It’s a great experience to watch a TV show miraculously become itself. The Break with Michelle Wolf arrived on Netflix in June already brimming with confidence. The host was coming off an astounding performance at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a real burn-this-mother-to-the-grounding for the ages. But initial episodes of The Break had the usual early-going late-night quality, scattershot gags, guest bits that somehow felt overly rehearsed and badly improvised.
And then The Break hit a new gear on July 15, in an episode titled “Sincere and Angry.” In her monologue, Wolf mentioned George Clooney’s motorcycle crash, riffing about how Clooney played Batman in Batman & Robin. “We don’t make fun of him enough for that!” she said. Well, to be fair, even Clooney makes fun of Batman & Robin too much — but shut up, Franich, she’s getting to the good stuff. “He’s the Hillary Clinton of Batmans,” Wolf said. “Perfect on paper, disappointing in reality, and nipples always rock hard.”
Wolf’s got a well-honed delivery, explosive but wry, like a cruise missile that playfully pokes you in the ribs right before it explodes. Her voice, topic of much self-deprecation, is marvelous; you imagine there must be a Pixar/DreamWorks/LEGOverse arms race to cast her as an animated sidekick who earns a solo spin-off. She moved on to the Thai Cave Rescue. “In America, the only time a coach leads you into a dark cave is Women’s Gymnastics!” Wolf said. The crowd ooooooo’d too-soonishly. “I know,” Wolf said, believably shocked, “It was covered up for decades.”
We care a lot about comedy in 2018. And, in 2018, comedy cares. Many late-night comedy shows have become halfway journalistic endeavors. Emphasis on halfway, but given how much nominally actual contemporary news TV is just well-dressed talking heads live-blabbing Trump calamities, why shouldn’t you watch the slightly funnier talking heads? And going political goes viral. We, the audience, have successfully incentivized moral seriousness in comedy. Importance is great for ratings: Ask Colbert, don’t ask Fallon.
Huzzah for engaged comedy! And yet, and yet, and yet. There’s this burgeoning staleness in late night’s hysterical topicality. You feel sometimes you’re watching the news with quote marks, What Trump Just Did performed with fair-to-medium impressions. The worst-case-scenario version of this is the lame reality karaoke, like Showtime’s laughless slog Our Cartoon President, or the more recent Saturday Night Live Trump sketches, the ones that trot out ever-more-glossy guest stars (Robert De Niro!) to play ever-less-specific variations of headline personalities. The less-worse scenario is the political monologue, shining bright on Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal and the segments on Late Night With Seth Meyers you actually watch.
A format that Wolf parodied, splendidly, when she moved behind the desk. “This is the time of the show when we do a viral segment,” she said. “Since this is a comedy show in 2018,” she explained, “This comedy segment is going to be sincere and angry.” She started talking about Anthony Kennedy’s departure from the Supreme Court, and called President Trump the devil. “The Cheeto devil, small hands, time to clap!” she said, going meta. The crowd cheered. “First applause break!” she declared, an image of sheep pictured next to her.
It was a political segment about political segments, the familiar structure getting explicitly mapped out: the Information Part, the Courageous Point. Wolf explained, sarcastically, how her sarcastic tone was setting up a news barrage. “You probably thought I was only gonna go after the orange clown, Trump. But I’m also calling out the liberal media. Wabam! Unexpected pivot!” A chyron for UNEXPECTED PIVOT wabammed across the screen. She went on, imitating the symphonic ranting of news comedy, the clapter-bait, the mad as hell sermonizing. “Trump is bad! The news is bad!” she said. “Children in cages, gun reform yesterday, nevertheless I persisted, this is comedy now, and finally, the meticulously crafted, clippable, GIFable, jif-able takedown that will fix everything, change minds, and save the republic!”
It was hilarious, a rant about rants. It was also, I think, a complicated commentary. You want to pitch this in clippable, GIFable terms: Michelle Wolf versus the Late Night Establishment! But Wolf rose through the news-comedy complex: She worked on Late Night and The Daily Show. (Meyers, her old boss, was a guest on The Break). The target here could be we, the audience, seeking churchlike solace from funny TV people, demanding via clicks that all humor be Trump-adjacent.
