I’m not at all sure I have a problem with Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday. I admire its structure, and I find the response fascinating.
Sure, she has a vulgar approach to humor that I don’t find appealing as a style, but I think what shocked people most was her standing there a few feet from Sanders, saying that Sanders is a liar over and over again.
This is ironic for two reasons: one, semblance and distraction is Sanders’ job; and two, that’s also Wolf’s job. Part of Wolf’s power, as a performer and (more so) a personality, is that we are left wondering how much of what she says is actual revelation and how much is fake. This is a foundation of comedy.
I admire the structure, because we don’t get the huge payoff at the end without the discomfort that starts at minute 9 and deepens through the penultimate sixth of the set, focusing on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. If there’s a problem, it’s that she delivered a great, relatively unvarnished political speech under the guise of a comic set. Of course Wolf didn’t say anything worse than the current president has said at his rallies, but how we fight is the fight, as I’ll discuss in a later post. So, while I can absolutely imagine much of this speech delivered by Joe Biden at a political rally (minus some personal asides about lady bits and the personal experience of being a woman), I hope we would not embrace such a speech without at least questioning its incivility.
We decry Trump’s assault on civility. We (sometimes) decry actual politicians’ and lawmakers’ abandonment of civility in response to Trump, and even preceding Trump, but why is the response to Wolf so much more vociferous than the response to Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” in the midst of Obama’s State of the Union address? It’s not just that Trump has changed the rules. Countless awkward attempts at going low have proven that Trump is a master of his unholy artform and his political adversaries won’t out-paint Kahlo. Wolf’s transgression is more specific than any perceived limits of civil discourse because she’s working in an incredibly specific form, but the form she delivered was not that which was expected.
Why is this such a problem? It would seem that we are disrupting forms everywhere these days. Of course news comedy has been speaking truth through the laughs (or larding the political commentary with laughs, as is more the tenor at Trevor Noah’s Daily Show), but those acts walk the line between news and comedy, not politics and comedy.
Good politicians are great comedians because effective politics unites (if not all, then a key majority). When we laugh together, we breathe together and synchronize our heartbeats, becoming more united than separate. Good comedians will get political, because our quotidian experience is political, and daily life is the grist of comedy, but the goal of comedy is laughter. Wolf’s set used laughter and aimed at homily, calling on her audience to act, to take responsibility for their situation. It was agitprop comedy, and it was brilliant–notice the big laugh of relief at the incredibly lame joke after the last Sarah Huckabee Sanders jab. That united breath of relief is the moment the audience let down their guard, opened their mouths, and made room to drink the truth Wolf laid into them in her final words.
The rule Wolf violated is that she delivered a great political speech in the role of a comic in a civil commons. She crossed from being the wise fool, who is able to speak truth to power with impunity into a duellist who stabs to bleed, a teacher who leads her class into the field. That endangers the event, because one of its essential aspects is the gathering of reasonable, law-abiding adversaries (obviously a group that does not include the current president–and to Wolf’s credit, little of her set was directed at that elephantine absence in the room) who agree to attend and submit to exposure and vulnerability with the understanding that everyone (both fool and leaders) is protected by the limited efficacy of comedy. If participants can’t trust in that protection then they may not be willing to attend, unless the event overcompensates to ensure their safety. Such overcompensation would neuter the event and spell its demise.