Michelle Wolf at the White House Press Dinner

At least three analogies come to mind.  Pick your favorite. When the comedian Michelle Wolf gave the keynote roast at last Saturday’s televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., was her performance a matter of speaking-truth-to-power, humor-as-torture or humor-as-colonoscopy? (Check out Youtube for the full performance.) Certainly, President Donald Trump’s stand-in, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was not amused by the proceedings. Sitting on the dais just a few feet from Wolf, what did Sanders’s face reveal when the comedian aimed her barbed jokes at the press secretary starting at about the 13-minute mark of what proved to be a 19-minute performance?

050318-01 Michelle Wolf & Huckabee-Sanders

  • “I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’” Wolf puckishly said on stage, alluding to the terrifying re-education maestro at the center of the book, film, and now Hulu television series. In response, Sanders did more than flinch. Lips pressed in anger, with a slight disgust sneer, was Sanders’s first response, followed by the slightest of grimace smiles, closed eyes, and a raised eyebrow, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding shrug of dismissal.
  • As to the evening’s perhaps most notorious line about the press secretary, “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” how did Sanders respond? A wide-mouth shudder of fear followed the reference to “burns facts.” Then Sanders settled back into coping with the pointed criticism by resorting to a combination of a slight smile, firm lips, and eyes momentarily closed in disappointment.

It wasn’t only Sanders who was disappointed. When Wolf moved from alluding to Aunt Lydia to rhetorically asking, “What’s Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?” the audience responded with both laughter and jeers. Did Wolf know she was pushing the edge? Absolutely, as Wolf’s rejoiner (“Oh, I know: Ann Coulter”) was one of the few times on stage that Wolf managed a true, eyes-crinkling smile of joy. Otherwise, Wolf tended to display a mixture of mouth-pulled-wide fear, fairly slight smiles, and a lower lip pulled down and out in disgust.

Some pundits have compared Wolfe’s performance to Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House press dinner. But after re-watching that earlier performance by Colbert, I can tell you the similarity is limited. Colbert mostly displayed eyes wide in mock surprise at his own jokes, delivered with numerous smiles amid mock consternation at what he had to tell the president seated beside him. Yes, Bush wasn’t always amused but at evening’s end he shook Colbert’s hand with a smile. This year after the roast was over, Sanders refused to participate in a photograph on the dais that would have brought her and Wolf together.

What’s the big take-away here? In 2006, the Iraq war fiasco and the aftermath of Katrina were ugly enough. But the country’s mood nowadays is, if anything, even uglier amid so much partisan rancor. When Wolf began to warm up for “ribbing” Sanders, she started by saying “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration” and showed both a raised upper lip and a down-ward twisting lower lip at the same time: a double dose of disgust. Sanders on stage and Trump on a daily basis are likewise given to showing disgust, in turn, for those denouncing them. As an emotion, disgust signals that something tastes bad, smells bad; rejection results, and a loss of intimacy.

There is nothing congenial left in how Americans are interacting, politically, in the age of Trump. Many people found Wolfe’s remarks in poor taste, vulgar, and far more mean-spirited than funny, and they have a point. The president gleefully joined in, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” But for anyone objecting to Wolf’s tone and content – given Trump’s own demeanor and antics – that’s a little bit akin to imagining Al Capone complaining back in the day about John Dillinger’s behavior. Being “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius,” Trump promised us he would hire the “best people” to join his administration. A year and a half after Trump won the election, I’m voting for humor-as-colonoscopy to explain Wolf’s performance.

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