I guess you could look at this segment as an inevitable evolution: We had TV news, then we had TV shows making fun of TV news, and now we have a TV show making fun of TV shows making fun of TV news. I interpreted it, mainly, as a reflexive statement, a comedian steeped in late night pondering a new direction in late night comedy. “Writing jokes is hard,” Wolf said. “You know what’s easier? The earnest plea.” She was voicing a variation of an old idea beloved by jokesters: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Still, circa 2018, it was a boldfaced assertion. Earnestness = easy, whereas jokes = difficult.
Wolf’s delivery is apocalyptically cheerful, but watching The Break‘s first 10 episodes, you wondered if she’s just exasperated. “When it comes to Trump and comedy, everyone says the jokes write themselves” she said on this Sunday’s episode. “And I’m starting to think that’s true. It’s probably why all the jokes are so bad and hacky!”
Shots fired, but Wolf had a larger point about comedy’s presidential fixation. “Talking about him all the time is exactly what he wants,” she said, “And I don’t wanna do that.”
This statement led into an entire second monologue, the topic what you might call anti-political, with Wolf musing on the recent scientific discovery that crows engage in necrophilia. Why, Wolf pondered, was no one talking about this? “We’re all obsessed with some bulls— people said on Twitter today or nine years ago,” Wolf said, an oblique reference to the James Gunn situation, probably. It’s the hardest pitch in show business: You’re all focusing on the wrong thing. A tough argument to win, even when you’re right.
Is it possible for a late night comedy to be that in 2018? Absurdist, anti-topical, explicitly focused away from Trump’s latest tweets? If you’re mad as hell, shouldn’t you tell people you’re not gonna take it anymore? It’s something Wolf wrestled with throughout these 10 episodes. She’s got a knack for non sequitur riffing (“Everything about Harry Potter sounds like a name for your vagina”) but her audience applauds Trump jabs, same as the rest of us.
Her “Salute to Abortion” felt like a precise version of the news-based comedy that The Break is aiming for. At times she was blunt (“Abortions are super common, and the stigma is bulls—!”), but when she got to the climactic moment of the segment — the moment when other hosts might pivot into an Earnest Plea — she was suddenly leading a marching band. It’s her second-most-watched bit on YouTube — which means it has less YouTube views than Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, and James Corden talking about Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that time when Wolf herself became the news they tell lame jokes about.
Obviously, Netflix doesn’t have to care about YouTube — or indeed, any obvious metrics of viewership. The Break unveiled new episodes on Sundays, which feels like a not-quite-right release window. Some titular point of this show is how Wolf’s trying to give you a respite from the usual flow of the political-comedical industrial complex. Maybe Tuesday or Thursday would be better, a “break” in the midst of a work week? I realize even talking about “release windows” is weird with Netflix, and even calling The Break a “late night” show is a bit of a misnomer. (I usually watched it over breakfast on Monday morning.)
But I worry not enough people have discovered The Break, and they should. This Sunday’s installment ended its initial run of episodes. It’s not clear when the show will return. I’m optimistic, hoping we get a lot more very soon. The last few episodes were the show’s best. There were no more guests, and should never be again. The sketches have gotten sharper. The July 15 episode had one skewering ’70s art films about old men falling in poetic love with underage girls, and last week had a delirious faux ICE ad with a sledgehammer point so obvious (ICE is like ISIS!) that it made the inevitable Fox News rebuttal look like part of the joke. Wolf can be a deadpan delight in character; her oft-repeated mantra “I’m under indictment!” in “Strong Female Lead” is the funniest thing I’ve heard all year.
And for all her performative bombast, there’s something admirably low-key about Wolf’s hosting. “I’m just a vulgar, mouthy bitch who tells jokes about f—ed up s—!” she said in one episode. There’s a lot of f—ed up s— lately. Jokes won’t fix everything. But whoever said comedy had to do anything? At its best, Wolf’s show has been an earnest plea to keep laughing. It’s a break from bleak times, like how a breath of fresh air is a nice break from drowning. B+