The Wolf in the china shop

It’s been almost two days since Michelle Wolf, a comedian and former contributor/writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, performed at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, so she’s been spun out of the news cycle by now — much to the relief, no doubt, of the association. Her routine has been criticized in some quarters, according to reports from CNN and the New York Times; and late yesterday afternoon, Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, said, “[Saturday’s] program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

As Ms. Wolf herself pointed out in her routine, they should have done a little more research before issuing the invitation, if that’s how they feel.  Her 2017 HBO stand-up debut was the ironically-titled Nice Lady, and her recent tour was the less ironically-titled The Not Nice Tour. I was only able to get to her 19-minute speech (which you’ll find below) this morning and although “not nice” accurately describes some if not most of the jokes, the WHCA dinner has traditionally been more in the nature of a Friars’ Club roast than a rerun of The Ed Sullivan Show. There are several moments when she’s vulgar and crass; many of her detractors have condescendingly dismissed her as “not funny” (such dismissals being the last refuge of the humorless). Humor is always a matter of taste; I found her speech very funny indeed. A few of her jokes fell flat, though far fewer than I was expecting having read the press coverage; it was a tough room, and Wolf wasn’t planning on making it easy for herself. Perhaps next year the WHCA will invite a comedian who’s more middle-of-the-road and family-friendly, but I must warn them that Bill Cosby will probably not be available.

It’s likely that much of the controversy stems from Wolf’s comments about the press itself, which make up the last five minutes or so of her speech; she excoriates the assembly for having created the toxic media environment responsible for Trump’s rise and success. This ABC News story collects some of the more significant Twitter comments from attendees of the dinner. Some press women seemed to deliberately misconstrue her comments about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was Wolf biting the hand that had just fed her monkfish that really got under the skin.

Before this story sinks forever beneath this week’s avalanche of breaking news, it’s worth remembering that, however they think of themselves now, both politicians and the press have been the sitting ducks for scatological satire in the United States for three hundred years or more. Robert Hunter’s 1714 satire Androboros, among the first plays written in America, concludes with all of its politicians being dumped into a cesspool; more recently, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed the venal, opportunistic crudity of both politicians and reporters in the 1928 The Front Page. Reporters may be enjoying their recent movie idealizations in The Post and Spotlight, and politicians may be rededicating themselves to the fine American ideals of democracy and justice in their stump speeches on the campaign trail, but it’s always been the prerogative of political satirists to knock the arrogant, the conceited, and the greedy down a peg or three. And that’s just what Wolf did on Saturday night — she is in the fine American tradition of scurrilous and ribald political satire, and instead of distancing themselves from her remarks, both politicians and the press should be shaking her hand for genuinely speaking truth to power, whether that power is in the White House or the CNN press room.

If there were such a thing as a Michelle Wolf Fan Club — and if I were such a person to join such clubs — I would sign up as a charter member now. In lieu of that, however, it may be worth considering a donation in her honor to Pro Publica or Freedom House.

I never thought I’d be saying this in any context, but: You go, girl. And the WHCA should consider inviting her to perform next year, too.

Here’s her full speech: