Michelle Wolf: The Comedian’s Sacred Responsibility

May 3, 2018

TAA 0018 – C. Travis Webb and Seph Rodney discuss Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House’s Correspondence Dinner. What is the role of the comedian in a civil society? In what ways are political upheaval’s related to social etiquette?

C.T. WEBB 00:17 [music] Good afternoon, good morning or good evening, and welcome to The American Age podcast. Today, I am talking to Seph Rodney, who before I even let him say hello, I’m going to say thanks because Seph literally got out of surgery like 10 minutes ago [laughter] and is soldiering on and meeting me to do the podcast today. So it’s very much appreciated. Seph, how are you feeling?
S. RODNEY 00:40 I’m okay. I mean, I’m recovering. I had a little, a small … it is actually a small procedure done on my neck. It took less than an hour, and the doctor and his team at Mount Sinai were really attentive and caring and good. And so I’m grateful for that. And I took a nap and so I think I … I’m not ready to run a marathon [laughter], but I think I can do this.
C.T. WEBB 01:10 Be ready to watch one [laughter].
S. RODNEY 01:14 I think I can do this. I think we’re … Houston, we’re good to go.
C.T. WEBB 01:20 All right. So today we’re going to talk about something that is a little bit closer to contemporary news. We don’t always do that. But Michelle Wolf’s bit at the Correspondents’ Dinner. And so, man there’s a lot of hand-wringing around it. I mean, you couldn’t–
S. RODNEY 01:38 God damn.
C.T. WEBB 01:39 You couldn’t scroll through a Twitter, Facebook, or whatever feed and not see some opinion, some apoplexy around the performance. Seph, you want to lead us in, and?
S. RODNEY 01:56 Yeah. I have a lot to say about this, but I want to start with some of the actual lines from Michelle Wolf’s– I guess, monologue is the way to say it.
C.T. WEBB 02:12 Yeah. Her bit.
S. RODNEY 02:13 Her bit. Yeah. But I mean, God it was so much more than that. It was a critique. It was a full-on, robust, muscular just takedown of not only figures in the administration, but essentially the journalist handlers who facilitate their power. So here are some of the good lines, the ones that I … Honestly, a couple of years ago, I read the transcript to that White House Correspondents’ Dinner and I thought, oh. I was–
C.T. WEBB 02:59 You mean the famous Colbert one?
S. RODNEY 03:01 No. Although I did see that. I saw that on YouTube, and I didn’t think it was that funny. I did think it was biting, and I think he was right, but I didn’t think it was that funny. It just didn’t make me laugh. And then the next one, there was an– and I really, I apologize for saying it this way, but there was an Indian guy. I don’t remember his name– I think he was from The Daily Show– who had a bit that was good and the ending part was just brilliant, just right on, but I didn’t laugh much. This one, I honestly, reading the transcript I laughed out loud. So here’s a couple that I think– a couple of lines that worked. So this is at the top of her– no, or near the top of her presentation. And she says, “Of course Trump isn’t here. If you haven’t noticed, he’s not here. And I know, I know. I would drag him here myself, but it turns out the President of the United States [laughter] is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab [laughter]. So that’s good. Like, it’s good–
C.T. WEBB 04:14 Yeah. It is really funny.
S. RODNEY 04:14 Come on. That’s just funny. I like the bits where she says– where she gets akin to a call-in response with the audience, when she says, “I’m going to say, Trump is so broke, and you guys say, ‘How broke is he?’ All right?” And she was like, “Trump is so broke.” Audience, “How broke is he?” He had to fly failed business class. Okay, that’s [laughter] good. That’s good. Okay. And then, when she gets into– and this is where she got the most flack, right? She gets into–
C.T. WEBB 04:45 This is the Sarah Sanders stuff?
S. RODNEY 04:46 Yes. Into critiquing Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And I’m just going to read– it’s actually quite brief. It’s like a surgeon’s incision. Isn’t it? It’s just enough to get in and get the thing out. “Of course we have Sarah Huckabee Sanders.” I’m quoting. “We’re graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say, I’m a little starstruck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ohh. “Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you would love it.” Now, that’s just right on. Come on. “Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited because I’m not really sure what you’re going to get. You know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies, or divided into softball teams. It’s shirts and skins this time! And don’t be such a little bitch, Jim Acosta. I really actually like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create the perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s the lies [laughter]. It’s probably lies. I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You know? Is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it Cousin Huckabee? Is it Aunty Huckabee Sanders? Like what’s Uncle Tom, but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know, Aunt Coulter [laughter].” Now come on. That’s comedy gold, God dammit.
