As Facebook and Google continue to swallow the advertising industry whole, media outlets ever more desperately chase those coveted clicks and eyeballs, luring audiences with the reliable bait of sensationalism. Nothing plays quite like shock and outrage, and when all else fails, there’s always a Trump rally to fill the time, or a “whataboutist,” bad-faith take to fill the op-ed pages. If the New York Times and CNN have disappointed with their urge to both-sides every issue to death, liberals have come to count on late-night comedians to step into the much-needed role of truth-teller.
Michelle Wolf is having none of that. Over the course of ten uneven but steadily improving episodes of her abruptly canceled Netflix series, The Break With Michelle Wolf, the 33-year-old comedian flatly refused to play this part. “I’m not gonna try to teach you anything or discuss political policy with you,” she vowed in the first episode. “I guess I’m sort of like a cable news show in that way.”
To some viewers, this may have seemed like a bait and switch; Wolf’s show arrived on the heels of her fantastic and somehow controversial White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech, which offered no mercy to the president and his enablers in the press. For those hoping for the second coming of Jon Stewart, The Break may have been a letdown: At its best, the show was a canny deconstruction of contemporary late-night comedy, which has been swamped with political satire since the former Daily Show host turned Bush-era liberal outrage comedy into its very own TV genre.
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In the three years since Stewart stepped down, the already blurry line between journalism and entertainment has thinned to a fine mist, a perpetual fog that leaves viewers blindly groping for solid ground. But unlike almost every other late-night host in the age of Trump, Wolf didn’t take this reality as an invitation to climb aboard a soapbox. On The Break, she wore the uniform of skinny jeans and high-top sneakers that she wears in her stand-up sets. She wasn’t fiery or pissed off; she was sardonic and irreverent. She’s the Vivian Gornick of comedy: Just as Gornick lives in service to the tale and not the teller, Wolf lives in service to the joke, not her own persona or crowd flattery.
Despite Wolf’s declaration that the title of her show promised a break from the relentless flow of Trump-related news, The Break was, of course, political. The show’s writers, led by Christine Nangle, demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the viral outrage cycle that is the news in 2018; in the opening monologue of the final episode, released on July 29, Wolf mentions that Ivanka Trump’s clothing line has folded, and instructs viewers to start buying up her wares now: “Nazi memorabilia tends to skyrocket in value.” In an aside directed at Fox News, Wolf adds, “Since we know you’re watching, we made this to save you the trouble” — and suddenly the screen is overlaid with a Fox & Friends graphic, accompanied by a chyron that blares, “‘COMEDIAN’ MICHELLE WOLF CALLS IVANKA TRUMP A NAZI.”
Despite The Break’s unapologetically liberal, feminist perspective — in one segment, Wolf presented a literal “salute to abortions” — the series didn’t only go after predictable targets of liberal indignation. The Break hit a high note in its eighth episode, which demonstrated the show’s stubborn refusal to pander to its left-leaning audience. Since this is a comedy show in 2018, Wolf declares at the beginning of a desk segment, one thing’s for sure — it’s going to be “sincere and angry.” “There will be graphics and facts,” she intones with rehearsed self-importance, “and it will feel a little bit like school.” She then proceeds to take apart the standard structure of such a segment, ending with a middle finger raised and a bleeped-out, “Fuck you, Trump!” The crowd applauds wildly as the words “standing ovation” appear in block letters on the screen.
The bit takes aim at the slightly smug, self-congratulatory tone of so much political satire these days: Can you believe I, a mere entertainer, have to do the media’s job? It finds a counterpoint in an earlier sketch that skewers the New York Times opinion section. Wolf plays a journalist pitching an editorial on foreign policy to the paper of record, before she learns that all submissions must first go through a Mad Hatter–like trickster on a tricycle named “Op Ed.” The man launches into a jaunty song-and-dance number (“Opinions are like assholes/I want to taste them all”) that suggests there is no logical editorial process behind the paper’s notoriously bad takes; there’s only an anarchic impulse to host any and all points of view, a carnival directed by a chaos-craving clown.
The sketch positions journalism as pure spectacle, just as the “sincere and angry” segment positions late-night comedy as a righteous fact-finding mission. The Break was the rare comedy to point up this contradiction rather than shrink away from it. It will be missed.
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.
Well, for one thing, conservatives conveniently abandoned Bush years ago. For another, it all makes more sense when you consider their historic lack of popularity with black people and their weird jealousy over it.
