Was the WHCD Comedy Act Really That Outrageous?

Posted: Apr 30, 2018 10:25 AM

Official Washington is abuzz over the comedy routine performed by relatively little-known comedian Michelle Wolf at Saturday night's White House Correspondents Dinner, which critics from across the political spectrum have blasted as mean-spirited and classless.  Conservatives and Trump supporters are furious over Wolf's treatment of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who represented the administration on the dais.  But that anger and disgust has not been limited to the MAGA crowd (whose fury over petty insults can be awfully selective).  A consensus quickly gelled that the entertainer had gone too far and been too personal:

A New York Times correspondent and an anti-Trump conservative commentator also agreed that Wolf fed a dynamic that helped guarantee that the net effect of the evening's festivities on Americans' regard for journalism was likely negative:

The organization that puts on the event put out a quasi-apologetic statement last night, stating that Ms. Wolf's act violated "the spirit" of its mission.  A few thoughts on all of this: The White House Correspondents Dinner is a glitzy weekend of DC self-congratulation; to pretend otherwise is to deny reality.  Yes, some awards are given out, and some journalism students are handed scholarships -- but everyone understands that the real point is dressing up, networking, glad-handing, and drinking.  Everyone also knows that the only part of the program most people look forward to is the comedy portion.  If the goal is to "advance the cause of journalism" -- a worthy endeavor unto itself -- a fancy weekend of chummy, privileged revelry probably isn't an effective means to that end.  The term "nerd prom," a so-called humble brag that I truly detest, at least has the benefit of capturing how many of the weekend's participants perceive the vibe and purpose of the annual extravaganza.  So unless there's a mass movement to end the tradition or drastically alter its format, limited bouts of navel-gazing and self-flagellation will occur each spring, while plans for the following year's gala will march full speed ahead.  Personally, I find the whole thing to be a bit gross, but also pretty fun.  To employ a cliche, it is what it is.  As for Wolf's performance, I offered a mixed review:

I actually cringed at the Sarah Sanders potshots, which became even more awkward as the in-room camera panned out to include both the comedian and her stone-faced target, sitting just a few feet away.  There's a way to ridicule someone to their face with a twinkle in your eye, using a light touch.  Wolf did not come close to striking that good-natured balance.  And her abortion jokes were just unfunny.  "Don't knock it til you try it"?  Ew.  Also, her joke that the anti-abortion movement is comprised of a bunch of male hypocrites who pay for their mistresses' abortions could have been directed at specific deserving individuals; instead, she used it as an uncreative slam on the entire pro-life ("anti-choice," to use her term) community.  

As I wrote in my tweet, I'm all for ox-goring jokes -- even those that mock my "side" or views.  But if they're not funny, they fall flat, and some of Wolf's jokes understandably bombed in the venue.  But I must confess that I'm not as angry about Wolf's set as many others seem to be. Comedy is subjective and messy, and skewering Washington the way it deserves to be skewered will always require ruffling some feathers.  The people and institutions she ripped were in-bounds, even if some of her specific jokes landed with a thud.  Also, this is apparently Ms. Wolf's style of comedy, so organizers knew what they were getting when they brought her in -- or should have known.  In any case, I laughed out loud at numerous lines, which roasted both political parties and the media.  She didn't reserve her fire for the Right, though she certainly had plenty to say about Republicans and the Trump White House.  While it's true that the GOP was disproportionately in her crosshairs all night, the GOP is also disproportionately (at least nominally) in charge of DC at the moment.  Still, she went after the Left and liberal-leaning outlets pretty hard, too.  For instance:

"Things are changing. Men are being held accountable. You know, Al Franken was ousted. That one really hurt liberals, but I believe it was the great Ted Kennedy who said, 'wow, that's crazy, I murdered a woman.'  Chappaquiddick, in theaters now."

"Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don't do...anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up.  You're somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor."

"We've got our friends at CNN here -- welcome, guys, it's great to have you. You guys love breaking news, and you did it.  You broke it.  Good work."

"We've got MSNBC here. MSNBC's new slogan is "this is who we are." Guys, it's not a good slogan. 'This is who we are' is what your mom thinks the sad show on NBC is called...I watch Morning Joe every morning. We now know that Mika and Joe are engaged. Congratulations, you guys.  It's like when a 'Me Too' works out...We cannot forget about Rachel Maddow.  She is the Peter Pan of MSNBC.  But instead of never growing up, she never gets to the point. 

But Wolf's most cutting indictment of the media, which has gone largely ignored in the brouhaha over her overall performance, came at the very end of her monologue.  There's some real, uncomfortable truth to this: "There's a ton of news right now.  A lot is going on...we could be covering everything.  But instead, we're covering like three topics. Every hour, it's Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel of four people who remind you why you don't go home for Thanksgiving," she said.  "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."  The nervous laughter in the room in response to those lines was muted and uncomfortable because, well, she had a point.  Here's Wolf's full routine.  You be the judge of whether it crossed the line (content warning):