“I feel very Sex and the City, but everyone’s Asian,” Emma Eun-joo Choi says with a laugh as we clink Champagne flutes on a recent afternoon at Balthazar, where we’re tucked in a cozy corner primed for observing the SoHo Thursday dine-in crowd. A few tables away, an influencer type’s gingham beret matches the crisp Alex Mill dress Choi is wearing; the bobbing strawberry in my lunch date’s drink pairs just as well with the ruby Chunks clip holding back a brunette sheet of her hair. Although the 22-year-old easily looks the part as one in the wave of Gen Z clientele reclaiming classic New York joints for the ’gram, Choi says that her usual scene is more BCD Tofu House than brasserie. But for NPR’s youngest podcast host, navigating old-school institutions—even of the gastronomic variety—has become something of a specialty.
The strategic appeal of Choi’s new comedy podcast, Everyone & Their Mom, which debuted this February under the umbrella of NPR’s flagship weekly news quiz show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, makes total sense for an industry nervously eyeing the incoming generation: If you plan on keeping a media dinosaur like NPR and a 24-year-old radio show relevant, you bring in a fresh face who can speak the lingua franca and dust up the social media accounts while they’re at it. Choi, who started as a Wait Wait intern last January (you’ll notice a distinct before vs. after on the show’s Instagram presence around this time) and is still in her junior year at Harvard, now heads up the new 15-ish-minute supplemental episode each Wednesday, where she cracks jokes about wholesome news items and interviews panelists from the flagship show as well as new guests (including, yes, her mother) straight from her dorm room.
“It’s a lot younger, obviously…and a little more fearless,” Choi says of Everyone & Their Mom. “We take the stories that Wait Wait doesn’t know how to get their mouth around—wait,” she pauses, grinning impishly. “Is that dirty? Maybe it’s getting their hands around.” Think of Everyone & Their Mom as the pithy little sis to the Peter Sagal’s dean of dad humor routine: It’s less of a watercooler conversation than a zingy round of banter you might stumble upon at a good house party, steered by Choi’s bubbly persona and a voice that reminds me instantly of that kind of perfectly rounded cursive the smartest kid in the class would have. “She was obviously smart, talented, funny, creative, and a monster of ambition,” Sagal told me via email when I asked what he thought of Choi when she arrived at NPR. “My immediate impression was that she’d be gunning for my job ASAP. I’m talking an All About Eve situation, and I’m Bette Davis.”
It’s all a dream come true for Choi, a former theater kid who grew up listening to Marketplace in the car and self-described “normie comedy nerd” subsisting on a diet of pirated UCB videos, SNL, and the Architectural Digest YouTube channel (“These mansion are so purposeless, but all the real estate agents are so earnest about what they’re selling. It’s hilarious.”). I ask about her comedy heroes, and Choi names what now feel like the expected usuals: Tina Fey, Ali Wong, Maya Erskine, Mindy Kaling. Then I ask if she has seen Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls on HBO, where a freshman at a prestigious university tries to scheme her way into the exclusionary campus comedy club more or less inspired by the Harvard Lampoon. It’s meant as an innocuous question—and I expect Choi to beam a neat platitude about the wonders of representation for undergrad female Asian comics these days. She pauses for a moment, then says that actually, the story arc centering around the white guy-dominated club hit a little too close to home.
“My relationship with comedy has totally changed because of the Lampoon and how terrible it made my life,” she tells me. What happened, by Choi’s account, is this: After joining an improv group in her freshman year, Choi got clued into both the power that the Lampoon wielded on the campus scene as well as its reputation as a historically white male institution. Then, last fall, as president of her improv team, Choi advised freshmen members of the group who were considering “comping” (Harvardese for “trying out”) the Lampoon about the publication’s reputation. “I felt like I couldn’t let them comp without telling them my concerns,” she says. “I told them that my friends have had really bad experiences on it, and I don’t think it’s a good place for women and people of color.” (Harvard Lampoon did not respond to Vanity Fair’s request for comment.)
Choi says that after she “spoke out” against the Lampoon, she left the team over the ensuing infighting that resulted based on accusations of bad leadership, i.e. that Choi supposedly created a space villainizing the Lampoon. Choi remembers a call with a teammate—who was also a Lampoon member: “He screamed at me over the phone, like full body screaming. He’s like, you’re not funny, you’re bad for this team, over and over.” At the time, Choi lived across from the Lampoon building and its vaunted front steps, and she says she felt so watched that she found alternate routes to class to avoid panic attacks. She also met with a Title IX counselor who told Choi she could report the whole ordeal. Choi says she declined to do so, though she did consider giving up comedy forever. Then, on her drive home for Thanksgiving, Choi got the call from NPR.
As Choi recounts this story, I stop and remind her that she’s on record. She shrugs. “Everything I’m saying, I would say in a court,” Choi says, and then jokes, “I have the power of NPR and God on my side.” Then, more seriously, she admits that she’s still speaking from a place of anger. “To think about all these amazing talented women who have given up trying because of people like this—that pisses me off,” she says. “Fuck it, I’ll shit talk the Lampoon on Vanity Fair. I don’t care…. It made me realize everything about being a woman of color in comedy is true, and worse than people say.”