In 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.
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.
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?