I was never a big fan of stand-up comedy. It's too crude and too male. In the past, it's always made me feel I wasn’t in on the joke. I mean, as a woman, I was usually the butt of the jokes.
When Amy Schumer rose to fame, suddenly my friends and I had a woman to laugh with about the uniquely-female aspects of life, like the strange male insistence that we "don't need makeup"—until we don't wear makeup and they tell us we need makeup.
So when Michelle Wolf entered my consciousness, it restored my faith in funny feminism. Many had never heard of Wolf—myself included—before her incendiary, headline-making set at this year’s White House Correspondents' Dinner, in which she dared joke that Sarah Huckabee Sanders burns lies and uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.
A few weeks after, I watched Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady, her HBO comedy special, on a plane. She starts her set like this: “I should point out I am a feminist. Now, I’m not like a ‘buy my own drinks’ type of feminist. It’s like, ‘I want equal pay! And a chardonnay… Well then, just the chardonnay.'”
It’s depressing just how astute that joke is. I'm speaking from personal experience. But it's refreshing how in-your-face Wolf is with her views. (It's probably why the Trump administration has such an aversion to her.) Wolf’s set had me howling with laughter—or at least working really hard to stifle it so I didn’t annoy my seatmates. When my friends picked me up at the airport, I couldn’t stop talking about how they all needed to watch her set.
On Sunday, Netflix debuted The Break with Michelle Wolf, a 30-minute “late night”-style show that aims to be a reprieve from more topical series like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. I watched the pilot episode over the weekend, and it’s good—perhaps it will become great—but it’s definitely a new place for women to laugh at all the terrible shit we’re depressed about. (Like having to choose between kids and career or having a serial sexual predator in the White House, just to name a couple.)
The conceit of the show is that Wolf makes fun of whatever she wants—her opening monologue takes aim at Elon Musk, Geico, and the supermarket that refused to write “Cum,” as in “Summa Cum Laude,” on a graduation cake. But The Break’s bread and butter is still the absurdity of being female.
But since “no one wants to talk about feminism for more than any amount of time,” Wolf dubs one woman-centric segment “Sports Smash!” disguising it as a SportsCenter-esque homage to athletics, complete with exclamations like “Airball!” and “She shoots! She scores!”
It’s during “Sports Smash!” that Wolf once again takes aim at Sanders, dubbing her a hypocrite (“Slam dunk!”) and insisting she’s not making fun of the press secretary’s looks, just her ugly personality, which she dubs ”the Mario Batali of personalities.”
Which brings me to my hands-down favorite part of the pilot: “I gotta be honest. I love it when someone like Batali finally gets caught,” Wolf begins. “For justice reasons, but now we can also make fun of how he looks, because no one’s gonna come to his defense. Like, ‘Hey, that’s sexual predator shaming!’” Then she gleefully launches into it: “Mario Batali looks like what happened if the Macy’s Parade had a #MeToo float. He looks like what a tuba sounds like.” It is incredibly satisfying.
Wolf is savage when it comes to defending social justice, which is one of the things that distinguishes her from entertainers like Schumer, or Lena Dunham for that matter. They’ve each seemed troublingly oblivious when it comes to issues that don’t directly affect them.
Take Schumer’s string of controversies: In 2016, she came under fire for doing a lip-sync remake of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” Critics accused her of appropriating a Black Power anthem and turning it into parody.
More recently, Schumer’s trailer for I Feel Pretty sparked outrage for its backhanded take on body positivity. But while Schumer claimed her intentions were good and her work was taken out of context in these two examples, her failure to publicly condemn writer Kurt Metzger for trolling sexual assault survivors is more damning.
Dunham, for her part, has been wrapped up in so many controversies in the last decade they’re honestly hard to keep track of. When Girls debuted in 2012, the show was widely criticized for not including any actors of color. Just this fall, Dunham and Girls co-creator accused a woman of lying about rape. And she and Schumer stepped in it together in an embarrassingly tone deaf Lenny newsletter interview to promote the latter's book in 2016.
Wolf, on the other hand, is refreshingly frank in her criticism of power and defense of civil rights. Here’s how she tops off a joke about why NFL referees should become cops: “Think about it […] they’re not threatened by black men, and their reaction to sudden movement is to just throw a flag! Or another solution is we could stop killing black people and address that we have centuries worth of ingrained racism in our society. But I’m just thinking out loud.”
The excitement I feel about Wolf and the criticism I'm leveling at celebrities like Schumer and Dunham isn't meant to pit women against one another. There are a lot of female comics out there doing the good work: look at Samantha Bee, for example. And Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, and Leslie Jones. Men too, like Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert.
It remains to be seen whether The Break will become the next late night juggernaut. But we need more voices like Wolf to cut through the bullshit (and there's a lot of bullshit in these fraught times) and tell it like it is—but also make us laugh along the way. That's why she's my new favorite comedian—regardless of gender—and I'm excited to see what she does next.
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