Michelle Wolf and the New Era of American Political Comedy

dd916420e08510c5430ac810627c268b_400x400In the year of our Lord two thousand eighteen, in the shadow of a now-infamous comedic performance given at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner less than 48 hours past, the internet and the U.S. new cycle seems to be catching up to the realization that we have moved into a new era of American political comedy. Recent years have shown us, not only a number of cultural and political changes that have profoundly affected the way comics do business, but changes within the comedy industry itself. Michelle Wolf represents the pinnacle of these changes: the new political comedy is sharp, it’s not afraid to be vulgar, it takes no prisoners, and is not here to fuck around. The new political comedy rejects the conventions of the polite (or at least more politic) white, male-driven comedy of years past, which, even when aiming to cause upset, targeted more the prudish and oversensitive than concrete power structures and person of influence. Now, comedy is a form of resistance. Comedy has a new face, and the conventions of the past are giving way to something new.

Michelle Wolf is, of course, not the first comedian to cause an upset at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. In 2006, Stephen Colbert gave a surprise, in-character performance that was highly critical of the Bush Administration. Like Wolf, Colbert received instant notoriety, a mix of praise and criticism. Questions of propriety arose, as well as the question of whether or not the Correspondent’s Dinner was a wise event to hold in the first place, but in the end, Colbert signaled a cultural agenda aimed at bringing down the pretenses of those who hold and misuse power. Later that year, the Democrats seized control of the House and Senate, essentially making Bush a lame-duck president.

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Since then, which is a relatively short amount of time, we’ve been through a lot. The onslaught of the Great Recession, the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement out of collective traumas, and the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, and the increasing visibility of trans persons sensitized us as a nation to questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, while the chaos of the 2016 election including the candidacy and election of the current president exposed us to the emboldened brutal callousness of a huge portion of the U.S. populace. That callousness has shown up in the public realm, not merely as angry conservatives vying for cultural power and privilege, but also as literal Nazis, White Supremacists, and White Nationalists in public discourse. In this shift, what it means to be funny has rightfully been redefined.

Colbert went on to host late night television. Jon Stewart, his Comedy Central colleague who himself was the face of an entire generation of liberal political humor, retired and Trevor Noah, a South African man of mixed race, assumed the helm of his show. The old-guard of Comedy Central went into a diaspora of sorts, with Sarah Silverman hosting her brilliant, unusual show I Love You America on Hulu of all places, Inside Amy Schumer being cancelled after four seasons, Broad City being scheduled to end after its upcoming season, and The President Show doing little more than reenacting and mirroring the real-life shenanigans of a chaotic administration. John Oliver represents the evolution of white liberal male political humor from being front-and-center on the most popular comedy network in the world, to hosting funny long-form investigative reporting on a weekly show on paid cable. American political humor evolved from white men behind desks, and it’s also evolved from irreverent but ultimately politic takes on topical issues.

Michele Wolf herself comes out of this tradition, being a regular as a correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. She represents the evolution American political comedy has undergone: it punches up, not down; it’s angry as hell but sensitive to the concerns of the marginalized; it refuses to be polite, respectable, or nice; it puts its racial, gender, class, and sexual differences front and center instead of hiding them behind the veil of proper decorum; it doesn’t take to elaborate performativity (a la Colbert’s overlong and complicated gag with the late Helen Thomas) but offers succinct, sharpened, concise, precision-guided and profanity-laced barbs. The controversy surrounding Kathy Griffin taught comedians a valuable lesson: in the age of Trump, there is no apologizing for yourself. Controversy is how this president came to power, and controversy is part of what will remove him from power. Comedy is no longer clowning. Comedy is simply effective truth-telling first and foremost. The needs of the moment demand it, and the spirits of American audiences thirst for that refreshing slap-in-the-face of plain-truth sanity.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders holding a glass of water while Michelle Wolf eviscerates her live on national television

Ultimately, the controversy over Michelle Wolf’s performance reveals more than it’s aware of, and what it reveals in its hysterically self-evident contradictions is the spirit of the moment we inhabit. Simply telling the truth is a radical act (her most shocking statement of the night, I argue is her closing line: “Flint has no clean water”); calling out lies is seen as an attack on persons who happen to have excellent smoky-eye makeup. To the merchants who peddle invisible cloth – the 24-hour news cycle, the sophists of political punditry, the access-first journalists, etc. – saying that the emperor has no clothes is an existential threat.

What better way to deliver that threat than through crass one-liners mocking the naked emperor?