On the other hand, conservatives seem genuinely hurt and confused when black people call them names like “white supremacist.” You can see this most clearly in their annual aggrieved Martin Luther King Jr. Day essays in which they either try to claim MLK as one of their own (“King’s Orthodox Christianity is one of those inconvenient truths that a lot of people on the left tend to ignore” — Da Tech Guy) or tell black people to stop persecuting them with their contempt (“MLK Day proposal: Give the race card a rest” — Michelle Malkin).
Yet despite this helpful hectoring, most blacks keep voting Democratic, so conservatives sulk and brood, only occasionally brightening when a black celebrity says something that can be charitably interpreted as right-wing. Bill Cosby, with his pull-up-your-pants shtick, was their go-to for years, but for obvious reasons you see much less of that now. Chris Rock is their usual backup; here’s National Review’s Kyle Smith kvelling, “When he speaks about the destructiveness of porn he sounds like Ross Douthat.” (And I thought I was the only one who found Douthat hilarious!)
So when West busted out his pro-Trump tweets last week, notwithstanding that he also said, “I haven’t done enough research on conservatives to call myself or be called one,” the brethren were juiced. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are all well and good, but here was a black guy ordinary people had actually heard of and could stand to listen to!
Also, West wasn’t just saying things that could be read, if one squinted and had had a few drinks, as conservative policy statements. In fact, West didn’t stipulate any conservative policies that he approved of. (I’m not sure he knows what they are.) Yeezy was just saying out loud, in a variety of peculiar ways, that he loved Trump and his dragon energy.
But, as we have seen, these days loving Trump is conservatism enough for the brethren. And they were especially pleased to have snatched a person of color from what they portrayed as the liberal camp, and treated West the way the State Department used to treat Russian defectors.
“Entertainment elites are in total freakout mode,” exulted Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, “because one of its megastars, Kanye West, announced that he’s thinking for himself!” This she characterized as a blow to the leftist entertainment industry, who “claim that they have a monopoly on tolerance and inclusion,” but who proved themselves hypocrites when they “unfollowed [West] on social media.”
This also proved, per Ingraham, that “original thought will not be tolerated by this crowd…anyone who dares to question the ideological orthodoxy of the left, particularly a black artist, must be brought back into line.” Just like they did to Paul Robeson!
Steyn said West’s tweets were a threat to the “lockstep homogeneity of popular culture in the United States,” which was important because “pop culture acts as the great enforcer in America.” For example, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy voted for gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges because “the pop culture has told him to get onside,” perhaps in the form of an electro dance house mix. “It’s bigger than anything!” cried Steyn. Wow, such power — maybe pop culture will next try to win at least one house of Congress.
Lest you think only the TV conservatives were pumping this, the Resurgent — the oh-so-serious conservative site whose owner, Erick Erickson, recently blubbered that his old site RedState had purged all its NeverTrump rightbloggers — had no fewer than six Kanye-related posts, in one of which Erickson himself crowed, “Declaring himself a Trump fan, West dared to think for himself and the left is throwing a fit,” churningout think pieces about “how ridiculous it is to think the Democrats keep black people on a mental plantation.” (“Plantation”! Drink!)
Also, National Review had Kanye West posts by Jim Geraghty (“You can almost picture the looks of shock and horror on Democratic leaders’ faces”), Kyle Smith (“For someone as young, black and cool as West to give a thumbs-up to Trump was like an electromagnetic pulse that fried the left’s thinking circuits”; West is fortyyears old), and David French, who described the rich musician as a latter-day Giles Corey (“The liberal Internet piled on. He was unmoved. It kept piling on. He remained unmoved”). French also compared West to a “pastor” who had “abandoned his flock” of liberals. (It has become a thing lately for religious conservatives to compare liberalism to a church — which, perhaps for confessional reasons, they intend as an insult.)
Later West dropped a track from his — surprise! — upcoming album, a colloquy with T.I. about — also surprise! — West’s love of Trump. “See that’s the problem with this damn nation,” spat West; “allblacks gotta be Democrats, man, we ain’t made it off the plantation.”
The P word! You can imagine how that went over with the brethren. “Democrat Plantation Searches For Runaway Slave Kanye, In Bombshell Political Art,” tweeted Alex Jones, linking to an Infowars article featuring a cartoon by wingnut artist Branco in which — as Infowars described it — “an angry donkey who runs a plantation, marked with a letter ‘D,’ looks for missing slave Kanye West” (who looks more like Larry Holmes than West in Branco’s drawing). “Indeed,” added Branco himself, “The Left strokes out when any high-profile black leaves the Dem plantation.”
No one — well, almost no one — on the right seemed to consider the possibility that West had had that track in the can for some time, and had presaged it with a bunch of pro-Trump tweets not to promote conservatism, but to promote himself.
