Brow Beat

The Michelle Wolf Hoopla Exhibits All the Worst Tendencies of Comedy Controversies in the Trump Era

We’ve seen this routine before.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, Kate McKinnon  in the Fatal Attraction Kellyanne Conway sketch, Michelle Wolf, and Stephen Colbert.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by SNL and NBC, Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, and Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Saturday night, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Michelle Wolf delivered some brash jokes about the president, Republicans, Democrats, and the press.

And then they all put on a show. Trump supporters (not to mention Trump himself) took offense. Some prominent reporters wrung their hands. Exasperated liberals—comedians, comedy critics, assorted other Twitterati—countered by heaping praise on Wolf. And the mainstream press, at least as represented by the White House Correspondents’ Association, distanced itself from Wolf. It didn’t matter that the gravest charge (that Wolf had mocked Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance) was overblown. Nor did it matter that the actual mockery was weirdly convoluted. Everyone, by now, knows how to play their part.

There are four stock characters in these kinds of controversies: the hack Comedian, the petulant Conservative, the impudent Liberal, and the amoral Journalist. And you know their routines:

1. Comedian “trolls” Trump or his associates. Liberal eats it up.
2. Ditto, but then Conservative takes umbrage. Journalist reports on this uncritically and as though it’s sincere, whether it is or not.
3. Journalist sugarcoats someone or something bad, drawing accusations of “false equivalence” or “access journalism” from Liberal.
4. Ditto, but it’s Comedian who voices Liberal’s critique of Journalist.

Class 1 includes the rapturous embrace by liberal critics of Alec Baldwin’s garbage Trump impression (which was eventually, quietly, withdrawn), plus all the dumb taunts about Trump being gay with Vladimir Putin. A clear case of Class 2 was #FireColbert, when Stephen Colbert said that Trump’s mouth was Putin’s “cock holster” and conservatives masqueraded as white knights crusading against political incorrectness and homophobia. Past accusations against comedians of sexism toward Sanders or Kellyanne Conway have also, generally, fallen into this category. For Class 3, see the New York Times op-ed wars or the nonstop haranguing of Maggie Haberman on Twitter. Class 4 is exemplified by Saturday Night Live’s CNN parodies—including the Fatal Attraction–inspired Kellyanne Conway sketch—and by Bebe Neuwirth’s Haberman-esque character on The President Show.

The Wolf situation was most obviously a Class 1: Her writing and delivery were uneven, but it was deeply satisfying for many of Trump’s opponents to see her berate Sanders to her face. The now-infamous “smoky eye” joke was—honestly—pretty contrived, just confusing enough that conservatives could project misogyny onto it (Class 2).

Wolf was less direct but more skillful in her critique of the press (Class 4). Nearly all her material after the Sanders bit—about four minutes—was targeted at news organizations, leading up to this:

You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. 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.

As a comic insight, that’s not new. It’s the premise of SNL’s Kellyanne Conway sketches and of the duet between Trump and the reporter on The President Show: “We need each other,” “I love you so,” etc. But it was new to say it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which has gradually become an embarrassing symbol of media sycophancy.

And it seemed to be the main idea of Wolf’s whole monologue: The press is lame, as pathetic as a horny teenager. She declines to talk about the Russia scandal, she says, because there’s “a lot of liberal media here, and I’ve never really wanted to know what any of you look like when you orgasm.” The sexual material ties the entire set together into a coherent love story: Michelle Wolf lusts after Jake Tapper, exactly like SNL’s Conway, but is spurned in favor of the matronly softball coach/“Aunt Lydia,” Sanders. Wolf’s sexual self-deprecation—about her “small tits,” her “yarn”-y vagina—bring the point home, implicating both her and everyone else in the obscene drama.

If the Sanders bit felt misogynistic, maybe that’s because of this allegorical raunch. Wolf presented herself as a rival to Sanders for the press’ affections—a drunk ex crashing the wedding and taunting the bride. The truth-tellers, she suggests, are the women at the margins, not the podium: the hushed sex workers, the assault victims. Wolf identifies herself with both groups in her set: She begins, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with Trump, let’s get this over with,” and continues, “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’s no wonder, then, that some journalists felt threatened by Wolf’s performance and defensive of Sanders (Class 3). Comics, for better or worse, are able to provide the catharsis that old-school reporters can’t, or don’t. In this case, that meant spoiling the party. “Flint still doesn’t have clean water”; enjoy the panna cotta.