The Boys Who Cried Wolf
I saw Michelle Wolf deliver her White House Correspondents Dinner monologue a few weeks ago at the Comedy Cellar in New York. She was still developing it but I can tell you that she positively killed.
After the show, as the sole comic in our group of six friends, I was asked to break it down. I said that she’ll probably add more to it, but of the 17 minutes she did that night (I didn’t look at my phone, but comics have a built-in clock), six were gold, six were pretty darned good, and of the remaining five, with effort, three will be mediocre, and two she’ll never get to work.
She’d also hit the intense and infuriating double standard of being a female comic and the general lack of humor that that room tends to display. The wonder of Hasan Minhaj’s set last year was that he even got Wolf Blitzer to laugh (something I’ve never seen before or since).
She also didn’t have quite the cohesive theme that he and some others have had — her monologue was more of a series of jokes. Nothing wrong with that — just makes it tougher to deliver an overall point, which in retrospect, appears to be the strongest defense of the backlash against her set.
I’ll confess that, even though I’ve heard Wolf’s name for several years, I hadn’t seen much of her stuff before. As a technical note, there was something about her timing that was a bit off — she did a thing a lot of comics have started doing the last five to seven years: she stepped on a lot of her own laughs. Just when it seemed the room was ready to explode, she’d toss in a throwaway punch line with which she’d tag her main punch line, and while those were funny, she hasn’t mastered the timing of it the way Jim Gaffigan has with that little voice he does. (Granted, Gaffigan has been doing standup as long as Wolf has been alive.)
I mention the timing piece not to critique Wolf, but rather to point out that her set would’ve gotten a lot more laughter. Undeniably funny is undeniably funny. A comedian’s job is to make people laugh. That’s it. Full stop. If a comic ALSO wants to accomplish more — social commentary, what have you — that’s amazing. But first, s/has to make people laugh. She did that. But it wasn’t an undeniable 9 or 10, which would’ve shut most of the critics down from the get-go.
However, if you feel sorry for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, let me unequivocally say this: you’re part of the problem. Sanders is one of the worst bullies in a bully administration. If you analyze Wolf’s jokes, she didn’t attack Sanders’ appearance. I’ll take that a step further: so what if she did? That a comic shouldn’t go after somebody’s appearance is “just, like, your opinion, man,” not some holy principle of comedy.
Something that has now become fashionable to say but something I have said ever since I saw my first White House Correspondents Dinner years ago is that the whole night makes me uncomfortable. Many see it as speaking truth to power, but I see it as a bunch of enemies sitting in a room being friends for a night, all at our expense. There’s a distinct sense of “they’re all in it together” as it’s quite literally a party to which we weren’t all invited. And so it was amazing that Wolf absolutely crushed her last line (“Flint still doesn’t have clean water”) because it was doubly pointed: she went after Donald J. Trump’s current location and she called BS on this whole thing — it is an exclusive party and they don’t care about you.
In the age of Trump, himself arguably the worst offender of everything many have accused Wolf of being, you’re holding a COMEDIAN to a standard to which you won’t even hold a PRESIDENT. To quote The Dark Knight, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time!” You’re telling comedians to thread the finest of needles: make us all laugh, say something monumentally and politically significant, and offend nobody. You’re not only asking too much of a comedian, but also you’re asking too much of comedy.
Oh, and add to that: maybe Wolf’s set would’ve gone over better if our culture weren’t so sexist, people weren’t so stupidly hypocritical, and society weren’t total garbage.
Perhaps instead of reviewing Michelle Wolf, we should review ourselves.
Rajiv Satyal is a standup comic. He resides in Los Angeles. funnyindian.com.