It’s profoundly unsettling to watch so many people misunderstand a joke at the same time. On Sunday morning, I moseyed on over to YouTube to watch comedian Michelle Wolf’s speech from the previous night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. A former Daily Show correspondent, Wolf debuted her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, on HBO in December; when I interviewed her late last year, she told me the title grew out of a post-election feeling that, as she put it, “We can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over.” So I was eager to see how she would handle the assignment.
“Why aren’t the people in the room laughing harder?” I naively thought as I cackled through Wolf’s unflinching routine, delivered in her clear and unapologetically abrasive tone (when I spoke to her, she compared it to Hillary Clinton’s: “Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!”). It was only after I finished watching the clip that I logged onto Twitter and realized that, even before the night was up, her jokes had been deemed “controversial” by the very media institutions the Trump administration is hell-bent on dismantling.
“Oh,” I thought. “We’re fucked.”
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The main source of this so-called controversy is a bit about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her quirky habit of lying to the American public on a near-daily basis. “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf quipped. It’s a line I once heard her deliver at the Comedy Cellar, where she performs often. It got a big laugh there, because it’s funny, and because no one at the club that night depended on Sarah Sanders to give them access to yet more White House officials who would almost certainly lie to their faces. To an audience of drunk tourists, that line was simply the truth told funny.
And that’s exactly what Michelle Wolf was hired to do when the White House Correspondents’ Association chose her to give this year’s customary ribbing of politicians and the journalists who cover them. For last year’s event, the first under the Trump administration, the WHCA hired another veteran from the Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj — “or as I’ll be known in a few weeks,” the Muslim comic quipped, “number 830287.” (Although Trump has broken tradition and declined to attend, typically the president not only shows up but delivers remarks of his own; in 2011, both host Seth Meyers and President Obama notoriously roasted Donald Trump, who had spent that year promoting birther conspiracy theories.) The whole point of the evening, as WHCA president Margaret Talev noted while introducing Wolf, is to speak truth to power.
So while it was unsurprising to read people like Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Fox contributor, register their outrage (Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is Trump’s director of strategic communications), it was shocking to read similar critiques from the very members of the press that the Trump administration has mercilessly attacked since the man took office. What I found most frustrating was the way female journalists rushed to defend Sanders over what they perceived to be jokes about her appearance — a reaction I doubt would have been the case had Trump himself been the butt of such jokes, which he so often is. On Saturday night, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski both took to Twitter to defend a woman who shits on their profession with every word she utters, and they apparently did so out of some retrograde sense that to insult a woman’s looks is to insult her value as a person — the ultimate slur. Never mind that Wolf’s joke had nothing to do with Sanders’s looks and everything to do with the substance — or lack thereof — of her character.
Mika and Maggie and Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News commentator who demanded Wolf apologize to Sanders, are performing the kind of coordinated upset I expected such journalists to exercise against the blatantly corrupt Trump administration. Instead — just as BuzzFeed was revealing that Trump’s Justice Department had removed language about the “need for free press” from its manual for federal prosecutors — these journalists decided to target a comedian who made a joke about eye makeup that in no way disparaged its subject’s looks. When a Twitter user pushed back against Haberman’s characterization of the joke as “intense criticism of [Sanders’s] physical appearance,” calling that takeaway “crazy,” Haberman responded, “Why is that crazy? It’s a fact. People can agree or disagree about whether it was fair or whether they were pleased about it. But that it happened isn’t in dispute.”
Is Haberman trying to gaslight us? There have been a lot of moments over the past two years that have made my stomach churn. A New York Times White House correspondent calling it a “fact” that Wolf criticized Sanders’s looks is one of them. The fact that so many among the liberal media didn’t get the joke says a lot about why the right has been ascendant in recent years: the left has conceded the realm of humor to conservative hyenas who aren’t actually kidding. By Monday night, journalists and comedians were registering their support for Wolf and their incredulity over the upset she caused. By Tuesday morning, the cycle of backlash had swung back in Wolf’s favor, and the journalists who had huffed and puffed about her insensitivity seemed to have backed themselves into a corner.
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Talev, a Bloomberg correspondent and an analyst for CNN, issued a statement on Sunday assailing “the entertainer” for delivering a monologue that ran contrary to the spirit of the event — which is not to “divide people,” but to “offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.” It’s as if the evening’s organizer were trying to convince viewers that we hadn’t in fact seen and heard what we just saw and heard: a rigorous and devastatingly funny defense of a free press.
Wolf delivered her monologue in a tone that implied not shock or outrage, but weary acknowledgment of a dire situation. After a joke about her ineligibility, at age 32, to date former Senate hopeful and alleged pedophile Roy Moore, Wolf added, “I know, he almost got elected, yeah. It was fun. It was fun.” She made a cavalier quip about abortion before granting, “I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion. You know, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress. It’s fun how values can waver.” She led the crowd through a call-and-response bit that likely hit Trump where he lives (“How broke is he?”), which culminated in a punch line that was so funny you could cry: “He had to borrow money from the Russians and now he’s compromised and…susceptible to blackmail and possibly responsible for the collapse of the Republic!” Ay-o!
The condemnation of Wolf from members of the mainstream media is more than disappointing; it’s despicable. To be fair, I’d be defensive, too, if a comedian swooped into my office and started doing my job better than I ever have. We’ve heard so much talk from the media about responsibility and accountability — those puffed-up slogans and ads in which steely-eyed reporters sternly cross their arms and promise to deliver the truth and nothing but to you, the American public. Wolf was exactly right to point out that the media “helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him,” and the backlash from gatekeeper lefty journalists only confirms it. These people wouldn’t recognize the truth if it screeched at them from the podium of a D.C. Hilton.