The art of the insult is that its level of offense directly corresponds to the truth it carries. After all, people are most sensitive about their character and identity and therefore prefer the honesty on those matters to be digestible rather than brutal.
For almost a year, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has stood at a podium and kept her calm while blatantly lying, and to many folks, these lies have passed as “professional.” Yet, when Michelle Wolf made jokes about those actions at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend, her jokes were seen as anything-but.
Wolf, a comedian, screenwriter, actress and producer best known for her work as a writer and contributor for “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and upcoming Netflix show “The Break,” did exactly what she was invited to the dinner to do.
Not only did she put the pressure on the an administration known for harsh criticism with her monologue, most notably on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway and President Trump, but she also upheld long-standing tradition for the dinner in which members of the media poke fun at the very people they cover on a daily basis while in the same room with them.
The WHCD is known for being a bad aristocratic joke. Typically, a comic is invited to “Make a joke — but not a real one,” and only ever becomes interesting when someone forgets to tell the comic to leave the gloves on, as with Wolf.
At the start of her performance, Wolf explicitly told the audience that she was there to make jokes and that she would be skipping a lot of “the normal pleasantries” for the night.
She added, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, ‘Let’s get this over with.’ Yep, kiddos this is who you’re getting tonight.”
For those of us who know and love Wolf’s work, we see her performance and the entire situation as hilarious. She is known for pushing boundaries and was invited by White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Talev to speak anyways.
Shouldn’t we be more upset, concerned and offended by evaded questions in each and every White House press conference — a time and space where truth and accountability is supposed to take place? Shouldn’t what has become normalized in our society define it more than any jokes made about it?
If Talev and others at the association invited Wolf to provide entertainment, they should own that decision and provide explanation for it rather than calling it “not unifying” and “not in the spirit” of the event. After all, the WHCD is intended to celebrate values like documentation and accountability afforded by the First Amendment.
Given the chaotic political and social climate, I can see why some people feel that this was a year for a safer, more traditional speaker. During a time in which the press is under attack by the President himself, this event might have been good a good place to hear from someone that would give the White House press corps more esteem.
However, it is not the comedian’s job to change their act; they make controversial statements for a living. Wolf didn’t hold back and she did more than raise eyebrows.
Yes, I believe there is a time, place and manner to deliver criticism, but all Wolf did was match the fakeness and ignorance displayed by the Trump administration. She even used words the president already has and somehow they were still taken worse than they were when he said them.
Oh, right that’s because she is a woman saying them — some folks still aren’t used to that.
Regardless, it is unfair to criticize Wolf for being the edgy comedian she is, especially when the main reason for criticism is that what she said was true: Sanders lies.
Sanders repeats wildly false claims, most notably about Obamacare and voter fraud, and we can’t forget about when she supported Trump’s “Mexicans are rapists” claim, or when she called all the women who have accused Trump of sexual assault liars, which make Wolf’s jokes less than controversial.
Many argue that Wolf’s presentation was in sharp contrast to the vision of the event, and that it played on existing divisions and tensions. That sounds just like comments made by President Trump to me.
He launches personal attacks on a consistent basis. Yet, his standing in our political and social systems proves time after time to grant him the right to make verbal assaults, to avoid any time of responsibility for his language and to throw a rowdy temper tantrum when he gets called out in the slightest.
Three weeks ago now, The New York Times even compiled an encyclopedia-style list entitled, “The 446 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List.” The list includes tags to each and every specific tweet and dates back to when he declared his candidacy, because a list that outlines all insults made throughout his entire adult life would be too long.
Wolf was criticized for attacking Sanders’ appearance, most memorably when she said, “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
It’s not like Sanders avoids getting personal while serving as the voice of the Trump administration. She stands in front of the nation and says whatever she needs to say to get through a time of questioning while making it seem like Trump is still on top.
In that way, she is more loyal to the Trump administration than she is to the American people, and there is nothing particularly funny about that.
It is extremely hypocritical of Trump and many of his supporters to criticize Wolf for the content and/or presentation of her monologue while supporting or staying quiet when Trump attacks specific stars in entertainment, senators, journalists and more. He tends to keep his comments to Twitter, but he is not afraid to call out individuals by name or disregard authority while doing so, and he will do so in other public settings and even live interviews, leaving Sanders to clean up the mess.
Regardless of which details we choose to unpack, it is no lie that lying is a main part of Trump-admin policy, and a policy that Sanders embraces. Let’s face it, Wolf told jokes almost as effortlessly as Sanders tells lies in every White House press conference.
While it’s convenient to stretch the truth and blatantly lie in a chaotic administration with muddied ethical standards, comedy is an art that cannot be held to the same standards of official White House communications whether during press conferences, interviews or other settings.
For that reason, acting hurt, confused and offended by Wolf’s monologue as if there is no truth behind the jokes that roasted the administration, is childish, ignorant and misguided.
The controversy that has stirred from this event, which used to be expressly a-political in nature, shows how hyper-political our commentary has become, how divided we are and how important it is to call out issues as they appear.
At its best, journalism upholds the truth, which at times, requires disunity. It has never been a popular profession, as going against the grain is intrinsic to its societal function.
At a time where the truth needs to be laid out clearly, precisely and with integrity, it is the responsibility of journalists to conduct thorough and timely investigations and to present facts backed up with explanation that clear up any false messages in circulation.
As journalists, we need to do the hard work of unveiling the truth and we need to act alone in doing so. Otherwise, the world will fall subject to the chaos and manipulation of the administration.
Seth MacFarlane said it best when he Tweeted: “Trivial matters require little to no research. It’s easy to focus your anger on a joke told by a comic, but it’s a lot harder to do the research to really understand the intricacies of a societal crisis. That’s why there’s more anger at Michelle Wolf than Sanders herself today.”