If you hadn’t already heard of the comedian Michelle Wolf, that probably changed after last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf’s routine – particularly her bit about press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – offended some people, and many lashed out at Wolf, including President Donald Trump.
Wolf, 33, majored in kinesiology at university, worked on Wall Street and says she then got herself fired so she could concentrate on comedy. Almost exactly a year later, she landed a job writing for Late Night with Seth Meyers. She got her own comedy special, Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady. She wrote for The Daily Show. Now she’s touring and preparing for another special.
Wolf is heading to Vancouver’s Just for Laughs Festival, which begins next week. The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman spoke with her Wednesday morning, after Trump’s State of the Union address.
I’m assuming you watched the State of the Union address last night.
Oh no, I don’t watch that; it’s a waste of time. That’s part of the problem. Everyone’s fixated on all that stuff; [Trump] just wants attention and everyone’s giving it to him.
Do you pay any attention to politics? Or do you try to shield yourself from it?
I read some news, but I don’t watch any of the 24-hour networks or participate in any of the circus.
It’s been not quite a year since the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; what kind of impact has that had on your life?
It was a job I was hired to do and I did it, and now I’m just doing my other job. It got me a lot more fans, which is great. And hopefully they like the kind of comedy I do.
There was quite a bit of fallout in the aftermath and discussion about whether a comedy routine is appropriate at that event. What do you think?
It’s a roast, so if you want someone to roast people, then you should be prepared for that to happen and if you can’t handle it, you can’t handle it.
Would you do anything differently, looking back?
No, not at all.
I’m curious if any of this gets to you. At any point does it upset you that people are trolling you, including the President of the United States, even if it is Donald Trump?
No. I can’t control how people think, so they can feel however they feel; it doesn’t bother me at all.
Are you getting sick of talking about this?
Oh for sure, yeah; I was sick of talking about it the day it happened.
So what’s funny about America now?
I think the biggest misconception right now is that I’m some sort of political comedian. I’m not; I’m a comic. And I’ll make jokes for the job I’m hired to make jokes for. The state of America right now and honestly, the state of the world in general, is a little bit backwards. I just try to make jokes about the things that I think are funny and the issues that affect me and that I have some sort of point of view on.
I think of you as an important female voice. To what extent does feminism affect what you do and write about?
I’m a woman, so of course all my things are going to be filtered through that fact, but I don’t separate myself as someone who’s an important female voice. I just think I’m a comic trying to tell jokes. And if they resonate with a certain group of people, they do. If they don’t, they don’t. But I don’t like distinguishing the fact and separating myself from my male counterparts. Also “important” is a weird word to put in front of comedy. Because all we’re doing is trying to make people laugh. I don’t like those things getting conflated. I’m not trying to say something important; I’m trying to say something funny.
I would argue that they’re both important; that it’s important to be funny and make people laugh, especially right now. But I also think that never before, at least not in my lifetime, have I seen the role of comedy be so important in terms of the political discourse.
I think that’s where we get into trouble, though. And that’s where comics get into trouble; where people take what they’re saying seriously and they get called out for something, when it’s like no, no, no, we’re here to make jokes. If you want to think what I’m saying is important, that’s on you, it’s not on me. I think putting comics on a pedestal is counterproductive; we’re supposed to be the people that are saying things that no one’s going to say and looking at things from the angle that you didn’t necessarily want to hear them from.
You don’t feel compelled to be a voice in the political discourse right now?
No, I think every comic’s objective should be to be funny. If other things come because of that, that’s fine. But your first and foremost objective is to be funny. And I think right now people are confusing funny with something they want to hear. People will say Trump is bad and then everyone claps and people confuse that somehow with a good joke. That’s not a joke; it’s just an affirmation. A joke is something you didn’t know you wanted to hear. A joke is something that you weren’t already thinking. A joke should be surprising and look at something from a perspective that you weren’t originally looking at it from. I think people are confusing jokes with affirmations right now.
I guess that’s easy to do when what’s happening in real life – not that it’s funny, but it is sort of astonishing.
It is; I’m not taking anything away from how terrible things are for certain people. But we’re confusing these two things right now. Everyone has every right to go hear someone say the things we want them to hear. But I think we’re confusing that with comedy in a way that we shouldn’t.
What is it like to be a woman in a late-night talk-show situation, in a writers’ room?
These questions are not ones I particularly like because I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone else but me in a late-night room. I’ve never been a man in a late-night room; I’ve only been me in a late-night room and I can’t say it’s been at all bad. I’ve worked for great people and I’ve clearly done very well and I’ve worked in supportive environments and I can only say it from my perspective. I don’t speak for every woman; I know that people have had different experiences from me, but all I know is how I’ve worked in those late-night rooms, which, for me, has been great.
You have had an amazing trajectory, how important were mentors to you when you entered comedy?
I had good people looking out for me. I think most of all, comics have each other’s backs. Friends and colleagues will recommend you for things and say, ‘Hey, put this person on your show; they’re really good,’ or tell certain people to look at you. When we like another comic, we try to make sure the right people see them. I think that’s not something that people realize about comedy.
I don’t know if this is something you can talk about, but I know that you and Louis C.K. were friends or are friends, and I’m wondering if you feel you’ve been able to have his back through this.
The issue I have with Louis questions is they become the clickbait of the article. People keep asking comics about Louis. People just want a headline. They don’t actually care about the parties involved. If we really want to talk about something, let’s talk about the women, let’s talk about how their careers can be helped, let’s talk about what we can be doing to help them. I think everything’s so focused on Louis that we’re losing the actual perspective that we should have, which is how do we make things right?
We’re almost out of time, but in the 20 seconds or so we have left, how do we make things right?
I think everyone just has to be supportive and respectful to one another and treat each other like colleagues. And women in particular, we have to ask for what we want professionally; demand what you want and make sure that your voice is being heard. You have to be your own best advocate and you really have to just go after everything. Don’t be scared, don’t be worried about people saying that you’re a bitch or something like that. Go full force and if they want to call you a bitch, let ‘em.
Michelle Wolf is at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver on Feb. 23. JFL NorthWest runs Feb. 14-23 (jflnorthwest.com).