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Michelle Wolf Was Never Gonna Be Your Jon Stewart, America

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.

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Michelle Wolf Is the Voice Comedy Needs Right Now

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 Times report 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.”

“When I get to do standup at night, it’s like, the thing I get to do for me.”

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 a bathroom 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, and then 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.

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Shouting at the Screen

Comedians Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show) and Donwill provide commentary to their favorite blaxploitation films at this Halloween-themed edition of Shouting at the Screen. Afterparty with DJ Tara.

Thu., Oct. 31, 8 p.m., 2013

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Even Weiner’s Alleged Sexting Partner Loves Anthony Weiner Jokes

Who doesn’t love a good Weiner joke? They’re simple, yet effective, and since Tuesday–the day New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner publicly confessed that “some” of the explicit photos and chat logs unearthed by TheDirty.com were legitimate–comedians (and people who just think they are comedians) have been going nuts with the dick jokes.

Last night, Comedy Central hosts Stephen Colbert and John Oliver had a good old-fashioned Weinie roast, adding several new jokes to the Weiner canon.

Luckily for them–and us–these jokes a) have universal appeal and b) don’t ever seem to get old. Case in point: Way back in 2011, during Weinergate I, the young woman embroiled in the latest scandal retweeted a few jokes of her own.

Here are the ones that Sydney Leathers, the young political activist identified as Weiner’s alleged sexting partner, retweeted using her Twitter handle @sydneyelaineXO, and preserved for posterity by a social media research firm.

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HOLIDAY HERO

Although many performers might be using the holidays as an excuse to take it easy, Wyatt Cenac, perhaps best known as a correspondent on The Daily Show, is putting them all to shame. Instead of canceling his weekly comedy showcase Night Train, he’s turning it into a big holiday comedy extravaganza with stand-up from Janeane Garofalo, Michael Che, and Claudia Cogan, among many others, followed by a dance party. What a guy!

Mon., Dec. 24, 8 p.m., 2012

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Jon Stewart on R.A. Dickey: How Will the Mets Screw This Up?

According to R.A. Dickey’s agent, Bo McKinnis, negotiations between his client and the New York Mets are solid in terms of “a series of potential structures and lengths.”

What, then, are the sticking points? Bo says, “We’ve got a difference in terms of the actual dollars per season.”

In other words, the only thing they’ve yet to agree upon is money. Somehow, that reminds me of Steven Wright’s predicament that “I got this powdered water … now I don’t’ know what to add.” Without water, you don’t have water. Without money, you don’t have an agreement.

]
Several sources are claiming that GM Sandy Alderson is “genuinely
conflicted” over whether the Mets should keep or trade Dickey. But
since they haven’t made him an offer — either before or after he won the
National League Cy Young Award — it doesn’t appear that there’s much
conflict there.

The bottom line on what’s going on right now with Dickey and the Mets
was expressed last night on The Daily Show, when Dickey did a guest spot
and rabid Mets fan Jon Stewart asked him, “How will the Mets screw this
up?”

How, indeed. There’s probably a feeling among Mets players, that “Keep
your head down and don’t do too well, cause if you win the Cy Young
award they’re going to trade you on the open market.”

Dickey’s response to Stewart was basically the same thing he’s said it
form the beginning: “Golly, I’m hoping to be here. I love it here,
man.”

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Johan No-Shows Letterman

Mets fans are still basking in the afterglow of Johan Santana’s no-hitter, among them Jon Stewart, who began Monday night’s Daily Show with camera phone videos of him and his family celebrating in the stands at Citifield (see video embedded below).

About 45 minutes later David Letterman celebrated, too, with a “Top Ten Pitches Johan Santana Used During His No-Hitter.” My favorite, was No. 5, “The sinking split-finger spit-knuckle curve change up.” But No. 1, “The ‘Thank God there’s no instant replay’ ball” drew a big chuckle. I wonder if Johan himself would have laughed if he had been there.

]

Though it was advertised that he would be reading the top ten list,
Santana bailed on Letterman. Why isn’t clear. He told the press, “We
have to keep to a schedule.”

Well, yes, but Letterman is taped in the early evening, and the Mets
were only traveling down the road to Washington for a Tuesday game with
the Nationals, starting time 7:00 pm. . Couldn’t’ he have caught a later
flight or a train or even a limo? Whats’ the big deal? He isn’t even
scheduled to pitch until Thursday ( and maybe not even then, as manager
Terry Collins has hinted he might give Johan some extra rest after his
134-pitch effort Friday night).

Whatever the reason for standing Letterman up, the Mets are going to
need every pitch they can muster over the next 25 games, which may
prove to be the most savage schedule the Mets have ever faced.

It started last night with the first game of a three-game series against the Washington Nationals, who
are tied with the Miami Marlins for the lead in the NL East. Next are three
games with the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, followed by three games in Tampa
against the AL East-leading Rays. Then comes a home stand with three games
at Citifield against the NL Central first place Cincinnati Reds, three games
against Buck Showalter’s Orioles, who until a couple of days ago were
leading the AL East, and three more with the Yankees. The only soft spot
during this stretch is three against the Cubs at Wrigley. Then comes the
killer: four straight games against the team with the best record in
baseball, the Dodgers, in Los Angeles.

For the last couple of weeks, Mets fans have been shaking their heads
and asking “Is this real?” By the time the team gets back from their
final game with the Dodgers on July 1 (giving them a day of rest before a three-game set with the Phillies) I think we’ll know if it’s real.

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ISLAND FEVER

Hawaiian history not your forte? No worries. Think of Sarah Vowell as your quirky personal tour guide through 19th-century American imperialism. In her latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell (who is the “senior historical-context correspondent” on The Daily Show) explores the cultural clash that ensued when America went on an annexing spree and turned Hawaii into “the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.” Mix one part indigenous culture; a slew of Christian missionaries; assorted lepers, barons, and con men; let brew for a few decades; and top off with a smart-alecky narrative—this is Vowell’s version of a Hawaiian history lesson. Join her at Barnes &Noble tonight where she’ll be discussing her book and signing copies. You just might learn something new and unleash your inner history buff.

Wed., March 7, 7 p.m., 2012

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The Daily Show Live: Stand-Up Comedy from The Daily Show’s Staff

We’re sure Jon Stewart is funny on his own and all. But there are many people behind the man who make him consistently so. Tonight, Rory Albanese, the Emmy-winning writer and executive producer of The Daily Show, gathers his funniest co-workers for The Daily Show Live: Stand-Up Comedy from The Daily Show’s Staff. Joining him are Adam Lowitt (the show’s supervising producer), Jenna Kim Jones (self-proclaimed “eHarmony reject” and production assistant), and Hallie Haglund (co-author of The Daily Show’s Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race), among others.

Thu., Jan. 12, 9 p.m., 2012

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Jon Stewart Celebrates National French Fry Day with Obesity Stats and Weaponized Foods

Earlier this week, we brought you a recipe from Food Fest 365, a cookbook that features recipes for each of the year’s 365 food days. Monday was Blueberry Muffin Day, and yesterday was National French Fry Day. On The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart celebrated with some sad stats about obesity rates across the country.