As happens after every White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (a.k.a. Nerd Prom), the question is “What did you think?” What did you think of the comedian hired to skewer the president, the press corps and the political class gathered in the Washington Hilton for a dinner that raises money for scholarships, awards and other things done by the WHCA? The query takes on an added urgency when the comedian crosses a line that offends the glittering precious souls in the ballroom.
Michelle Wolf, the former correspondent and writer for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” whose eponymous special HBO cemented her on the comedic map, didn’t just cross the line. She blithely blew past it like a bank robber through a red light — after plowing through a cement-truck barricade. I’m no shrinking violet. I love a well-executed salty joke wrapped in blue. But Wolf even had me agape and clutching my pearls.
She was a riot!
There are two things everyone should keep in mind about the comedian with the Nerd Prom gig. First, it’s a thankless job. Only delivering the response to the State of the Union is more a thankless task. Both have to thread a needle so difficult that most who attempt it fail. Only one person in each job has been successful in recent memory.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) did a good job in his Democratic Party response to President Trump’s first State of the Union address in January. Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show” killed it at Nerd Prom last year. His comedic flame alternately roasted, baked or flambéed his targets in the heart of This Town while paying respectful homage to the First Amendment. He got a standing ovation for it. Wolf did not.
Second, the comedian tends to be judged on how his or her performance comports with the tenor and tone of the president. Remember what happened when Larry Wilmore dropped the n-bomb at Nerd Prom 2016, the last for the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama? But when it came to Trump? Wolf totally killed it.
She was rough, vulgar, lewd, crass and every other synonym for offensive while delivering a set of remarkable personal attacks in a loud, grating voice. Sound familiar? Wolf said three of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words.” There were also references to male and female genitalia, feminine hygiene and male sexual performance, Trump’s sexual performance and porn stars. Wolf wasn’t even halfway through her 20-minute bit when I tweeted from the scene of comedic carnage, “This is definitely the most sexual #whcd comedy act…..perhaps ever.” It was accompanied by a “face with hand over mouth” emoji.
Like her predecessors, Wolf went after members of the press, the Democratic Party and Trump administration officials. No one was spared. Trump wasn’t there for a second year in a row, which didn’t stop Wolf from taking him down a peg (times infinite). And it didn’t stop Wolf from tearing into the person sitting at the dais in the president’s stead: Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The press secretary doesn’t engender empathy, what with her complicated relationship with truth and a demeanor at the podium that is a mix of rushed annoyance and condescension. Yet I couldn’t help feel a twinge of OMG as Wolf mercilessly ridiculed Sanders seated just feet away. It was as comfortable as when a comic uses a member of the audience as a punchline punching bag. But that feeling was fleeting. Wolf’s eye-popping routine was simply a comedic reflection of Trump, whose presidential library will overflow with coarse, rude, ugly and personal attacks. It probably won’t mention other things like, oh, being embroiled in a scandal involving hush-money for a porn star that was paid by his personal lawyer who was raided by federal investigators. Trump, his staff and Cabinet emulate his rhetorical disregard for the norms, customs and respect we expect from the presidency.
The criticism of Wolf by Republicans, the press and the public was inevitable. Comes with the job, and some of it I agree with. What makes it galling is that those screaming the loudest about Wolf are mute when it comes to Trump. The former is a comedian hired to tell jokes at a dinner where jokes are traditionally told. The latter is the president of the United States. His words, even the jokes, carry weight. They have real consequences and affect real lives. But we’ve become so used to the garbage that sloshes from his Twitter feed and his presidency that we have grown numb to how it sluices over our collective national psyche.
So, until some of this righteous indignation and moral outrage at Wolf is directed at Trump for his inattention to the Flint water crisis and the devastation in Puerto Rico; his silence on the heroism of James Shaw Jr. and the demands for gun control; his disrespect for the rule of law and his inability to effectively govern without striking fear in the hearts of American families, folks need to shut up about Michelle Wolf.
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