C.T. WEBB 06:15 So here’s my feeling on the whole thing. So I think it was mean, and I think that that’s fine. I very much believe– I think that comedians have a nearly sacred responsibility in a polity, and that is to remind us of the performance that’s always underway. We were kind of talking about performances earlier a little bit.
S. RODNEY 06:49 Yes.
C.T. WEBB 06:50 And you know with the– I didn’t read Maggie Habermoss’– is that right? Habermoss?
S. RODNEY 06:59 No. Haberman.
C.T. WEBB 07:01 Haberman. Thank you. I looked at the Twitter exchange, but I didn’t read her article. I did read the one in CNN– I forget who wrote it– where they were– Cillizza, I think Chris Cillizza or something like that.
S. RODNEY 07:14 Oh God, he’s such a disappointment. There’s nothing that Chris Cillizza says that is worth listening too, honestly.
C.T. WEBB 07:20 So I think you’re probably right after reading this. He was just going on about how the abortion thing wasn’t funny. Where like, you know, if you’re going to– you know, don’t knock it until you try it, and you’ve really got to knock it if you do it. Like you got to get in there and get that baby out.
S. RODNEY 07:37 Yeah. It wasn’t a great joke. It was not.
C.T. WEBB 07:39 Well, and he was … you know, who jokes about abortion like that? If there is anything that is off-limits about a joke, then everything is off-limits about a joke.
S. RODNEY 07:53 Right. Right.
C.T. WEBB 07:54 No one fucking thinks that going in with surgical tools to remove a fetus is actually funny on its face. Of course, it’s not funny. Of course, it’s not. Just like Richard Pryor’s routines about racism in the 1970s in America. Of course, racism is actually not funny. Right? These things are not actually funny. They are funny in the context of a joke that lets you blow off steam over the absurdity and your own powerlessness in the face of that absurdity.
S. RODNEY 08:37 Precisely.
C.T. WEBB 08:39 And so I don’t– you know this, “Oh, she made fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ looks,” which she didn’t. But you know, let’s say that she did make fun of her looks.
S. RODNEY 08:52 Okay, so I just want to quickly say, Travis. Don’t forget what you’re going to say. But her Tweet says that at Press Secretary– and so she ats her. Right? So she calls attention to this, calls attention to the Tweet, calls her specific attention to it. Says, “She sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth instead of walking out on national television was impressive. I’m like, please. I actually responded to her and said, “As a colleague in the media, your comments and overall willingness to call things by their right names is deeply disappointing. You are representative of the ways we fail to have integrity.”
C.T. WEBB 09:33 So for the jugular. Yeah. I don’t think it takes courage to sit there and– I mean, this is your job as a public figure. I mean, you have to be constant– I mean, former President Obama stood on the floor of the Senate, the joint session of Congress, and was called a liar. And he didn’t leave offended. You know, he didn’t like, “oh my,” or something like we’re southern bell or some–
S. RODNEY 10:02 Right. He went on with it. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 10:04 Yeah. I do understand that the criticism can be biting. It can be difficult to sit through. I get that. I do think that we probably need to have some guardrails up around what we can criticize publicly, but I don’t feel like those apply to public figures. That’s their entire job is to stand up in front of the culture, to stand up in front of the society and direct and absorb the hopes and criticisms of the people that they’re standing in front of. So I was actually a little bit taken aback by the criticism that Wolf got, and I wondered– we didn’t really have enough time to prepare it, but I would have liked to have gone back and looked at some of the other White House Correspondents’ performances because I remember some of those being pretty damn biting and pretty rough. And I’m not sure– I mean, it’s essentially a roast. I mean, and I’ve definitely heard plenty of roasts that are really cutting and seemingly mean-spirited. But I wondered if the fact that she was a woman pricked people a little bit more? Like really, it made them uncomfortable that there was a woman up in front of them taking them down so aggressively.
