The comedian discusses the difference between political humor and social commentary, cancel culture, and her White House Correspondents' Dinner speech.
Michelle Wolf is back on Netflix. A year after her talk show The Break ended its one-season run, the comedian has returned to the streaming service with a new stand-up special simply titled Joke Show. Wolf made a name for herself hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2018, but there are no super-topical jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders or other Trump administration officials to be found here. Instead, Joke Show delves into outrage over otters, Wolf’s own funny-sounding voice, and some real talk about abortion and feminism. But even when things get heavy, Wolf keeps everything very funny.
Ahead of the special, EW caught up with Wolf to talk about always finding the punchline, even when comedy veers into social commentary. Read the interview below, and catch Michelle Wolf: Joke Show streaming on Netflix now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wanted to start by asking you about the opening bit in the special. I think it’s fair to say that over the last year or two there’s been this trend in comedy specials, both by veteran legends and newer faces, about “cancel culture,” or whatever you want to call this new state of social discourse. Most comedians seem to frame it as “people are too sensitive now, they can’t take jokes” but over the course of your otter bit that opens the special, you bring up what I think is a more accurate pinpointing of the factors at play: People have access too much information at our fingertips and it’s kind of driving us insane. What inspired you to approach this from that angle?
MICHELLE WOLF: My major takeaway from what’s happening with “cancel culture” is people are so excited to get mad about something. Especially because it’s social media, it gives them a sense of power. Being able to tell someone “what you’re doing is wrong and bad and you should be punished for it,” it makes you feel like you’re doing something. You can go on Twitter, type “this person is bad, something should happen to them,” and then feel like “oh, I did something with my day.” I think people love to have this sense of, “I get to tell you what you’re allowed to do and what you’re now allowed to do.” I did it, I get that people like that, I get that satisfactory feeling.
But also, we’ve been dealing with this for centuries. Right now it’s just on Twitter, but the best part of everyone’s year was when they went to a beheading. They’d leave their farms, travel into town, and watch someone die. That’s what gladiators do. People would go to a stadium to watch a man get eaten by a lion. There’s so many different versions of this. People have always taken entertainment in people’s destruction. Deep down, it all comes from the fact that while someone else is being beheaded or ripped apart by a lion or burned at the stake, at least for those couple of minutes you get to say “well at least my life’s not that bad.” I think it rings true today. You get to go to a place and boo someone. It gives you this sense of slight satisfaction and power. It’s just so easy to do today because you can do it from your toilet on Twitter.
It’s better than getting eaten by a lion, but being Twitter’s “main character” of the day, with everyone dunking on you or even just commenting, does not seem like a fun experience.
Yeah, at least they’re not getting eaten by a lion. But today it is a thing where people aren’t looking for the truth, necessarily. And they weren’t back then either, when they were saying “she’s a witch!” But if something is said about you online and it gets traction, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, that’s who you are now. That’s why it’s dangerous, because then people will be like, “isn’t she the person who ate a baby?” And you’re like “no, she never actually ate a baby!” But people will be like “well I saw it on Twitter so for now she’s the person who ate a baby.”
I think the other thing we forget is that a lot of stuff on social media is trending when 10,000 people are talking about it. In the big scheme of things, 10,000 is a pretty small number. Some of us comics have performed for 10,000 people at a time. But it looks like a lot on Twitter, and if the news talked about it because it’s a slow day for them or they feel they can squeeze some juice out of it, it can become a thing. And it’s like, this wasn’t a problem! You made it a problem! It’s all a monster of its own making.
One of the best bits in the special is the one that starts with you talking about feminism and feeling out of sync with it, and then you get into this stuff about white women and their faults, and it’s getting to the point where you’re being so clear and serious that the whole room seems to go silent, as if you’re giving a sermon. And then you’re able to end it with this amazing punchline and redirect the energy. How do you balance being pessimistic or political while still always finding the joke?
I don’t think you should say anything in a special that doesn’t end in a punchline. If you want to talk about something serious or go after a heavy topic, great, but if you don’t have a punchline at the end of it, then I don’t know what you’re doing. Now you’ve changed this from a comedy special into a TED Talk. The whole point of comedy is to find what the funny part of that is. If you’re not ready to do that, you’re not ready to tell that joke. That’s one of my favorite jokes of the whole special because I put on this air of seriousness and it gets quiet and people are like “wow, what is she gonna say?” and then I turn it into a punchline! It’s one of my favorite things because people think it’s gonna be so heavy and I’m gonna make this progressive point, and then all of a sudden I just turn it on their heads, like, “No, you idiots! This was all a ruse to get you to laugh again!”
