I love Michelle Wolf’s comedy. I really do. I love Larry Wilmore’s humor, too, as well as many other left-leaning comedians who’ve entertained the audience at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
But I’m also a sociologist who has experimented with alternative-to-the-mainstream offerings in mainstream settings. What have I learned? Executing it successfully is a dicey proposition. It takes having the right person for the job who’s picked by people who understand what they’re trying to accomplish. From my vantage point, neither Wolf nor the Correspondents’ Association fills that bill.
I wouldn’t say Wolf bombed Saturday night, but I will say it was the wrong shtick for the context.
I wouldn’t say Wolf bombed Saturday night, but I will say it was the wrong shtick for the context. It would have been perfectly fine as a Netflix or HBO special, and certainly as a segment on The Daily Show. Those audiences would have loved it. They’d laugh. They’d nod affirmatively. They’d look for concurrence from others. It would be all good.
Saturday night at the Hilton wasn’t all good. That doesn’t mean there weren’t moments. There were moments, especially at the beginning. Here’s an example:
“I'm here to make jokes. I have no agenda. I'm not trying to get anything accomplished. So everyone that's here from Congress, you should feel right at home.”
That’s the type of joke that Bob Hope might have told. Jack Benny, too. It’s political, for sure, but it’s solid satire—so true that you can’t help but laugh. There were other examples, too.
“A lot of you might not know who I am. I'm 32 years old, which is an odd age: 10 years too young to host this event and 20 years too old for Roy Moore.”
“It is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn't even in contact with Michigan. It's a direct flight; it's so close.”
“There's a lot of print media here. There's a ton of you guys, but I'm not going to go after print media tonight because it's illegal to attack an endangered species.”
But as Wolf’s routine wore on, her comedy turned from satire to commentary that would have been better left unsaid. “If a tree falls in the woods,”Wolf remarked, “how can we get Kellyanne under that tree?”
Wolf made that comment in the midst of lambasting “the women of Trump”—Conway, Ivanka (“as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons”) and Sarah Sanders (“I love you as Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) She also got off a mystifying zinger at Mike Pence: “Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay.”
At that point I wondered, “Where is this going?”
For sure, I thought Wolf got back on track—brilliantly, too—with her so-true commentary about the correspondents.
“I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him.”
Listen, I can only imagine how difficult it is to do what Wolf did on Saturday night. But that’s not my point. My concern is that Saturday night’s “giant misstep” might mean the end of comedic offerings at the annual Correspondents’ dinner. I’m already reading articles recommending that call.
Even the correspondents’ president, Margaret Talev, has regrets: “Those 15 minutes are now defining four hours of what was a really wonderful, unifying night. And I don't want the cause of unity to be undercut."
It doesn’t have to be that way. And it doesn’t have to come by way of sacrificing political edginess, either. President Obama showed us how.
It’s a matter of enlisting the services of a master satirist. Anything less? We’ll get, again, what we got last Saturday night.