S. RODNEY 11:45 Yeah. I think that it works on both sides, actually. I think that there’s a woman doing it actually pricked people or made people respond in ways that are unconscious. And the fact that another woman was at the receiving end, made people respond in ways that are kind of unconsciously chivalrous. Like, “Woah, women shouldn’t be subject to this. You know, men, we can take it. Blah, blah, blah. Yeah. Rough and tumble, warrior king, blah, blah, blah.” But women, “Oh, you know, you should be gentle,” and like, whatever. There’s some leftover ridiculous sexist attitudes around that actually play out in ways that we cannot predict.
C.T. WEBB 12:36 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 12:38 So I think that phenomenon shows up here. I also think that– and a lot of people have said this, and I haven’t had the time to really digest it to make a judgment of my own as to whether or not this is a valid position, but a lot of people have said it’s about access. That people in the media are getting all exercised about this because they’re worrying about losing access, and they feel like they need to performatively genuflect in the direction of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, ie. Aunty Coulter, to maintain that access. And there’s very likely something to that. I don’t swim in those pools, so I’m not– I just don’t feel that I have enough of a sense of how that works. But quite a few people have said this.
C.T. WEBB 13:45 Yeah. I mean, yeah, and the one that I find– the other criticism I thought– I’m somewhat taken aback by, again, that anyone on– and this isn’t a– there are plenty of– there are lots of criticism coming from the left too, but we can come to those. But I’m just specifically talking about what would typically be called the right. I am really just flummoxed, I guess, is the word, that anyone could– on the right, that is a commentator on the right or a critic on the right, could criticize another social figure for being inappropriate when they so unapologetically back a president who shatters– shatters is the wrong word– shits on the social norms of the Presidency. Shits on them. He doesn’t shatter them. Shattering them is too complimentary. It’s too like, “Oh, we shattered the ceiling,” or “It’s a breath of fresh air.” No, he’s just taking a dump on them. That’s what he’s doing. He doesn’t care. It’s not to liberate anything.
S. RODNEY 15:01 Right.
C.T. WEBB 15:02 How? How are you– I just, I don’t know. Like I said, I was flummoxed. I literally am flummoxed. I don’t even know how to begin to ask that question. I mean, maybe they do some kind of dance wherein private they criticize the President’s conduct, and in public they don’t feel like they can. And so Wolf is on the other side or whatever. I mean, she went to town on the media as well. She had plenty of funny lines about Rachel Maddow, and she had that line about her going to Target, where you– like she just takes forever to get to her point and stuff. It was funny, sort of biting criticism. And why is it something–? Not even why. I shouldn’t be so, “oh me, oh my” about it. To me, what I think it reveals is how utterly Victorian we have become in the 21st century in the United States, that we are so easily and performatively offended by people’s speech and far less so by people’s actions or their ineptitudes.
S. RODNEY 16:40 Yeah. But I actually tweeted out something that Neil deGrasse Tyson had said. He said, “How did we get to this place where we’re more offended by what someone with no power says–?”
C.T. WEBB 16:54 I saw this. Yeah.
S. RODNEY 16:55 — Yeah, “more in comparison to what someone with real power does?” I agree. Yeah. Neil deGrasse Tyson actually said, “When did it become okay to be more offended by what someone with no power says than by what someone with power does?” Very, very potent and timely. And just to follow up on the thing that you had eluded to earlier, other White House Correspondents’ Dinners had featured comedians who had said something while both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were on the dais, had said something about a stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. I think that was Don Imus. Rush Limbaugh had called Chelsea Clinton the White House dog when she was 12 years old. Yeah. Just out of bounds shit. And now people are getting all Victorian and fussy about essentially, a woman telling the truth. Oh, and she has another great line, which I don’t want to leave out. She talks about Megyn Kelly. She says, “Megyn Kelly got paid 23 million dollars [laughter] by NBC, but NBC didn’t let Megyn go to the winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold and expensive, she might as well be the winter Olympics [laughter].”
C.T. WEBB 18:28 Mm-hmm.
S. RODNEY 18:29 Damn.
C.T. WEBB 18:30 Yeah. I thought that was hilarious.
S. RODNEY 18:31 I just think that these things are really timely and right and to the point. And here’s the thing, part of what– she ended her bit by saying–
C.T. WEBB 18:45 The Flint, Michigan thing.