I got the sense that must’ve been a pretty fun bit to perform, stringing the audience along like that and then flipping it on them.
It really feels like you’re doing a magic trick. In the scheme of things I haven’t been doing stand-up all that long, I’ve only been in it just under nine years. So I still struggle with letting the audience get real quiet, and I’m proud of that joke because I do, I let them sit in that quiet. For the rest of the special I’m punchline after punchline, but I feel like that’s an evolution in the way I’m telling jokes and I was really happy to get there. I worked on that joke for a long time. At one point it got too preachy and I was like, this is bad! It’s a really fun joke to perform.
Do you feel like with the advent of Trump and other things in recent years that there’s been this growing expectation of comedians to be sober truth-tellers? You parodied this exceptionally well on The Break.
I don’t know what came first. I don’t know if the audiences expected comics to be serious, or if comics saw an opportunity of like, “well if I’m serious, people clap.” I think they’re taking that positive clapping approval as “oh I’m funny,” but it’s like, “no, you’re making a point.” I think it’s easy to make a point, it’s much harder to make a joke. You are getting positive approval feedback, but at the end of the day you gotta know, that’s not funny. I hear people say “oh this person said this thing, it was really funny.” I’m like, “did it make you laugh?” They’re like, “no.” So was it funny or did you just like the point they made? Those are two different things. One reason I don’t tell any Trump jokes is I don’t want that clapping of “I agree with you.” I want people to laugh, I want them to have the involuntary reaction of laughter because they were surprised or tickled by something. I think Trump jokes are too easy and honestly not even really jokes at this point.
What does it mean to have “political” material? Are political jokes only those that reference Trump and his administration? When you do the bit about feminism and white women, do you consider that “political” or is it just real life?
The division between political material and social commentary is such a blurred line. So much of what we deal with in life, yes, there is politics behind it. I talk about health care, immigrants, abortion, and feminism. Those are all things that have a place in the political world, but I try to tackle them more from a social commentary perspective. Sometimes people are like “those are political jokes,” but no they’re just things you’re dealing with in your everyday life. I’m not talking about it like, vote for this. When it comes to our social lives, anything can be made to be political, but I like to think of it as social commentary.
You got a lot of attention and buzz from your speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was a great example of direct political humor. You mention it towards the end of Joke Show. As you were building the special, did it feel like an elephant in the room that you had to mention somehow, or did it come up naturally in the writing?
It was one of those things where I wasn’t going to mention it unless I had a really good take on it. I don’t like to do anything unless there’s good punchlines behind it. That’s one where I thought, here’s a good way to talk about it. I keep it to the end just because I think it’s a good thing to close on, but every time I did a show and I brought it up people would applaud. I was like, “Yeah, I know that’s why you’re here.” But hopefully people who became fans of mine through the Correspondents’ Dinner just become fans of my comedy. I think the one thing people don’t really understand about the Correspondents’ Dinner in general is, I was hired to do that job — a job I can say I did very well. I can write jokes for anything. You want me to do a political dinner, I can do jokes for that. You want me to host a charity for something specific, I can do jokes for that. I can write jokes for anything, that doesn’t mean those are the only jokes I tell. You’re hired for a job, you do that job. I think I’m a sharp writer and a sniper when it comes to roast jokes like that, and if you didn’t want that to happen you shouldn’t have hired me. That doesn’t mean it’s all I am. A lot of times comics are more like family medicine. We can specialize in anything if we want to, but we can also do whole body. I think that’s the thing people get confused about, like, “now she’s only going to do political jokes.” Give me a topic, I can give you 10 jokes on it. I wrote for Seth [Meyers], Trevor [Noah], Chris Rock. That doesn’t mean all my jokes are Chris Rock jokes, that just means I’ve written for them before. I maintain I’m very happy with how everything happened, the jokes and how it went down, so hopefully people who like me from that just think this is a funny special. And for people who hated me from that, maybe they’ll watch it and be like, “oh, I like these jokes better.”