Michelle Wolf interview: ‘I wish I’d gone harder at Trump and the American media’

The comedian who roasted the president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year tells Louis Staples why comedians are ‘not good people’, and why they should keep comedy and politics separate

Wednesday 17 July 2019 07:00 BST
‘Comedians are not good people! I don’t know how we’ve gotten this reputation for being upstanding citizens’
‘Comedians are not good people! I don’t know how we’ve gotten this reputation for being upstanding citizens’ (Reuters)

When it comes to making jokes, Michelle Wolf thinks everything is fair game. “If you’re saying something that’s genuinely funny, then it might offend some people,” she says ahead of her UK stand-up tour, which begins on Friday. “Comedians aren’t here to make the rules for what you should live by. We’re here to say the things that no one else will say and hopefully make you laugh.”

Causing offence is a topic Wolf knows well. Last year, she was thrust into the international spotlight after her roast at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner went viral. Given the all-you-can-eat buffet of material on offer, from the president’s alleged affairs with pornstar Stormy Daniels to the media’s inability to hold him to account, it’s little surprise Wolf’s set caused a stir.

Her critics seized upon one joke in particular, where she praised outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for being able to blend lies into the “perfect smoky eye” (it’s a make-up look, for the uninitiated). Wolf was vilified by right-wingers (yes, the vocal defenders of free speech and supporters of the “pussy-grabbing” president) for supposedly mocking the press secretary’s appearance, even though the Sanders jibe was actually one of the night’s kinder moments.

Trump fans frothed with predictably hyperbolic rage, even though she let fly with plenty of “deep cuts”, as she puts it, at Democrats and journalists too. Wolf joked that she wouldn’t “go after” print media, because “it’s illegal to attack an endangered species”, before saying that Democrats “are harder to make fun of” because they “don’t do anything”.

In hindsight, Wolf thinks that the “faux outrage” at her performance was a distraction technique, concocted by those who wanted to divert attention from her jokes about the media’s co-dependent, profit-driven relationship with the president. Looking back, she wouldn’t change a thing. “If you deserve to be made fun of I’ll make fun of you, whether I’m politically aligned with you or not,” she says. “I don’t regret a single word. If anything, if I’d known about the backlash, I wish I’d gone harder. I was on an airplane recently and this guy said to me: ‘You were really mean at that roast.’ I said: ‘You need to watch more roasts!’”

Speak to Wolf and it’s impossible not to notice that she’s one stand-up who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Having worked at US banking giant JPMorgan a decade ago, when Wall Street was on the brink of collapse, she’s clearly had to do so in the past. “I was the lowest man on the totem pole,” she says, recalling her days in finance. “They’d be like: ‘The printer’s not working.’ So I’d just have to figure out how to make the printer work. But the person I am on stage now uses a lot of the skills that I developed there. Every facet of your life helps you as a comedian, they all feed into one another.”

Before Wall Street or comedy, Wolf was raised in Hershey, a small town in Pennsylvania, where she grew up with two older brothers. She and her brothers made fun of each other “all the time”, but attending a taping of Saturday Night Live, while still working in finance, was what finally encouraged her to try performing. “I looked up the performers and saw that most of them started by doing improv,” she tells me. “After my first improv class, I was like: ‘Oh! I just want to do something like this. This is so much fun.’” Soon she moved from improvised comedy to scripted stand-up, and eventually found herself working in the writers’ room of Late Night with Seth Meyers. After working on The Daily Show’s relaunch with Trevor Noah, she landed her own HBO stand-up special Nice Lady, released just four months before her Correspondents’ Dinner set went viral. She opened Nice Lady by describing herself as a feminist (“Not, like, a ‘buy-my-own-drinks’ kind of feminist. We all have our lines. Mine is at the bar.”)

Wolf has worked tirelessly for the platform she now has. There were times when she was working 10-hour days on Wall Street, before doing stand-up gigs each night. She’d wake up at six o’clock in the morning to get into work early to be on the conference call with Asia, before repeating the process again. “I hear some young comedians today be like, ‘Well, I can’t afford this, I can’t do that, I need the internet for that,’” she says. “No, you’re just going have to be very tired for a couple of years! People like to find a way around the hard work. If you want to do it, you’ll figure out how to make it work.”

‘There was an expectation that I was going to be political, but that whole show was supposed to be a break from politics’
‘There was an expectation that I was going to be political, but that whole show was supposed to be a break from politics’ (Rex)

The laziness Wolf mentions isn’t just something she sees in aspiring comics, she also senses it in the way people consume comedy in the Trump era. Although many people first heard her making political jokes, she’s perplexed by the phenomenon of people looking to comedians to inform their political beliefs. “If you’re going to a comedy show because you want someone to tell you why the way you’re living your life is right, or what you should believe on political topics, you shouldn’t be getting that information from a comic! We’re not good people!” she laughs. “I don’t know how we’ve gotten this reputation for being upstanding citizens.”

But like it or not, politics now follows her everywhere she goes. She cites this as a possible reason why her Netflix show The Break was cancelled after 10 episodes. “There was an expectation that I was going to be political, but that whole show was supposed to be a break from politics,” she explains. “I think people expected me to talk about Trump and his administration. But frankly I’m just tired of that. My biggest goal is to convert the people who liked me from the Correspondents’ Dinner to just like my stand-up. And to maybe convert some people that hated me from the Correspondents’ Dinner to like my stand-up.”

There does seem to be a presumption that US comedians will be overtly political these days, though. On late-night talk shows, it’s common to see comedians break from their normal jokes to launch impassioned monologues about topical causes, from gun control to family separations. Others relentlessly mock Trump or have politicians as guests. Wolf is uncomfortable with the increasingly blurred line between comedy and actual, real-life beliefs – a distinction she views as central to her work. “When I’m speaking publicly, I never want anyone to take me seriously,” she explains. “I get asked all the time to go on MSNBC and CNN, but if you want me to go on there, I’m only going on to do jokes. I’m not going to have a serious discussion.” She advises fellow comedians not to go on these networks to discuss political issues unless they make their intentions very clear. “I think comedians have to be deliberate about that wall between ‘comedy time’ and when they’re being serious,” she says. “If you’re being serious, make very clear you’re not there to be a comic.”

But there are clearly issues Wolf cares about off-stage which make their way onto it. She proved this when ending her Correspondents’ Dinner set by shouting “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” – a reference to the water poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan. In a tense moment, she told the room full of political pundits and reporters: “You helped create this monster [Trump], and now you’re profiting off of him.”

In these moments, is Wolf crossing her own lines? She doesn’t think so, drawing a distinction between pointing something out, and debating issues at length or proposing political solutions. “When I’m making jokes, it’s my point of view,” she says. “I’ll point out observations, I’ll point out truths and then you guys can discuss them. What I said about the media profiting off of Trump, all that stuff is true. But that’s for them to deal with.”

It does seem that there are lots of people currently searching for someone to tell them what to think. Wolf thinks this is a part of human nature. “As you get older, you realise: ‘Oh, I need to find a set of rules by which to live my life.’ Finding those on your own is very hard,” she says. “That’s why I think a lot of people turn to religion, because religion is an obvious set of rules by which you should live your life. But if you’re not religious, then you’re still looking for those rules.”

But as a comedian, she thinks it’s her job to make us uncomfortable. “People want to live in an ideal world where everyone is equal, and we’re all living in harmony,” she says. “That would be great, but comedians live in the real world, in the dirty reality of it all – that’s what we talk about. Comedy is not what you want to hear, it’s what you didn’t know you wanted to hear.”

Michelle Wolf begins her UK tour on Friday at London’s Leicester Square Theatre

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