Treasures of the Stupid Ages, Vol. 1: “The Tac-Sac™”

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Inspired by the Fox show Futurama (we don’t talk about Comedy Central), Treasures of the Stupid Ages is a periodical series of posts featuring compilations of some of the most idiotic and absurd links from around the web. In the interests in fostering a diverse group of stories, great care is taken to keep references to the current administration to a minimum.

My good friends, stop where you are for a moment and listen. No matter where you are, I promise that whatever sound you hear is the sound of a thousand gender studies papers being written. In case you lack the ability to use the Force to hear the sound of a million voices crying out (before being silenced by mansplaining dude-bros with tenure), it falls to me to have to bring you this dreadful information.

Some company decided that it was a good idea to design, manufacture, and sell a set of testicles for long firearms.

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As if the conversation around gun culture hasn’t gotten bizarre enough, you can now purchase “The Tac-Sac*,” a “premier high-speed, low-hang novelty accessory for your firearm, paintball marker, or airsoft gun.” Occupying that precarious space between “macho” and “gay,” this piece of ammosexual fet gear serves no practical function except to show off at the range (it’s definitely not intended to be used a foregrip, which if you ask me, is either a serious oversight or a missed opportunity). You won’t even need a gun, because you’re gonna kill ’em laughing!

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When you couldn’t remember if you were supposed to call it “Tea Party” or “Tea Bag”

 

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Also available in blue! Because get it? Blue? Balls?

If you wanted to make a purchase, sadly, you’re out of luck because the company has sold out and must wait through its refractory period restock their supplies.

The connection between firearms and penises is so well known it’s become a pretty tired cliche. What we see here though is something that singlehandedly appears to prove Freud right about at least one thing. But to see it made so…explicit…and with such audacity skips over from self-parody to something a bit more pathetic. It’s not just immature. It’s not just irresponsible. It’s not just tacky and tasteless. It’s tragically, and explosively, stupid. There is no intelligent rationale for this.

So, here you are, oh fragile masculinity, for whom owning and operating a gun for fuck’s sake isn’t quite enough to prove you have the cojones to be a real man. You’ve fallen so far down the abyss of toxic masculinity that you’re literally attaching a vicarious pair of gonads to your piece. As you fire and fetishize your equipment intended for the ending of a life, let’s hope that your more natural set of equipment doesn’t anytime soon go and actually create a life. No kid would ever want to have to explain to his friends why daddy feels he needs to symbolically enact any scenario in which his own genitals fells a bull moose or ATF squad.

  • I will not post a link to this site, for fear of 1) giving them traffic, or 2) baiting trolls through pingbacks. You’ll have to Google this yourself.

My Weekend With Winter Guard: The Freak Flags and the Freaks That Fly Them

I’m an individual of a certain age and disposition that makes particular forms of cultural media a lens through which I see new cultural experiences. My cultural diet has over the years has consisted of parody mock-umentary films focused on social outliers, such Michael Patrick Jann’s 1999 teen comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous which easily ranks among my top 10 favorite movies (I said it was one of my favorites. I didn’t say it was exactly a cinematic masterpiece). I have a particular place in my heart for the entire oeuvre of Christopher Guest. These films are the anti-sports films, the anti-popular teen stories. For every the Rudy, there’s an Angus; for every Remember the Titans, there’s a Bad News Bears. While my more “in” peers gleefully consumed such fare as Clueless and the Bring it On franchise, I was obsessing over Welcome to the Dollhouse and anything starring Parker Posey. Teen comedies speak to particular themes relating the experience of growing up – one’s social self, one’s family and education, and even one’s socioeconomic experience and family life. For a kid such as myself who was a chronic “joiner” and whose college application resume included leadership positions in marching band, Business Professionals of America, Texas Association of Future Educators, Academic Decathlon, and theater – and who lived with both feet on the wrong side of the tracks – those teen films that featured an earnest, quirky social outlier were a natural source of appeal. And those films, and the constellation of quirky cult comedies that I grew to love, profoundly inform the way I understand social relationships and cultural practices.

Which brings me to the topic of Winter Guard.

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This last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Southwest regional competition for Winter Guard, held here in town at the Coliseum at the University of North Texas. Before this weekend, I had no idea that Winter Guard even existed. I would come to understand it as a very unique blend of Color Guard (the team behind the flag and baton choreography in a marching band), theater, and staged choreography, all dressed in costumes reminiscent of Olympic figure skaters. The sheer amount of glitter, sequins, and spirit fingers involved is staggering. Each team performs a routine to a piece of recorded music, utilizing a sometimes-elaborate set of props, staging, and narrative. It can be light and fun, like routines set to popular Broadway hits, or it can be abstract and avant-garde featuring modernistic music and spoken word poetry in the style of Judy Funnie.

