A Funny? Thing Happened Along the Way to the WHCA Dinner

April 29, 2018 - 7:56pm

Chip Sobel

  • Professional Journalist

A number of friends have asked for my thoughts re: Michelle Wolf's work last night at the annual White House Correspondants Association dinner. Having spent the last thirty years as a comedy industry professional, I suppose I should have an opinion. I do. And that is just what it is, an opinion. Good comedy makes you laugh. Great comedy makes you think. Bad comedy makes you ask for the check.


For the record I have no objection to comedy causing audiences to squirm in their seats. I define humor as something you hear or see that you did not to expect to hear or see. By its very nature political humor aimed at individuals, parties, policies, etc. is alienating. Sophomorically, approximately 50% of any audience is always going to be taken aback if their guy or cause is lampooned.


As for subject matter and how a joke is presented, a professional comedian enjoys the benefits accorded Americans under the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech more so than any other citizen. On stage they can literally talk about assassinating a president. The Secret Service picks everyone else up.


But here’s the thing: IT HAS TO BE FUNNY.


You can be as controversial and ‘in your face’ as you want, but brother; the punch lines better elicit laughter. And that brings us to Michelle Wolf.


Last night Ms. Wolf fell into the same trap that some before her did, particularly over the last dozen years or so. She forgot the cardinal rule of comedy. Borrowing from Donald O’Connor in ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ “In the words of that immortal bard Samuel J. Snodgrass as he was about to be led to the guillotine, ‘Make ‘Em Laugh.’” That is your job. If you can be funny and cause consternation, fine. But to make a joke for the sole purpose of sticking a needle in the audience or subject's eye just won't cut it.


To be sure, she had some very funny lines that did skewer the subjects of the joke –

“Just a reminder to everyone, I’m here to make jokes, I have no agenda, I’m not trying to get anything accomplished, so everyone that’s here from Congress you should feel right at home.”

“It is kinda crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan.”

“He wants to give teachers guns, and I support that because then they can sell them for things they need like supplies.”

“I’m not going to go after print media tonight because it is illegal to attack an endangered species.”

"I did have a lot of jokes about cabinet members. But I had to scrap all of those because everyone has been fired. You guys are going through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people."


And some of her lines that many feel went over the line were still funny –

"Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited, because I'm not really sure what we're going to get. You know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies or divided into softball teams. 'It's shirts and skins, and this time don't be such a little b----, Jim Acosta!"

"There's also, of course, Ivanka. She was supposed to be an advocate for women, but it turns out she's about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons. She's done nothing to satisfy women. So, I guess like father, like daughter."

On being 32 years old – “10 years to young to host this event and 20 years too old for Roy Moore.”

"Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don't do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You're somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor."


Unfortunately, the rest of her monologue was just plain not funny. Worse, it was delivered solely to be controversial. Michelle Wolf is a professional standup comedian. As such it is her responsibility to know her audience and tailor her material accordingly. As the old knight said, “She has chosen poorly.” Frankly, I blame the White House Correspondents Association as much as the act. As Wolf herself exclaimed after perhaps her worst offering of the evening, “Should have done more research before you got me to do this.”


The problem with this event is that they have not changed with the times. An annual event dating back to the Coolidge Administration, the dinner honors student journalists and bestows awards to its members for work produced the previous year. But something happened along the way. C-SPAN and other cable outlets started live coverage. It has since become the Nerd Prom, with news organizations pitted against each other to see who can bring the biggest Hollywood stars or controversial figures to sit at their tables. WHCA leadership annually puts more emphasis on hiring someone who is professionally funny but will cross the lines of decency. This is not a new phenomenon, a response to President Trump's attitude toward the press. For too many years the host has the chops to kill but instead resorts to showing just how cruel and offensive they can be in the name of trying to be amusing. Sorry, but Bill Hicks is dead. To show just how caustic this event has become because they know it is so well covered, even celebrities appear to be waning. When the two biggest non-political names on the guest list are Rob Reiner and Brooks Robinson, it’s time to rethink your presentation.


It is fine to bring in cutting edge comics to entertain humorously and make folks slightly uncomfortable. Case in point, Richard Pryor, the most controversial comedian of the last 50 years hosted this event once. The WHCA needs to ask for help getting the right act. The Comedy Caravan and TSM Artists stand ready to help. Next year get someone who makes his or her living doing political humor instead of just an act you have seen on cable. It is a distinct form. Until he just recently passed, Barry Crimmins would have been perfect. Want to make ‘em laugh, squirm and get compliments for hiring the perfect host? I have Will Durst on my speed dial.


Michelle Wolf is a proficient standup comic. I daresay 10% of those who attended last night’s dinner had ever heard of her before. It’s not her fault she was there. Can you blame her? She is preparing to begin her own series on Netflix. Saturday afternoon she was just another serviceable comedian with a few cable credits. Sunday morning she was the topic of every news show in America. Something about spelling your name correctly.


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