestern kid?

A: No, no. Well, I thought I was hilarious, but I doubt other people would say that. I was loud. To the chagrin of everybody. And though I hate the word, I was precocious: I liked to read and write and I had opinions about everything. I did debate club, and I did forensics club. Which was the closest I came to performance. I don't do performance. I come from math-y, science-y people. My mom works with computers; my dad was in chemistry. So the theater-creative thing, writing jokes … I never thought it was a real job that real people had.

Q: About your new job …

A: Not a job. Extracurricular.

Q: What exactly are your duties?

A: Answering email.

Q: Clerical, basically.

A: Exactly (laughs). And getting sued by people, taking legal responsibility for the Lampoon. Which does get sued once every five years or so. Like a fairly serious lawsuit. I am also the point person between the Lampoon and Harvard. And Parker and I will make decisions on what parodies to do. We'll spearhead that.

Q: Have you thought about how the Lampoon could change, or not, under your tenure?

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!

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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