Michelle Wolf burns it down

Photo: HBO

At this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf pulled no punches, setting fire to the president who didn’t show up, his lackeys, and the press. If it turns out she destroyed this poisonous event: good.

Shockwave

Heading into the WHCD, I was expecting Michelle Wolf to perform a set similar to that of Hasan Minhaj last year: bold, but ultimately staying mostly within the parameters that the White House Correspondents’ Association expected. But this time, Wolf made it clear from the beginning that she was not having it.

“You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” — Michelle Wolf

Over the next 19 minutes, Wolf would land lines against Trump (“it turns out the President of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab”), Mike Pence, Ivanka (“the diaper genie of the administration: on the outside, she looks sleek, but the inside, it’s still full of shit”), and Kellyanne Conway (“if a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree? I’m not suggesting she gets hurt, just stuck”), among other suspects in the administration; and even pull off a great call-and-response running gag (“Trump is so broke”; “how broke is he?!”) along the way. As a viewer at home, it was a thrill to watch.

There were several moments that made me say “WHOA” out loud, including a line (“I did work at Bear Stearns in 2008, so although I haven’t been sexually harassed, I’ve definitely been fucked”) that wasn’t bleeped for TV. I knew right away that she had torched the place—the immediate feeling was unmistakable.

Of course, that’s the comedian’s job at this event. That’s what they’re hired to do. Wolf did it better than most, reminding me of the way Stephen Colbert made the same room tortuously uncomfortable in 2006, but the dinner is formatted like a roast, and roast them she did—to a crisp. Much like Colbert, she was not playing to the room, but instead to her own audience at home that knows her from ‘Late Night’, ‘The Daily Show’, and her upcoming Netflix series.

Scorched earth

That should’ve been the end of it. But following the event, as the reactions began to roll in, several journalists started taking a curious stance: oddly rushing to the defense of Trump’s WH press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who Wolf went after for a solid minute or two in one of the most effective parts of her set.

“I actually really like Sarah [Huckabee Sanders]. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” — Michelle Wolf

Here came the bad faith arguments: much like the time back in 2008 that Sarah Palin jumped on Barack Obama for saying “lipstick on a pig”, a critical mass of journalists began claiming that Wolf was insulting this Sarah’s appearance—even though she objectively wasn’t in any way.

It should’ve been clear to anyone watching the event that this was the case. So then why would members of the press push back against a comedian expressing her First Amendment rights in favor of a mouthpiece for an administration that would eliminate those rights if they could? I think it’s because she didn’t pull any punches against them, either: she called them out, specifically and harshly, for getting us into this mess. She got under their skin.

“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.” — Michelle Wolf

Someone needed to say it, and I’m glad Wolf did—in the room where it mattered the most. The room where the press cozies up with the power that it’s supposed to be holding to account. In our current era especially, the dynamic of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner makes no sense at all: the federal officials they’re snuggling up to are actively hostile to them every day and wish to do away with their entire industry. But to them, politics is just sports. It’s just a game with two equal sides and no actual ramifications. It’s just a job. They either don’t realize or don’t care about the grave consequences of normalizing the surreal.

Their calls for Wolf to apologize were ridiculousas one piece pointed out, “the only person owed an apology here is Ms. Wolf, for being scolded by the very people who invited her to speak, and who purport to defend a vigorous and free press.” Clearly we have hit a boiling point.

But maybe the tide is finally starting to turn. More than I’ve ever seen before, over the past couple of days, Michelle Wolf’s set spawned a conversation that spawned another conversation: why do we do this charade at all?

Aftermath

If you were a journalist, which one would you defend? The freedom of the press and of a comedian to speak truth to power? Or the literal worst people in the country, in order to maintain your access to them? The WHCA made their choice, throwing Wolf under the bus in a gutless statement where they couldn’t even gather the courage to mention her by name, instead referring to her as simply “the entertainer”. It was so perfectly pathetic.

Photo: NBC

Since the last election, it has made me sick to watch ostensibly responsible news outlets like MSNBC run sobering ads touting their ability to help viewers “make sense of these difficult times”—difficult times that they had a hand in creating by giving Trump a free platform to spout racist nonsense for years and keeping up the “both sides” false equivalence until the bitter end… and beyond. The WHCD exemplifies the worst of this world: a feedback loop where the hand feeds itself, while the rest of us—and especially the real people whose lives are being ruined by this administration—are left to suffer while they celebrate.

Just two days after the event, the WH press corps is already kicking around ideas of how to change it in the future, perhaps not inviting a comedian to perform at all, turning it back into its original purpose of being a lower-key event that honors the work of journalists and awards its scholarships, instead of the weird, pseudo-celebrity nightmare that it had become.

I understand how and why it became that way: embedding reporters with White House officials virtually 24/7 was bound to make them uncomfortably cozy, and having an administration like Obama’s for 8 years—where the president himself was in on the joke and a performer in his own right—made it a light-hearted TV event that all the participants felt good about, even if it blurred the lines between press and power in ways that were ultimately unwise.

But things are different now. This political era is not light-hearted. It’s brutal and awful. The WHCD is an event that has, until now, tried to survive unchanged in an environment that has completely and totally changed around it. Michelle Wolf went in there and showed them, brilliantly and crudely, that there is no room for niceties right now. She brought the fire that was desperately needed.

After the event, I thought to myself that Michelle Wolf might turn out to be the last-ever WHCD comedian. If that’s true, she’s basically a hero, she has done us all a huge favor, and we owe her for life. Seriously.

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