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?