S. RODNEY 18:46 Exactly. I think that she’s– and after calling out all the correspondents in the room for being complicit with the rise of Trump. And for me, that is the most biting and insightful part of her presentation. I think I’ve said this to you before on this podcast, that Les Moonves of CBS– I think he’s the Chairman of the Board or the President or CEO, I forget which one– but he said it actually during the 2016 campaign when Trump was just sort of gaining traction. He said, “Trump is bad for the US, but he’s great for us.” There’s a very kind of money over social policy over the good of the country, as long as we can get him on air and get him saying ridiculous things and get people responding to him, people will tune in. Kind of, it’s not– people always use the word cynicism. It’s not cynicism. It’s a kind of disregard for what happens to the rest of us. And Les Moonves and it’s Zucker– is it Jeffrey Zucker who runs CNN?
C.T. WEBB 20:11 Yes, it is. Yeah.
S. RODNEY 20:12 What’s a good word for them? They are voracious. They are amoral. They don’t give a shit about us. They don’t give a shit about what happens to the polity.
C.T. WEBB 20:30 Yeah. So I probably wouldn’t go– because I don’t know enough about them to go quite that far. You might be right. They might be amoral. I mean, I think what we’re rubbing up against though is one of the problems of democracy, and it’s a well-known problem. I mean, certainly, the founding fathers were aware that it would be one of the pitfalls and dangers of democracy. The Greeks knew that it– you know, the fact that it can sort of curdle to tyranny. If you don’t have an invested, educated, principled citizenry, you can get into some pretty serious trouble.
S. RODNEY 21:15 Right. But what we’re saying too, at the same time, right– I think what undergirds our conversation and most of our conversations is the notion that most of legacy media is failing to take that consideration seriously. They don’t–
C.T. WEBB 21:40 Yeah. I agree with that. I think–
S. RODNEY 21:41 They don’t realize. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 21:43 I don’t just think legacy media. I think new media too. I mean, Facebook, how are they stepping up? I mean, Google– I mean, Twitter seems to be a little bit more kind of on point with it.
S. RODNEY 21:55 But it’s super contentious. Yeah. But yeah, but you’re right. Yeah. But I don’t know what to call it. I don’t want to call it mainstream media because that sounds stupid. Legacy and new media, I don’t know.
C.T. WEBB 22:06 For me, honestly, I think it’s elites. I don’t think we– and I would lump us– I mean, maybe not you and I because we’re not tenured college professors. But I think elites are not pulling their own weight when it comes to– I mean, you think that we just ended up after like 5,000 years of social history, and just some democracy– like it was just like that? This is sort of the natural trajectory of human cooperation and human society? Fuck no. There were all kinds of wars and atrocities and slavery. And I mean, it took a lot of heavy lifting to get to this perch, and I really feel like elites, in general– whether they be media elites, whether they be liberal elites, whether they be conservative elites– I think we, all of us, who get to partake in the bounty of that social evolution have abdicated our responsibility to maintain it.
S. RODNEY 23:11 Yeah. And here’s the thing that actually puts flesh on those bones, and it’s one of the responses to Wolf’s roast that most annoyed me. I went on Face the Nation. I got there through some news portal. But Face the Nation, which is hosted by Margaret Brennan, had on David Nakamura, Susan Page, and Jamelle Bouie, and Jonah Goldberg who write for various publications. I think Jamelle is at Slate and David is at Washington Post, and I think Susan Page is for– anyway, they’re all long-time, seasoned journalist. And Margaret asked them the question– I almost can’t get the words out. I’m so annoyed at this damn question. But she posed this– this is from a professional journalist on Face the Nation on April 29th. So essentially, you have Trump running this counter-programming rally– in Michigan, I think– at the same time as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And he’s saying, “Press is the enemy. They hate you. They’re trying to stymie me. They’re the enemy of the American people, la, la, la.” Stuff that he’s said before. And Margaret Brennan poses the question to Susan Page, “So at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when you have someone leveling this kind of criticism that is so harsh at the spokesperson for that administration, do you think that that aids the narrative that Trump is putting out?” I’m like, what in the world? First of all, that you as a thinking, bipedal human being would not question the premise of that query is really just disappointing to me. Basically, Brennan is saying, so isn’t what Michelle Wolf bringing to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner feeding into this other narrative about media being elite and out of touch and basically against the interests of the common person? And I just feel like this is some bullshit. No. Media is not supposed to just walk lockstep with whoever the common person is supposed to be. They’re supposed to call out those in power. They’re supposed to– from what I understand of the obligations and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy– they’re supposed to make the people in power afraid.
