The negative reaction to Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech was so intense that the host organization issued a public apology. But don’t worry: She’ll be fine.
“This is only going to be good for Michelle Wolf’s career,” writer and creator of the CW’s “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Rachel Bloom told TheWrap. “Everybody knows her name and they’re going to check out her show now. Controversies are only good for one’s career.”
While many are judging Wolf like a TV news host whose show can be boycotted, or a politician who can be voted out of office, she is, in fact, a comedian. Comedians are judged by the number of tickets they sell, not the number of people they alienate.
Most of the Trump supporters who are now vowing to never come to her shows or watch her standup specials had never heard of her before the White House Correspondents Dinner. But many potential new fans learned about her for the first time Saturday night, when she called President Trump a broke racist and said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders frequently lies.
How do we know Wolf will be fine? Because she isn’t the first comedian accused of going too far at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
In 2006, a comedian delivered what would later be called “the most controversial correspondents’ dinner speech” ever. In just under half an hour, he insulted President George W. Bush to his face with a satirical defense of his presidency that was actually a harsh criticism of it — and blasted the news media’s under-scrutiny of the Bush administration’s claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
C-SPAN, which broadcast the White House Correspondents’ Dinner live, rebroadcast the event several times over the following 24 hours, but aired a segment that cut the comedian’s speech. According to Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, “numerous news outlets trumpeted President Bush’s performance at the event, but entirely ignored the scathing routine delivered by the night’s featured entertainer.”
That entertainer? Stephen Colbert, who now has one of the most prominent gigs on television, as host of CBS’s “The Late Show.”
The New York Times reported at the time that Colbert delivered a “heavily nuanced, often ironic performance” that “got in many licks at the president — on the invasion of Iraq, on the administration’s penchant for secrecy, on domestic eavesdropping — with lines that sounded supportive of Mr. Bush but were quickly revealed to be anything but. And all this after Mr. Colbert tried, at the outset, to soften up the president by mocking his intelligence, saying that he and Mr. Bush were ‘not so different,’ by which he meant, he explained, ‘we’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol.'”
“It’s fair to say that Colbert’s career did just fine after that,” Jack Pitney, professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College, told TheWrap. “When you invite an edgy comedian you should expect edgy comedy.”
There is at least one major difference between Colbert and Wolf: Wolf is a woman. Many of her critics accused her of unfairly targeting other women in hurtful and unfair ways.
At one point Wolf likened Sanders to Aunt Lydia, a loathsome character on Hulu’s dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She also joked that Sanders’ “perfect” smokey eye makeup was made from ashes of burnt lies.
“That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive,” tweeted Maggie Haberman, the New York Times White House correspondent and recent Pulitzer Prize winner.
MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, who was also the subject of one of Wolf’s jokes, said: “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.”
She got one.
“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” said WHCA president Margaret Talev in a statement. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Bloom dismissed the idea that anything about Wolf’s set was anti-woman. She also gave Wolf points for telling self-deprecating jokes, including saying that she was advised to become a mime because of her voice.
“The thing that stuck out to me was the writing,” Bloom said. “It was so well-written. What line did she cross exactly? Someone should explain it to me because I don’t get it. The person she insulted the most was herself.”
Emily Nassbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, noted on Twitter that “the idea that MW’s joke ‘called out’ Sander’s eye makeup is madness. She PRAISED her eye makeup–she said it was a ‘perfect smokey eye’–she just pointed out that it was made of the ashes of burned lies.”
Whitney Cummings, Kathy Griffin, Samantha Bee and Rob Reiner came out in Wolf’s defense. So did a New York Times editorial.
The president, who skipped the dinner to hold one of his rallies, predictably called Wolf a “filthy” failure.
“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
He probably wouldn’t have gone to one of her shows anyway.