It is no surprise that critics have largely missed the point of Michelle Wolf’s sensational roast at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night. Beyond the brutal topicality of her material — which touched on abortion, immigration, sexual predation, climate change, corporate racism and political dishonesty — Wolf dared her audience not to laugh, but to groan in chorus at her charged punch lines.
Jokes like “Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I loved you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ ” and “I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress” doubled down on the deafening silence and audible groans in the room. Wolf confronted her audience with the sexist cliché that “Women Aren’t Funny”, forcing us to look head-on at the corporatist killjoys and their hacky, neoliberal cronies who perpetuate it to preserve their own power and legitimacy. At one point you can see a man in the audience instructing his wife not to laugh: “Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” he physically reprimands her.
What was so incredible about Wolf’s roast is precisely her refusal to give us safe laughs — jokes that would let the audience off the hook from their own discomfort and personal complicity. From her blunt opener, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with,” Wolf delivered a 17-minute set of brutally honest material, all formatted as jokes, but not jokes with punch lines meant to provoke laughter for the audience in the room. The material was written for them, but not for the purpose of making them laugh. I loved Wolf’s throwaway comments at the end of each joke (“Mazel [re: Mitch McConnell’s neck circumcision],” “That’ll solve it [racism]. We just needed an afternoon,” “There’s a lot of party” tonight [re: #MeToo], and “You might want to put a flue on it or something” [re: Megyn Kelly’s whiteness]), that audibly draw out the crowd’s intense silence and visceral avoidance.
These roasts are always missed opportunities because comedians tend to make safe jokes that allow their audiences to blow off steam rather than linger in the discomfort. If you can’t laugh it off, you have to sit and think about what the joke means. Previous hosts, from Stephen Colbert to Hasan Minhaj, have touched on charged topics while pivoting around them by way of widely pleasing punch lines. It is terrifying to face an audience, as a stand-up comedian, with no intention of making them laugh, but instead confronting them with their own complicity and irresponsibility. As Wolf put it, “It’s fun how values can waver, but good for you.”
This double-bind is much worse for female comedians, because getting the laugh is seen as a victory in the first place, against the rampant misogyny and sexism that enshrouds the gender politics of satirical laughter in this country. For example, think of the woman who was arrested and indicted by the Trump administration for laughing out loud during Jeff Sessions’ attorney general confirmation hearings — not to mention the deficit of female hosts on late-night television (with the fierce exception of Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal”). This is only the fifth time that a woman has been invited to perform at the WHC dinner. The last time was in 2015, when Cecily Strong’s laugh-laden monologue was further aided by Keegan-Michael Key’s special appearance as Luther, President Barack Obama’s “anger translator.” Wolf refused to let the people off the hook in this way. She spoke truth to power in droning, awkward segments rather than in ringing, populist sound bites.
The false controversy about Wolf’s Huckabee Sanders jokes (which provoked Trump to Tweet-shame her as “filthy,” a fitting variant of his “Nasty Woman” complaint) has nothing to do with what was actually threatening or noteworthy about Wolf’s performance. From her anti-stereotypical feminine voice to widespread discomfort about Wolf’s racially ambiguous identity, it is her ability to live in the gasp and double down — driving forward to the next topic, abortion, climate change, anti-feminism, racism, corporatism, immigration — with the knowledge that no future relief is in store. She’s not going to turn it around or win anyone over (even for the brief duration of an involuntary yuk-yuk), because short-term catharsis is not the point here. And by the way, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water,” Starbucks wants to solve racism in an afternoon and the news media, which only covers three topics anyway (Trump, Russia and Hillary), keeps giving Kellyanne Conway airtime even though we all know she lies through her teeth.
Re-watching Wolf’s roast, I marvel at all the horrified reaction shots and the sea of squirming bodies. There is a palpable sense that Wolf is not in control of the tone of the room. She avoids any script that would empower her for the short duration of her performance, because speaking truth to the messiness of libidinal power calls for more than tight jokes and witty puns. What’s so funny about Wolf’s roast is her stomach for delivering laughs that cannot be heard in the room because they are coming from outside of the White House, the press corps and the political establishment. Wolf’s roast is a feminist revolt against the tyranny of systemic power, and it’s completely brilliant from start to finish.
Maggie Hennefeld is an assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and author of “Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes,” published by Columbia University Press.