Meanwhile, Michelle Wolf did a comedy routine at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner that mocked Trump (who was not present) as well as the Washington press corps and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (who were). Among other things, Wolf referred to the indisputable facts that both Trump and Sanders lie constantly and that the press gives Trump lots of free media time to spread his bullshit.
Every conservative in America howled with outrage.
“Ugly, crass and at some points just flat out stupid,” sputtered RedState. “The so-called comedian really ‘bombed,’ ” tweeted Trump, who suggested next year the featured comedian should be Fox brow-squincher Greg Gutfield, who responded, falsely, that Wolf had resorted to “physical ridicule” of Sanders and that “if it were a conservative doing so, it would be called misogyny,” which Trump may have appreciated as an inside joke.
“My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner,” tweeted Matt Schlapp. “Enough of elites mocking all of us.” Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union, but as a non-elite lives in a trailer out by the railroad tracks and drinks Miller Lite.
Head-table media dweebs, hoping to keep their sources moist, joined the collective huff. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman also claimed Wolf had attacked Sanders’s “physical appearance;” otherhigh-priced journalistsfollowed suit. (CNN’s Chris Cillizza even accused Wolf of “bullying” the press secretary, which is like accusing David of taking unfair advantage of Goliath’s height.)
So if we learned anything last week, it was that attacking the most powerful people on Earth is shameful — while sucking up to them is a refreshing expression of independent thought.
Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”
At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”
Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.
Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”
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The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.
Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.
As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the termsexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.
From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.
Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.
My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.
I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.
Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”
Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.
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“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.
The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.
We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?
I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.
There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.
I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.
In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.
In January 2013, Michelle Wolf tackled her greatest challenge yet: She got herself fired. Then a 28-year-old aspiring comedian, Wolf had been working at a biochemistry research lab in New York City during the day and doing stand-up sets at bars and open mics at night. But she wanted to devote herself to comedy full-time, so, over the course of nine months, she pushed against every overachiever instinct in her body. “I did less and less work until I got a warning,” she explains, sitting in a booth in the Olive Tree Café, the restaurant above the Comedy Cellar in the West Village. “And then I got fired, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
With the severance, plus some money she’d saved up, Wolf devoted the next year of her life to stand-up. By Christmas of 2013, she was submitting a packet to Late Night With Seth Meyers, which was just staffing up; a couple of weeks after that, she was hired as a writer. In April 2016, after two years writing for Late Night and craving more onscreen time, Wolf jumped to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, where she’s now a correspondent. And on Saturday, HBO will air her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, a hilarious hourlong meditation on bathroom politics, feminism (“I’m not like a buy-my-own-drinks kind of feminist”), Hillary Clinton, birth control, and the innumerable everyday demands of being a woman in 2017.
The cliché of a working comic conjures images of a sad-sack dude shuffling to the club every night to dump his demons on an audience of cheerful tourists slinging back their mandatory two drinks. But, at 32, Wolf isn’t indulging in swooning platitudes about the fickleness of the creative spirit. Every morning, she wakes up, fills an entire French press with strong coffee, and drinks it all. Then she goes to work at The Daily Show, where each day starts with a 9 a.m. pitch meeting. The staff members go off to write and rewrite their jokes before gathering for another meeting in the afternoon to pitch ideas for the next day’s show. They run through a rehearsal of that night’s show, go off to do more rewrites, then return to tape the show at 6:30 or 7. Wolf is usually out the door by 7:30 p.m. at the latest. “Then I come right here,” she says.
“In all my years traveling the world doing stand-up comedy,” Noah told the Voice over email, “there are few comedians I’ve ever seen who exude pure comedy perfection like Michelle. If we’re all normal people, she sees the code of comedy like Neo in The Matrix.”
In between her staff writing duties, penning jokes for Chris Rock’s Oscar hosting gig last year, and performing a prototype of Nice Lady at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Wolf has done hundreds of stand-up sets at the Comedy Cellar, the venerable New York institution where countless comedy stars have honed their jokes. By her estimation, Wolf is onstage at the club somewhere between thirteen and sixteen times a week. Since her first performance at the Cellar in August 2015, she says, “I’ve been here every night that I’ve been in town and been available.”
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Growing up with two older brothers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wolf was the kid who’d come into school on Monday morning and re-enact the skits from that weekend’s Saturday Night Live. But that was hardly a career path. “I’ve always been a really big comedy fan, but in my mind, you got a job,” she says. “I didn’t think it was feasible to pursue an art.” Wolf grew up running track — she runs three or four times a week, eight to fifteen miles at a time — and studied kinesiology at the College of William & Mary before graduating and moving to New York.
