There’s another new comedy/chat show vying for your attention. You might well sigh and ask, “Is it different from what’s done by John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher and all those others?” Well, yes and no.
It’s different and different is good, as far as the host is concerned. The point of The Break with Michelle Wolf is to offer a break from the usual. It arrives on Netflix every Sunday evening for the next while and while Wolf isn’t smashing up the machinery of the comedy/chat show, she’s not doing pompous-scorn with added penis jokes, as Oliver does, or the unctuous scoffing of Samantha Bee. This is more laid-back, low-key, absurdist feminist humour. It’s wickedly entertaining, coming out of left field into a very crowded arena.
Unless you’re a connoisseur of late-night TV, Michelle Wolf would have been a fringe figure until last month. That’s when Wolf performed the traditional roast of the U.S. administration and the media at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – and got in some trouble.
Caustic and steely, Wolf had a lot of sharp remarks. She said this: “I’m here to make jokes, I have no agenda, I’m not trying to get anything accomplished.” But a blunt verbal assault on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was seated alongside, raised a lot of sanctimonious ire. “We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say, I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Wolf said. “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s really resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.” In the strange bubble that is the Washington media world, that was seen by some as inappropriate nastiness about a woman’s appearance.
What really irked many in the audience though was Wolf’s concluding remarks, addressed to the media. ”You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.”
The ensuing bout of tut-tutting was, in part, a variation on “Who do you think you are?” Wolf is not as TV-famous as Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert, who had done the roast in recent years. She is, in fact, a creature of late-night TV, but moving quickly from the fringe to a central role. And she’s not a usual suspect in American comedy – that kid obsessed with stand-up and sketch comedy on TV who toils through years of open-mic nights to gain a following.
Wolf sort of strode into this world after working in tech companies and on Wall Street. While working at Bear Stearns, the investment bank that collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008, she went to a taping of Saturday Night Live and was inspired to take improv classes. Later she worked at JPMorgan Chase and a biotech company. When she was laid off, she used the severance money to support a foray into stand-up comedy.
In 2014 she was hired as a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers and made several appearances on the show. In 2016 she became a correspondent for The Daily Show, where she honed a good on-air groove with host Trevor Noah. Remarkably, she’s only been in this comedy game for roughly five years.
That explains the rogue quality to her persona and her material. On The Break with Michelle Wolf, there’s a bare-bones look and feel to the show. There’s a live audience, a monologue and a DJ instead of a house band. Wolf is obviously trying to feel her way toward a distinct voice and demeanour for the show and, if the first episode is any indication, she’s well placed to be different. There’s a fatigue with Trump humour and she knows it.
Her main target is hypocrisy. She has a sharp bit about the NFL and aims heated, furious scorn on celebrity chef Mario Batali’s attempts to restore his reputation in the #MeToo environment. She also takes a sharp poke at the content in Netflix, her own production company. It’s an odd mix, not fine-tuned, but distinctly fresh.