Washington has lost its collective mind over a comedian’s 20-minute-long set.
In case you haven’t turned on cable news or checked Twitter over the past 48 hours, everyone from New York Times and MSNBC journalists to the president himself have said they were scandalized by Michelle Wolf’s roasting at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Wolf’s fellow comedians, however, have risen to her defense. Several not only argued in favor of Wolf’s set, but said that most critics missed the point of her jokes.
The WHCA dinner has long inspired criticism from those who view the ritual with disdain — reporters shouldn’t even appear to be cozying up with the very gatekeepers they’re charged with covering, so goes the reasoning.
As a comedy gig, it’s long been notoriously difficult. A big, cavernous room filled with thin-skinned people wearing uncomfortable clothing is a comic’s least-ideal situation.
During roasts, the main target eventually gets to roast back. So the WHCA dinner format has become even more fraught under President Trump, who has skipped the event while in office. Trump is also known to directly attack journalists, calling them “the lowest form of humanity.”
“Trump has to some extent broken political comedy,” said comedian Guy Branum, who hosts a show on TruTV. “We for such a long time were working on a ‘Daily Show’ model of sort of scoffing at politicians and calling them undignified, and he owns being undignified. Figuring out other strategies to handle that has been complex.”
Wolf focusing largely on those in Trump’s orbit was brilliant, Branum said, because those individuals “purport to the dignity of being part of the establishment.”
On Saturday, Wolf told jokes about Trump, Vice President Pence, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. She also targeted CNN, Fox News and the mainstream media, saying they must secretly love Trump because they profit off him.
The comic devoted four jokes to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, including the line that “she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”
“That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive,” tweeted Times reporter Maggie Haberman. And MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski tweeted, “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable.”
Several comedians, however, say the smoky-eye was just a setup: The joke was calling Sanders a liar.
“She is to some extent being criticized because we don’t expect a woman to be that harsh,” Branum said. “After decades of always going after women for their appearance or gender, having a woman come after other women in ways that were just about their job performance almost left people vexed.”
As Wolf told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I made fun of Mitch McConnell’s neck and I did a small jab at Chris Christie’s weight and no one is jumping to their defense.”
In excerpts published online in advance of the interview’s airing on Tuesday, Wolf told Gross that perhaps people look at a woman and think, “Oh, she’ll be nice.”
“If you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not,” she continued. “I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves, and I don’t fit in that box.”
While critics also called Wolf’s set mean and vulgar, such claims are hypocritical, say her defenders, given Trump’s own use of profanity and insults.
“Enough with holding everyone else but the President of the United States and his staff to higher standards,” tweeted comedian Kathy Griffin, who herself landed at the center of a controversy after a gruesome satirical photo of Trump.
Comedy writer Nell Scovell, who helped with jokes for President Barack Obama, says comedians are stepping up in a way that journalists aren’t, pointing to the jokes about Sanders and lying. “If the job of journalism is to get at the truth, they need to do a better job.”
“I’m not the first to observe that we’re not living in normal times, and I keep going back to George Orwell’s ‘Two minutes of hate’ and that mob mentality,” Scovell said, referencing the ritual in the novel “1984” where people are forced to show their hatred of enemies of the state for two minutes. “What happened to Kathy Griffin, now it’s happening to Michelle Wolf.”
In a statement Sunday, WHCA President Margaret Talev said she heard “dismay” from members about Wolf’s monologue. The program “was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” she said. “Unfortunately the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Known as a hard-working comic who likes to make fun of everyone, Wolf operates by the “if you offend everyone, you offend no one” approach. Those who know her are not surprised by her performance.
“Few people go to DC and accomplish what they set out to do while staying true to themselves,” past WHCD correspondents’ dinner headliner and Wolf’s former boss, Seth Meyers, tweeted. “[Wolf] is one of those people.”
Another past WHCD performer, Jimmy Kimmel, tweeted: “Dear ‘the media’ — [Michelle Wolf] was FUNNY. Hire a juggler next year.”
“Michelle did exactly what she should do, which was she upset everybody,” said Anthony Atamanuik, a Trump impersonator who hosts the Trump-themed “The President Show” on Comedy Central. “That’s the role of a commentator and a bomb thrower and a comedian. Your job is not to make people comfortable and your job is definitely not to stay within the line. Your job is to say the things that make people uncomfortable and upset.”
For her part, Wolf said she “wouldn’t change a single word.”
“I wasn’t expecting this level, but I’m also not disappointed there’s this level,” she told Gross on NPR. “I knew what I was doing going in. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to cater to the room. I wanted to cater to the outside audience, and not betray my brand of comedy.”
She added: “A friend of mine who helped me write, he gave me a note before I went on which I kept with me which was, ‘Be true to yourself. Never apologize. Burn it to the ground.’ ”