She got a job in private client services at Bear Stearns, recommending mutual funds and separately managed accounts to people with too much money. Wolf also started taking improv classes at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), right around the time Bear Stearns collapsed and was swallowed up by J.P. Morgan. (“I was young and cheap, comparatively, so I stayed on.”) A few classmates at the PIT suggested she audit a stand-up course — Wolf suspects it’s because in her improv sessions, “I was making jokes rather than playing out a scene” — and she quickly took to it. “The thing that frustrated me about improv was that once it’s over, it’s over,” she says. “You don’t have any body of work or anything. I like the idea of being able to build something.” In an email, the comedian and Late Night writer Amber Ruffin wrote that Wolf “is a perfectionist, and it shows in her stand-up.” When Wolf first got an iPhone, she created a folder in her Gmail account to collect her stand-up ideas and joke drafts. She labeled it “work.”
That blinders-up attitude is on display in Nice Lady. Although it was taped in August, the special feels retrofitted to this moment, when the entertainment industry (for one) is cycling through a seemingly endless torrent of bad news about your favorite dudes. Over the past decade, the comic most closely associated with the Comedy Cellar has been Louis C.K., the subject of a recent New York Timesreport that confirmed years-long rumors of sexual misconduct. The introduction to C.K.’s FX sitcom, Louie, immortalizes the tiny basement space, tracking C.K. as he travels from the subway to the Cellar, stopping at the corner of MacDougal and West Third to inhale a slice of pizza. A regular at the Cellar, C.K. was known to pop in unannounced, even at the height of Louie’s popularity, to try out new material. He’d frequently pepper his show with bits of stand-up, the Cellar’s iconic brick wall and stained-glass sign forming a now-familiar backdrop.
The night after the Times article hit, Vulture sent a reporter to the club. She wrote that while most comics referenced C.K. in some way, others — including Wolf — did not. Wolf hasn’t just appeared alongside C.K. at the Cellar; in 2016, she had a small role in his self-funded TV show Horace and Pete, and last year, she opened for him on tour. In an interview with New York magazine last June, C.K. singled out Wolf when asked to name promising comedians, calling her “relentless, funny, consistent.”
But when I bring up, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Silverman, the “elephant masturbating in the room,” Wolf deflects. “In the biggest moment in my career so far, I don’t really want to spend time talking about bad men,” she says firmly. “I want to focus on me and what I’ve done and my hard work.”
The truth is, the fact of Wolf herself — her rapid rise to the top of New York’s comedy food chain; an hourlong HBO special, one of only seven that the cable channel has produced in 2017 (others include sets from Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Gethard, and T.J. Miller), and for which it reportedly paid an unprecedented sum; the way her comedy reframes everyday truisms, from an unapologetically female perspective, as totally absurd — all this is a powerful retort to the ceaseless flow of stories about celebrated men who’ve used their clout to keep women down.
“Michelle has the perfect combination for comedy,” says her former boss Seth Meyers. “She is kindhearted and also deliciously cruel.” Chris Rock, who invited Wolf to open for him on his 2017 tour, echoes Meyers’s sentiment: “Michelle is just one of the funniest people I know,” he says. “Like most great comics, she hates everything. She’s helped me out way more than the other way around.”
“Michelle has a very loud laugh to begin with, but it was loudest whenever I flubbed,” adds Meyers. “I would mispronounce something and would immediately hear her and see the silhouette of her hair bouncing. I am not being sarcastic when I say I truly miss that.”
Early in her special, Wolf uses her own distinct voice as a way into Hillary Clinton and why she lost the 2016 election. (“I think it’s ’cause no one likes her.”) When she performs, Wolf speaks clearly and deliberately, her voice scraping up against the top of her sinuses before crumpling into a contagious chuckle. “Somehow I got this weird Midwestern twang to my voice where I say my a’s weird — I say ‘cay-at’ and ‘hay-at.’ I don’t know, I’m broken. No one else in my family talks like me, or looks like me,” she says, referencing her shock of naturally curly, naturally orange hair. (“I’ve seen pictures of Carrot Top where I’ve been like, ‘I mean, we do look alike.’ ”)
“People have made fun of my voice for a while — rightfully so,” Wolf acknowledges. “This is a voice that deserves to get made fun of. But it wasn’t until people kept commenting on Hillary’s voice that I was like, oh — it’s, like, a thing. It actually helped me think of the joke. It was like, ‘Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!’ ”
In Nice Lady, Wolf jokes about sucking the helium from a balloon and realizing, with dismay, that it caused absolutely no change to her voice — an incident that actually happened on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. It happened, of course, at the Cellar. “Even when I write during the day, when I get to do stand-up at night, it’s, like, the thing I get to do for me,” Wolf says. She likens stand-up to a science experiment, a situation that’s totally under her control. “It’s my thoughts, my jokes. It’s the most fun I have. A lot of people, very often, they’re like, ‘You need to take time off, you need to do things for you.’ But this is more fun than the other stuff I do!”
