By Kent R. Kroeger (May 4, 2018)
American comedy is at a low-ebb right now and its not Michelle Wolf’s fault.
I can’t place my finger on why, but I just don’t laugh at comedians the way I did in the mid-1970s when Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Saturday Night Live were leading a comedy insurgency.
I was younger, of course, but it was also a time when former establishment comedians like George Carlin, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks had guided mainstream comedy out of the safe, status-quo-friendly humor of the 1950s and early-1960s (though Bob Newhart is the most under-rated stand up comic in history), to a whole new genre of socially-relevant and subversive comedians: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, Cheech and Chong, David Letterman, Steven Wright, and others.
[Cheech and Chong? Really?]
Another comedy renaissance twenty years later would give us Bill Hicks (dead), Sam Kinison (dead), Mitch Hedberg (dead), and the brilliant (and still alive) Dave Chappelle.
So, what has changed?
While nothing is as unfunny as analyzing comedy, now seems like the time to do it because many of us feel something is wrong.
Some critics have pointed out the meanness and over-politicization of today’s comedy, and others will point out today’s audiences too emotionally fragile. We are more sensitive and uptight. We’re so easily offended and so eager to be offended for other people that we treat it like an act of altruism on our part.
Can you imagine how social justice warriors would react to Steve Martin’s “King Tut” bit if it came out today? Talk about cultural appropriation. But my friends and I thought it was brilliant (and still do)…
Was Michelle Wolf tasteless or funny?
Every year the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) brings out the boilerplate media analyses on how inappropriate and tasteless comedy has become, particularly political comedy. This year with Michelle Wolf is no different.
“Imagine the outrage if a conservative had said those things about Samantha Power, Valerie Jarrett, or Marie Harf. (I know, conservatives aren’t actually invited to host the WHCD, but bear with me…),” tweeted James Hasson, a former Army Captain and now writer at The Federalist.
“Some good lines. And I’m very willing to laugh at brutal jokes. I did. Some of the personal attacks on Sarah Sanders were unfunny & would never EVER be told about a Democrat in her position. Also, if you’re going to make abortion jokes, make them close to funny,” was Fox News contributor Guy Benson’s reaction to Wolf’s act.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight,” New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker tweeted.
[Peter, The New York Times doesn’t advance the cause journalism anymore. That might be the better target for your professional angst, rather than towards a former Comedy Central comic.]
Of course, I still recall Stephen Colbert’s 2006 appearance at the WHCD when many of the same hallway monitors in the media were outraged at Colbert’s open disrespect for President George W. Bush, who was a body bag away from Colbert as he delivered lines such as:
“I believe in this president. Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
and then there was…
“I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”
For me, Colbert’s is the gold standard for WHCD comedy; but, there are many who would disagree. Many. Many. Many.
So how does Michelle Wolf compare to Colbert?
The smoke distraction around Wolf’s jokes directed at White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already biased many against her. Wolf didn’t mock Sarah’s looks, she mocked Sarah’s performance as a press secretary. And, frankly, I didn’t find Wolf’s Huckabee Sanders focused material to be all that brilliant. But it was hardly offensive or cruel.
But, overall, Wolf’s best stuff at the WHCD was as good as anything Colbert did. Her worst moment, as every comic has them, was the abortion joke which was really hard to watch. The most serious (and awkward) issues are where comics should be at their best, and Wolf’s scolding of pro-life Mike Pence was a career-threatening level of bad.
Luckily, Wolf’s other moments more than made up for the one bad joke.
There is no need to go through all of the good jokes here. I do encourage everyone to watch Wolf’s full performance (in the video below), if you haven’t seen it already.
There was one joke from that night that stood out for me. It’s probably more of a personal preference than an indicator of how good the joke was, but Wolf Wolf delivered one line that elicited a genuine, gut-deep laugh from me. It is one of those simple lines that just plucks an internal chord. A simple off-hand comment that most people watching probably didn’t even hear.
It occurred in the middle of her speech and it went like this…
“Republicans are easy to make fun of, you know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie. But I also want to make fun of Democrats. Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor. (pause) Oh, he’s a doctor?”
Wolf, who has a unique voice and deliver style, pulled that last line off perfectly. For me, that is the bellwether indicator of a great comic: if they can say ‘Nazi Doctor’ and be funny. She’s not just a professional comedian, Wolf is one of the best working today. Period.
And you don’t have to think the line was funny. But, even if most of a comic’s material isn’t working, if they give me three or four lines that I can’t stop laughing at, they’ve done their job. And for me, Wolf did her job at the WHCD.
Wolf’s full performance is here (and the “Oh, he’s a doctor” bit starts at the 11:35 minute point):
Wolf is the exception, not the rule
Late-night comedy today is drowning in undergraduate-level political critiques, and an unfunny obsession with our president and serial defrauder, Donald Trump.
Worse, late-night comedy hosts, who are generally well-paid (multi-millionaires), are too eager to marginalize middle Americans for comic benefit and treat them like co-conspirators in this Trump-driven political drama. It’s comedy pre-approved by the Wall Street-funded corporatists running today’s Democratic Party. It’s the kind of comedy you hear at your professional association's annual convention in Orlando. Obvious. Safe. And ultimately forgotten.
Even the most controversial comedians, like Bill Maher and Samantha Bee, are now just repetitive and exhausting — and about as sharp and edgy as a baby’s piss-soaked diaper.
If I were a progressive Democrat (I am a libertarian Republican), I would find Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO unwatchable, let alone any average minute on MSNBC and CNN.
But Michelle Wolf is different while eminently watchable at the WHCD and it does not surprise me that New York and Washington, D.C.’s access journalists (my way of saying, ‘not real journalists’) did not enjoy her routine.
The problem isn’t Michelle Wolf, the problem is establishment journalists and politicians and the mainstream comics that cater to them.
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