You could call Michelle Wolf a great stand-up comedian (she is), but “comic arsonist” might better fit the bill.
Wolf used her set at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner to torch the event, eviscerating members of the Trump administration and reserving her most scorching punchlines for the president himself and then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “She burns facts,” Wolf said of Sanders. “And then she uses that ash to create a perfect, smoky eye.” So brutal were Wolf’s takedowns that a historian, not a comedian, was picked to host the next year.
Wolf’s new Netflix special, “Joke Show” (streaming Tuesday), furthers her brilliant repurposing of vulgarity to land points as frequently as punchlines. As in HBO set “Nice Lady,” and on “The Break,” her gone-too-soon Netflix late-night series, Wolf tears through jokes about topics like abortion, menstruation, and fragile masculinity with a ribald wit that skewers the hypocrisy of how such subjects are viewed publicly.
She envisions a world where men get periods instead of women, broadening this hypothetical into a scathing analysis of gender roles. A discussion of women’s rights shape-shifts, in a single line, into a bruising indictment of white feminists whose martyr complexes do little for people of color. Somewhere in there, there’s a great bit about otters.
But this special’s finest moment comes at the end, when Wolf addresses the now-infamous Correspondents’ Dinner. “Afterward, all these people were like, ‘You ruined the dinner!’” Wolf says. “And I was like, ‘I ruin every dinner!’” A reporter seated next to Wolf before the set, she recalls, told her he was surprised to discover how “vulgar” her comedy style was. Later, those critical of her performance would employ the same adjective to protest her most vicious jokes.
Discussing this, Wolf hones in on the special’s overarching theme, the most salient of her stand-up career thus far, about a double standard in both stand-up and larger society that welcomes vulgarity in men but rejects it in women. “Which is crazy,” Wolf cracks. “Because women are so much grosser than men.”
After the dinner, Wolf’s proponents observed she’d used the same words Donald Trump said, before he was elected, about grabbing women. “Joke Show,” an hour-long defense of women being as obscene as the obscenity of the world around them demands, is funny. But it’s also forthright about how, in times as vulgar as these, she’s just a dirty mirror reflecting the crude national soul.