That creative obstinacy has served Wolf well, and it informs the kinds of jokes she tells. She rarely mentions Trump in her sets, because it feels too easy, and because everyone’s got a Trump joke. “I’m very selfish when it comes to stand-up,” she says. “I want to work on what I want to work on.” But like a messy spill, the outcome of last year’s election seems to have seeped into every crevice of our lives regardless, and Wolf’s comedy is not immune.
“That’s kind of where the whole ‘nice lady’ thing evolved from,” she says, lowering her self-professed “crazy” voice to a quietly determined murmur. “No, we can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over. The time for doing things just to please other people for no reason — because it’s what we were raised to do — is over. We’re done being nice. That’s kind of the overarching theme of the show, so even though I don’t talk about it a lot, it’s more just like — yeah, I’m done.”
On a recent Friday night, I went to see Wolf perform at the Comedy Cellar. She was the only woman on the bill, and the last comic to go up. The show was sold-out, so I turned up an hour early, gave my name to a large man sporting a black “Comedy Cellar” beanie, came back at showtime, waited to hear my name called, showed the man my ID, was handed a slip of paper and instructed to turn off my phone, and descended the street-facing stairs down to the shoebox-sized room, where a waitress showed me to my seat. Each stand-up performs a fifteen-minute set, introduced by the night’s bantering host. Then you pay your bill, wait for the waitress to stamp your receipt, and show your proof of purchase to the doorman on the way out. On Fridays, the Cellar offers four shows a night, back to back, and this process, from seating the audience to delivering each patron her minimum two menu items to ushering the crowd out the door at the end, runs as smoothly as a Japanese rail line.
It was early, the first show of the night, but the place was packed and lively. In between the first two sets, host William Stephenson quipped, “Louie’s gonna come out and jerk off in front of you. I brought a tarp for the front row.” The audience laughed. A mother and her adult daughter sitting near the stage — the room is so tiny the round tables that make up the front row are pushed right up against the stage, which itself is so narrow, most comics end up hugging the wall — were easy targets for crowd work. It became a bit of a running joke. One comic, Des Bishop, commented on how attractive both mother and daughter were, then added, “Maybe that’s inappropriate. I’ll wait for Page Six to tell the story” — an apparent reference to a Page Six report that claimed Chris Rock dropped by the Cellar recently and tried out some sexual harassment jokes that fell flat.
Wolf went up last. She opened with abathroom bit from Nice Lady, and moved on to some new material about dick size. There was no hint of hesitation, no self-conscious hedging — she was confident, masterly, louder than anyone else onstage that night. The audience was in hysterics from start to finish, andthen we were out the door, wiping stray tears on the sidewalk in the cold November air.
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In October — shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke — Trevor Noah devoted a segment on The Daily Show to the topic of sexual harassment. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, “but I’ll tell you who I really want to hear from — The Daily Show’s own Michelle Wolf.”
Wolf took the stage in her uniform of long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and delivered a short monologue on Weinstein and the #metoo social media campaign he spawned. “Trevor is right,” she began. “This problem is bigger than Harvey Weinstein.” She talked about the “obstacle course” women tackle every day: “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!”
She closed the routine by pointing out that it’s not enough to just fire individual men who harass women. This moment isn’t just about sex; it’s about power. “My solution? Every time a guy gets caught sexually harassing someone, you don’t just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman.” The crowd erupted. “It’s a policy that I call, ‘Pull out your dick, get replaced by a chick.’ ”
Noah returned to the stage, microphone in hand, as the audience cheered. “Michelle Wolf, everybody!”
Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady premieres Saturday, December 2, at 9 p.m. on HBO.
“Semiretired” journalist Chloé Hilliard has written for Essence, Vibe, and the Voice, but like most ambitious New Yorkers, she decided one career wasn’t enough. She now pulls double duty as a stand-up comedian and show producer, and each month she hosts Comedy Night @ indieScreen, a night of up-and-coming and established comedians. This month, she welcomes Michelle Wolf (contributor to someecards.com and IFC’s Bunk), Boston-based comic Sam Jay, Amy Carlson (Real Time with Bill Maher), Nore Davis (MTV’s Yo Momma), and Yamaneika Saunders (TruTV, Oxygen, Fox). Come for the laughs, stay late for the after party with music by DJ Sean Malcolm.