“No, don’t you start groaning already!”
Michelle Wolf expounded on the limits of propriety in her fiery debut stand-up special, Nice Lady, just months before hosting the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Yet, when the comedian and former Daily Show contributor/writer took the opportunity to excoriate the press and the Trump administration for their symbiotic relationship, observing that one hand profits off the Mystic Tan-stained other, pearls were clutched in newsrooms and across Twitter feeds. Wolf was taken to task by members of the legacy media, who misinterpreted one joke and wrote off the rest as not being in the spirit of an event that is essentially a roast (that is, when the guest of so-called honor actually has the nerve to attend).
It was the kind of controversy that might make even the most politics-focused comedian reconsider their career path. But as Wolf’s pointed out in interviews, she’s not a political comedian—she’s just a comedian who boasts the ability to find humor in all subjects, whether it’s menstruation, sexism, true crime shows, or yes, politics. Starting with its innocuous title, Wolf’s new Netflix special, Joke Show, aims to re-contextualize her brand of comedy, not distance her from the WHCD debacle (though she slips in one Trump joke). It’s a reliably ribald hour, full of observations about the way the notion of a gender binary just ends up hindering everyone, though that’s not how Wolf presents it. Again, she’s not preaching or even chastising, despite the vaguely cathedral look of the paneling behind her on stage, which is why she doesn’t appreciate fans who try to give her a guilt trip on Instagram.
Joke Show features some of Wolf’s finest and subtlest joke construction; she earns early laughs with the bit about Instagram and otter rape—it’s probably best if you hear it for yourself—which doubles as a statement on the presumption of familiarity that access (read: technology) gives us. This opens up a dialogue on how caustic the discourse has gotten, especially online: “You don’t have to have a stance on everything... We get mad before we get logical,” Wolf says. The observation that no one is really listening anymore is a common one outside of Wolf’s stand-up, but thankfully, she doesn’t rest there. Wolf moves onto period jokes, which delivered some inspired moments in Nice Lady, but that recapitulation is actually a feint, because the joke that lands at the 41-minute mark is an all-timer. It’s also bound to hurt the feelings of anyone who’s ever felt they were helping marginalized people because “we’re all in the same boat.”
More than anything, Joke Show reminds us that the personal is political, whether we’re talking about access to birth control and hygiene products or scolding women for talking about those things openly, so Wolf doesn’t need to recount the week’s events from behind a desk to deliver a message. Not that she’s looking to do that when she goes into detail about the byproducts of menstruation. Joke Show is great stand-up from a great comedian who knows there’s life—and comedy—after Trump.