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Jessica Williams leaving The Daily Show

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The youngest correspondent to ever join The Daily Show is about to become the youngest correspondent to ever leave it: After four years with the late-night series, Jessica Williams is moving on to focus on an upcoming project of her own for Comedy Central. This Thursday’s episode will be her last.

“I feel so many emotions,” Williams tells EW in an exclusive interview, which you can read in full below. “I feel like I’m growing up and graduating.”

Daily Show host Trevor Noah was similarly bittersweet about the news. “The sadness I have for Jessica leaving is only eclipsed by the joy I have for her starting her new show,” he said in an email. “If her podcast is anything to go by, it’s going to be an exciting show!”

Like a lot of Daily Show talent, Williams was a relative unknown when she joined the show in January 2012. Her debut quickly changed that: At 22, she was not only the youngest correspondent to work on the series but also the first black woman to hold the position. Now 26, she’ll be the first correspondent to step down since Noah took the reins from Jon Stewart nearly a year ago.

While the decision to leave may seem sudden — she only started telling her coworkers this past Tuesday — it’s not a total surprise considering that Williams signed a development deal with Comedy Central back in March. Thanks to her rapidly rising profile (a good number of viewers rooted for her to inherit Stewart’s chair), it was only a matter of time until she was presented with the chance to headline her own title.

The network has already seen lots of homegrown talent fly the coop only to become stars elsewhere, including Samantha Bee at TBS and John Oliver at HBO. With that in mind, letting Williams spread her wings in-house is both a creative and strategic no-brainer, says (newly promoted) Comedy Central president Kent Alterman. “We see her as a great voice — she’s so dynamic and so funny,” Alterman tells EW. “And she’s kind of grown up there at The Daily Show. Rather than say goodbye to her for her to go somewhere else, we want to make sure that we’re developing with her so that when she’s ready for her next platform, it can actually be with us.”

Williams’s new job is to work on writing, producing, and starring in the pilot for a half-hour scripted series. (Naomi Ekperigin, a writer for Broad City and Difficult People, is co-producing.) The still-untitled comedy will center on “a politically-minded young woman who may be ‘woke’ but doesn’t know what she’s doing,” according to the official description. “It’s a show about someone in their 20s who has all these social ideas but still, like, does not have it together,” Williams explains, before adding: “And she’s goofy and silly and funny!”

In a conversation with EW on Tuesday, the outgoing Daily woman excitedly revealed even more intel about her busy future: In addition to the pilot, she has her hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, a starring role in an upcoming romantic comedy, and, um, plans to grow a beard. Still, when she reflected on her time at The Daily Show, her voice wavered with emotion. “It really is such a warm, wonderful place to be,” she said. “They’re just like a family.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how are you doing today?

JESSICA WILLIAMS: I’m good! I’ve been telling my coworkers that I’m leaving the show — it’s so bittersweet. I’ve just been going in and out of crying a little bit, giving a lot of hugs, all that stuff.

You’re just telling them now? 

Yeah. I just wanted to wait until we sort of [confirmed] it and stuff, just because you never know what could leak.

When did you first start making this decision, and when did you decide to go through with it?

I met with Kent a couple of times a few months ago, and we’d just got to talking. I’d already had all these ideas that I’ve sort of been kicking around. So we talked, and then it was like, “Oh, yeah, I guess I could do this? I could write a pilot and shoot a pilot and do all that stuff.” It all started happening very quickly.

You joined the show at a notably young age back in 2012, so it’s been a pretty important chapter in your life. How does it feel, to now be leaving?

I feel so many emotions. I started The Daily Show when I was 22. I was going to class at Long Beach. When I found out [that I got the job], I was in the cafeteria at Panda Express. I thought I was going to be hired as a contributor, but The Daily Show was like, “Nah, it’s an election year, we want you to come over here and work full-time.” So I said, “Okay, well hold on, I need to do my finals first.” [Laughs] I picked up everything and moved out of my parents’ house and into New York City. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself on the show. I’m 26 now. I’ve learned so much, I always kind of feel like it’s grad school — a sort of continuation of my education.

Do you have a favorite memory from doing the show?