C.T. WEBB 26:12 Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 26:12 They’re supposed to check them. They’re supposed to not worry about the narrative that they’re flogging about, whatever. It doesn’t matter what their narrative is. What matters is you speak truth to power, and you make them afraid of lying. And what we have now is a press that basically has been just fucking complicit in a lot of what Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done in terms of shaping public discourse around this administration. And somebody needed to say it, God dammit.
C.T. WEBB 26:51 Yeah. Obviously, I completely agree with just about everything you said. And I think that one of the reasons that people are so up in arms about Wolf’s stand-up routine is because it struck a nerve. Right? I mean, the emperor has no clothes and all the rest of that. The elephant in the room, etc., whatever cliche you want to throw at it.
S. RODNEY 27:16 And she said, sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.
C.T. WEBB 27:24 Yeah. And of course they did, and of course, we did. I mean, and the– yeah. It’s really, it’s just the tip of the– I mean, this bit and why it caused this kind of reaction really– and a lot of the things that you’ve brought up in the conversation really is just the tip of the iceberg, and kind of our time is winding down. But it’s those kind of engagements and consequences that are precisely why we started The American Age, but also on a day like this, make me feel not exactly hopeful. It’s rotten, man, right down to the core. I don’t mean that the people are rotten. Right? I mean, I don’t know– I don’t even know that Trump– I mean, I can’t imagine that I would like Trump very much, but I don’t know him. I mean, for all I know he could be just a super savvy showman. I doubt that, but I don’t know any of these people. But I do know a circle jerk when I see it, and it’s just a big circle jerk. I mean, the institutions that are currently in place have no direction. And that is their purpose. They should be principled, driven institutions. I don’t necessarily need Google or Amazon to want to keep the world green, but I do fucking expect my government to be looking out for– and I do expect the fifth column. I do expect that journalists should do the same. I mean, that is a sacred responsibility. You are responsible to the citizens that you sit in front of, and I feel like no one’s really captaining that ship.
S. RODNEY 29:29 Yeah. I think it’s going to be particularly difficult in that with new media platforms, we have them not being regulated. And the argument has been made, and I’m coming around to it, that Facebook and Twitter should be regulated like public utilities because they frankly are. Yeah. We are in trouble. And every time I tune in to major news sources, whatever platform, new or legacy, I find myself frequently– perhaps too frequently– disappointed at the level of comprehension and understanding. And frankly, the gaze, right? The gaze seems to be too much on the self. Like, how does this work for my career? How does this work for my brand? As opposed to looking out at some notion of the civic space. And thinking, well how do we make a space where people can come together? I’m always interested in that because I think that we are actually better together than we are separate and alone. And with that, I want to give you the last word and say, where do we go– and ask you, what would you like the next year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner to look like?
C.T. WEBB 31:08 I don’t know. Maybe invite Michelle Wolf back [laughter].
S. RODNEY 31:14 I love it. I love it. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 31:17 I thought she was pretty damn funny, so.
S. RODNEY 31:20 Yes. Bring the heat. And bring the light. Amen.
C.T. WEBB 31:25 So all right, my friend. Thank you for joining me today, and I’ll look forward to talking to you soon.
S. RODNEY 31:30 Yes, indeed. Okay. Take care.

References

Kliph Nesteroff

In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts.

T.S. Eliot

Aristophanes of Athens (ca. 446–386 BCE), one of the world’s greatest comic dramatists, has been admired since antiquity for his iridescent wit and beguiling fantasy, exuberant language, and brilliant satire of the social, intellectual, and political life of Athens at its height.

Henri Bergson 

“Laughter” is a collection of three essays by French philosopher Henri Bergson, first published in 1900.

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