It seems like every comic has a routine that deals with outrage culture. But when Michelle Wolf addresses it, you can be sure she is speaking from experience.
She opens her new Netflix stand-up special, ‘Joke Show,’ with an observation. “Over the past couple of years,” she says, “we’ve developed this amazing ability to get mad at anyone for any reason.”
This is Wolf’s way of setting up a joke that leads her into the unpredictable minefield of comments on her Instagram feed. But as she said in a recent interview, her lesson about a culture that has become quick to anger is also a sly acknowledgement of all the tumult that’s recently transpired in her comedy career.
It was April 2018 when Wolf, an audacious if not yet widely known performer from ‘Late Night With Seth Meyers’ and ‘The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,’ delivered a now-famous routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Treating the event like a comedy roast, as past performers have, Wolf said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary at the time, “burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” and said of CNN, “You guys love breaking news, and you did it, you broke it.”
Some viewers found it a hilarious exercise in speaking truth to power, but there was also swift and vocal condemnation of the routine from other constituencies. Wolf was disparaged by journalists, former White House officials and President Donald Trump himself, who wrote in a tweet that she was “filthy” and that she had “totally bombed.” And the White House Correspondents’ Association said in a statement, “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that evening.”
The next month, Netflix introduced Wolf’s weekly topical comedy series, ‘The Break’ — only to cancel the show that summer, providing more ammunition to the comedian’s detractors.
A year and a half later, Wolf is hardly chastened by these events. ‘Joke Show’ is not a direct response to her recent brush with notoriety but it is brimming with the same fierce candour that inspired it.
In this hourlong set, which only briefly addresses the correspondents’ dinner, Wolf dives headlong into topics that she expects will inflame some viewers, including her story about having an abortion.
With her newfound visibility, Wolf wants to show people who she really is as a stand-up: not a political comedian, but one who doesn’t mind being provocative to prove that she can find the humour in almost any subject.
“I say this all the time: Don’t bring your baggage into my joke,” Wolf told me. “A comic’s job isn’t to be right or wrong. They’re just supposed to be funny.”
On an afternoon in early November, Wolf, 34, was in Manhattan’s West Village, enjoying a breather from a barrage of stand-up dates that have lately taken her from Rochester, New York, to Sacramento, California.
She has only worked as a comedian for about a decade after leaving a career in finance. As in her act, the authentic Wolf has a wryness to her, but she also allows herself to take genuine pleasure in things. She said she enjoyed travelling widely and challenging the preconceptions of her audiences, whatever their political persuasions.
“It’s been making comedy really fun to do that,” she said with no evident sarcasm. “People have such strong beliefs, and you’re like, ‘All right, but — .’ That tension is perfect for comedy.”
If her scorched-earth approach to the correspondents’ dinner irritated so many of its attendees, Wolf wondered why she had been asked to address them in the first place.
“What did they think I was going to do?” she said. “I genuinely think they were like, ‘We’ll hire a woman, there’s no way this can go terribly — she’ll be soft.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you hired the wrong woman.’”
Looking back on that set, Wolf said she had only one regret — “I would maybe go harder” — and felt that the firestorm of reaction had given her a new boldness. “It’s made me a lot less scared of opinions,” she said. “A lot of people hate me, and I’m alive. It’s fine.”
But she also said that the controversy took some of her focus off ‘The Break,’ a mix of stand-up and sketches, and that the show had suffered as a result. “It wasn’t the right time,” she said. “I don’t think I had a clear enough idea of what I really wanted to do.”
‘The Break’ is one of several attempts at topical comedy programming that Netflix has struggled with in its brief history. (A rare exception has been ‘Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,’ which has a more global perspective.)
Wolf said she sensed early on in the 10-episode run of her show that Netflix wouldn’t extend its order. Still, the abrupt cancellation of ‘The Break’ generated headlines — some of them arriving before Wolf could share the announcement with staff members — and seemed to leave the impression that Netflix was siding with critics of her correspondents’ dinner performance.
“It really gave people a lot of ammunition to be like, ‘Look at you, you’ll never work again,’” Wolf said. Even so, she said the end of the series was hardly a death sentence for her career. “A lot of great people have had shows cancelled,” she said. “But also, so what? Now I just go back to doing stand-up? My favourite thing in the world? Too bad.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Joke Show’ is now streaming on Netflix.