From her opening line (“Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, ‘Let’s get this over with’”) to her closing kicker (“Flint still doesn’t have clean water!”), Michelle Wolf’s performance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Association dinner was a raw triumph. Some of her jokes were solid, conventional ones, like “Trump has a lot of ideas. He wants to give teachers guns, which I support. They can sell them for supplies.” And some of them were arbitrary and mean in the manner of good Don Rickles material, such as “What would I do without Megyn Kelly? Maybe be proud of women.” A fair number of her jokes weren’t funny, purely on the level of joke-writing craft. And yes, she sprinkled her routine with obscenities here and there. But virtually all the jokes that CNN and Fox News are telling you afterward were “X-rated” or “in poor taste” or “not funny” — those were magnificently funny, funny in a slash-and-burn way that was tremendously satisfying.
It’s standard for the president of the United States to attend this dinner, but of course, our standard-breaking, humorless current president chose to decline. (In a pre-speech interview, Wolf said, “I think it’s cowardly not to go. The only other person that didn’t go was [Ronald] Reagan, when he was shot. And he called in.”) Trump chose instead to give a speech at a rally in Michigan, where he delivered the true obscenity of Saturday night: a damaging attack on Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for simply reporting the allegations against Dr. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s failed pick to run the Veterans Administration. Compared to anything Wolf said, Trump’s speech was far more offensive.
Which is not to say Wolf’s material was not offensive — it was, intentionally so. One member of Trump’s team was on the dais with Wolf on Saturday — press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wolf began by telling her, “I love you as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale.” Then Wolf escalated her attack with an almost poetic insult: “I think Sarah’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” There were a lot of groans and moans and “Oooohs” and startled silences from this point on. Wolf also insulted Democrats and the media in one concise joke: “I know there’s a lot of people who want me to talk about Russia and Putin and collusion, but I’m not gonna do that, because there’s a lot of liberal media here, and I’ve never wanted to know what any of you look like when you orgasm. Except for you, Jake Tapper.” OK, one more: Comparing one white-haired white guy to another white-haired white guy, she said, “Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay.”
The comedian was probably little-known to the thousands of journalists, celebrities, and political figures who were in the audience, and, pausing in the midst of telling many crude jokes, Wolf chided the people who’d invited her for “not doing their research on me.” This was the most brash, irreverent Correspondents dinner performance since Stephen Colbert’s 2006 masterpiece. But where Colbert’s focus was on politics, Wolf’s was more broadly focused on the whole range of awful behavior — on the cultural atmosphere — that Trump has unleashed.
On CNN, co-anchor Poppy Harlow tried to regroup afterward. “This was pretty X-rated. Very controversial,” she huffed, her eyes wide. The next morning, looking at Fox News’ Fox & Friends, you didn’t even need to un-mute the volume — the onscreen chyrons told you everything: “So-Called Feminist Attacks Conservative Women” and “Trashing the White House Women.” Trump himself weighed in via tweet, insisting Wolf “bombed.”
While Washington, Michigan, was a big success, Washington, D.C., just didn’t work. Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust…the so-called comedian really “bombed.” @greggutfeld should host next year! @PeteHegseth
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 29, 2018
In the immediate moments after Wolf left the stage, I thought her performance was uneven and flawed. But the more I considered it, and the more I saw the shocked reaction to it, the more I admired her nonstop gutsiness. Wolf — who will soon have a Netflix series called The Break — certainly seemed to have the effect she desired on all of the targets she hit.