Doing live shows in the studio with Jon [Stewart] were some of my favorite moments. Every now and then, I had the ability to make Jon laugh, and that to me was really fun. Sometimes he’d laugh, and sometimes he’d put his script to his face because something was really funny. He wouldn’t just do it just because — he’d do it because he genuinely thought it was funny. Those are some of my favorite moments that I’ll never forget.

Have you had a chance to talk to Jon Stewart since making the decision to leave?

Since making the decision, no. But I did run into Jon at the Peabody Awards a few weeks ago, and he had a beard. And I was like, Oh, wow, you’ve got a beard now. So since I’m retiring from my late-night job for the time being, I’ll grow out a beard. You can snap me in pictures walking around New York City. I’m going to be, like, a 60-year-old white dude.

When Jon announced his exit, a lot of people wanted you to fill his shoes as host, which speaks to how vital to the show you’ve become. How would you describe your legacy on the show?  

Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Well, I know a couple of things: I’m a black woman. Of that, I’m certain of! But I think a large part of my time here, I’ve gotten to explore ideas that deal with race and that deal with being a woman. I feel like that’s a big part of the work that I got to do on the show. It was really fun to try and figure that out — and basically find my voice.

Your last episode is this Thursday. Will it also include one final Jessica Williams field piece?

Yeah, my last piece is this Thursday. I’m doing a piece on Bernie Sanders supporters that are going to vote for Trump. I sat down with a panel of them, so I’m very excited about that — it looks like it should be really funny. It’ll be a nice farewell.

You’re leaving to spend more time working on your new show, but you’ve got a movie coming up too, right?

Yes, I’m so excited! I did a movie last year called People Places Things with Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall. It was great, check it out on Netflix. No braggies, but I’m in it! [Laughs] But the director and writer of that, his name is Jim Strouse, he wrote a movie with me in mind. So I get to play this main character in this independent romantic breakup comedy. We’re going to shoot it in Brooklyn, which I’m excited about. Basically she is a young playwright out of college just going through a breakup and trying to figure it out.

And the TV show you’re working on, what can you tell us about that?

I’ve had this idea for a while about a young woman who is a feminist and who imagines herself to be “woke.” I think that a lot of the time, we have this idea that when you are, like, “woke” — and please always put this in quotations! — that you should always have your shit together. But I know that often for me, as a black woman of color, I feel like I’m supposed to represent these ideals and values that I was taught as a young lady. Like I’m supposed to carry myself in a special type of way, but oftentimes I’m, like… I’m still in my 20s, and still kind of a mess. So it’s a show about somebody in their 20s who has all these social ideas, but still does not have it together. [Pauses] And she’s, like, goofy and silly and funny!

The main thing about the show is that I’m excited to, in a silly and funny way, be able to explore ideas of feminism and race and LGBT issues — things that I care about and that I talk about on The Daily Show and that I deal with on 2 Dope Queens.

Are there any other projects or ambitions you’ve been eyeing for the near future?

Totally. I just finished my first season of 2 Dope Queens, which I do with my comedy partner, Phoebe Robinson. We just finished season 1 with WNYC Studios, and now we’re gearing up for season 2. I really, really, really want to do more — we’re going to do more of those shows during the summer. I also really want to do more standup and get back into doing more shows at Upright Citizens Brigade.

You recently spoke out about how late-night TV is still too white and too male and in need of change. Do you see yourself returning to the late-night commentary/comedy world at some point, either in the form of 2 Dope Queens or some other vehicle?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like that’s something I would do years down the line, once I’ve sort of figured it out and want, like, a job that I do every single day. [Laughs] I definitely think that that’s in my futch. That’s short for future.

We’re in the midst of an extraordinary political season, what with Trump and, potentially, our first female president. Is it tough to leave The Daily Show at a time like this?

Kind of! I’m a little afraid, a little terrified for what is about to happen. And I think that maybe it’s best for me to step aside for a minute and not get so fired up about it. I think it’ll actually be kind of good for me. But we’re in good hands as long as we have Sam and Oliver and Trevor. I think they got it covered.

Watch an exclusive highlight reel of some of Williams’ best moments on The Daily Show above.

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