For most, the first things that pop into mind following “senior thesis” is a long, boring title, graphs and charts, and super complicated math. But for Sidikha Ashraf, a recent graduate of Wellesley College, the women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts that include alumni like Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, she knew she wanted to use the opportunity to do something different.
Ashraf says she fell in love with comedy at the age of 11 when she realized how cathartic it could be. In New York, construction plans for the Park51 Mosque, located near the former site of the World Trade Centers sparked controversy and Islamophobia.
Me on Venmo: Friends who feed each other are friends need each other 🍜😊 -$111.19
— Sidikha Ashraf (@Sidikhanmani) May 17, 2019
“As a patriotic 11-year-old myself, who weirdly loved to watch the news, I hated watching the news that week,” Ashraf says. “I don’t know how my parents managed to shield me from Islamophobia for that long, but when I heard the rhetoric that week on the news, I completely shut down.”
It was a joke that she later saw Seth Meyers tell on Saturday Night Live’s famed “Weekend Update” segment that led her to realize the power that comedy could have. Though she doesn’t remember what the exact joke was, she does remember how it made her feel, and that feeling followed her to college.
Still, it wasn’t until halfway through high school that Ashraf realized comedy was something anyone actually did for a living.
“A friend mentioned that their dream job would be to work for Jimmy Fallon, and I was like, ‘Hey! That’s a job?!’” she says. Ashraf still credits Seth Meyers’ time on “Weekend Update” as the reason she loves political comedy so much. Her other comedy heroes include Nora Ephron, Key and Peele, John Mulaney, and Aparna Nancherla.
Imagine a dentist telling you to say AH and you just opening your mouth and doing a primal scream instead.
— Sidikha Ashraf (@Sidikhanmani) May 15, 2019
When it came to starting her senior thesis, Ashraf, an English and creative writing major, already knew she wanted to do something that incorporated her love of comedy. The only question was what?
“I had initially proposed to write six episodes of an original sitcom,” she said. “I was going to write a sitcom about a group of English professors who taught at a small liberal arts college in the woods.”
When the sitcom didn’t quite pan out how Ashraf envisioned, she went back to the drawing board, eventually landing on the idea of a late night show at the suggestion of her thesis advisor.
“My own late night show? The idea sounded so self-indulgent and too perfect to be true,” Ashraf said. “The idea of doing it as a thesis was daunting because I knew I would be devastated if it came out not funny. It would be like finding out you’re bad at your dream job and it’s not for you. I wasn’t ready to be crushed like that.”
But Ashraf soon warmed up to the idea and began gathering resources to learn how to craft a late night talk show. Using the guidance from legendary comedy writer Nell Scovell’s book Just the Funny Parts, as well as workshops taught by Full Frontal with Samantha Bee writer Nicole Silverberg, and Saturday Night Live writer Anna Drezen, she began to piece together her own show.
I wrote my own mock late-night show for my honors thesis and successfully defended it yesterday, alhumdulilah 💓! This thesis would not be possible without the advice and resources made available by some comedy writers, so I would like to take this moment to thank them. pic.twitter.com/5n6EFRNS9b
— Sidikha Ashraf (@Sidikhanmani) May 16, 2019
The project forced her to write regularly, which helped her find her voice.
“I gave myself a deadline of 15-20 pages submitted to my thesis advisor by Tuesdays at 2 p.m. every week,” she said. “Those pages accumulated and I just continued asking myself along the way, ‘What do I want?’ ‘If I had my own late night show, how would I do this?’”
Mindy Kaling’s new film Late Night, starring herself and Emma Thompson, tells the story of a woman who gets hired to a failing late night show’s all male, all white writing staff. Ashraf also acknowledges that the space of late night has historically been dominated by white men, which made her question her own authentic voice during the writing process. She ultimately came to the conclusion that authenticity and truth are often the funniest.
“There is always an audience for my humor and I shouldn’t try to make my humor sound like anyone else because that’s been done,” she writes in her thesis cover letter. “The funniest thing I can do is be myself.”
As for the future, Ashraf plans to continue bringing her own unique voice to her writing.
Someone stole all my friend's dumplings so next time she stored food in the communal fridge, she put quotes from the Quran, Bible and Torah on it. No one has stolen her food since.
— Sidikha Ashraf (@Sidikhanmani) May 23, 2019
“You can bet on me watching Mindy Kaling’s new movie, Late Night, and Lily Singh’s new late-night talk show, A Little Late with Lily Singh,” she said. “As a South Asian woman myself, it was so motivating to hear about these two projects while I was writing my own late night show.”
Ashraf says she hopes her work can inspire in the same way in the future, and create spaces for people in comedy that have historically been excluded, or felt as though there wasn’t a seat at the table for them.
“This graduate is fresh out of college and ready to work!” she added.