So.

At the risk of unintentionally or carelessly giving offense or insult to the persons dedicated to the impressive athleticism and artistry of Winter Guard, I’ve got to be real.

The entire affair struck me in a state of fierce ambivalence. My inner fag was rejoicing in ecstasy while my inner cool-kid critic was cringing (and yes, straightie, I get to use the word “fag,” and you don’t). Admittedly that says more about me than about Winter Guard, and I’m happy to dress down that inner critic and tell him to shut up and let people enjoy things. But there’s something more going on here, something that my socializing into the logic and mechanics of off-kilter social outlier movies teaches me to pay attention to that makes my experience of this fierce ambivalence utterly delightful, because had I been in an environment where this was a possibility, I would have done everything I could to have joined Winter Guard as a high school student.

There’s a social politics at work that makes Winter Guard a thing. These kids (and adults) are from the same crop that produce band nerds, drama kids, glee club singers, dancers, and a cappella choir singers – these are not your teen flick-style stereotypical “cool” kids, as cool as these kids may be. There aren’t football players or cheerleaders. Chapters of Winter Guard most often must invest enormous sums of money into costumes, props, set pieces, equipment, and travel, not to mention the countless hours of visualizing, choreographing, rehearsing, and performing the routines that make it to the competitions, meaning that these chapters arise out of schools and communities of at least relative affluence and leisure.

And I’m gonna say it.

It’s gay as fuck.

 

This isn’t just “Olympic figure skating” gay. This is what happens when all the Olympic figure skaters form an army and forcefully take control of the opening ceremonies. There is, quite simply, no heterosexual explanation for this.

Events like marching band and Winter Guard are outgrowths of military ceremonials. Some countries, in order to boost nationalist fervor, still utilize events involving elaborate performances of brass bands, flags, rifles, marching, and choreography. Understood in its historical context, Winter Guard makes perfect sense itself as a form of parody, which is why it so strikes my parodic imagination. Winter Guard is a queered form of nationalistic display, a ceremonial reflecting the destabilization of the social hierarchies that nationalism favors and promotes, and upon which it depends. The “cool” kids in high school are best understood as “normative,” because it is they whose lives and narratives construct the wider social system of “normal” and “deviant.” It is they to whom all that is “normal” belongs, including nationalist narratives and systems of social privilege. Without the “cool” kids, in high school or beyond, there is no nationalism. There would be no system of dominance of particular groups with particular characteristics over others. We struggle with thing like bullying and violence in schools, but we’re far too often blind to the insight that the reason we tolerate these things is because they’re social pedagogy. Bullying and school violence trains, forms, and disciplines kids into living in a society based on rigid social hierarchies and systems of dominance.

Something about Winter Guard, and the spirit behind it, disrupts the system of symbols used to legitimate nationalism. Rifles become wooden toys for tossing and spinning. Flags become flying steams of color and frivolity. Military-level precision, discipline, and physical exertion becomes, instead of an expression of power, an expression of play. Winter Guard replaces the stars and stripes with sequins and glitter, and the lethal force of an infantry brigade with the deft handling of a rifle toss with a behind-the-back catch. Ultimately, it represents a cloud of possibility: if these symbols can be turned around to frivolous ends, what about nationalism itself? What about militarism? What about social power systems?

For the many people who participate in Winter Guard, and its many fans, I’m sure very few of them don their tights, pick up their dummy rifles, and devote countless hours of practice and physical exertion for the sake of disrupting a power system. To them, it’s fun. It’s meaningful. It’s a way to work toward something with a group of other people, and to compete and strive for something beautiful and exciting. Their focus is on the thrill of perfecting that saber twirl and that coordinated hand off on the downbeat of the music, as the audience cheers when each rifle lands safely in the hands of the one who tossed it. Like the lion’s share of worthwhile endeavors, the magic of it can’t be intellectualized or summarized by a critic or an academic.

But for this raging homo whose academic streak dukes it out regularly with the kid who grew up watching dark teen satires, I like to think that maybe those brightly-colored freak flags are doing something more than just twirling in the air. I like to think of them as a form of blissful resistance and defiance, as they take these deadly serious trappings of nationalized, militarized power and turn them into something that would make most “cool,” “normal” kids cringe, as if to take the gun out of a soldier’s hands and, bedazzling it and using it as a parade baton, telling him, “Oh, yeah hunny, this isn’t for you anymore.”

Here’s to the freak flags, and the freaks that fly them.

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