Joke Show

‘Joke Show’ and the Bold Comedy of Michelle Wolf

This contradictory comedy special both decries and leans into controversy, lending more heat to Wolf’s fiery persona.
December 19, 2019
6 mins read

These days, the phrase “cancel culture” is familiar to anyone with an internet connection. Typically, after being “cancelled,” an individual is cast in a negative light due to behavior dubbed offensive by the public at large. A long list of shunned celebrities attests to the power of this new phenomenon. In the stand-up comedy arena, the trend seems to rouse especially vehement feelings, with many well-known comedians weighing in on the shunning. Recently, Netflix released “Michelle Wolf: Joke Show,” a stand-up routine that finds its fire in the throes of cancel culture.

Throughout “Joke Show,” Wolf makes it her mission to wage war on unwarranted outrage. A seemingly harmless story involving otters and Instagram kicks off her extended commentary: Wolf, after posting a picture of otters on her Instagram account, received backlash from one angry commenter. Apparently, this user found the obscure sexual habits of otters offensive and wanted her friend to remove the content.

After poking fun at the odd criticism, Wolf states, “It seems like, over the past couple of years, we’ve developed the ability to get mad at anyone for any reason.” Later, she builds on this assertion with the statement, “You don’t have to have a stance on everything. You can just like some things. It’s okay.” Although brief, these statements capture the prevailing sentiment of this bold special.

As it turns out, Wolf has received criticism for more than just her love of otters. In 2018, the comedian delivered a monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and forever changed the monumental event. According to one commenter, Wolf “ended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as we know it,” as the organization opted to hire a historian to relay the next year’s speech. In the following months, critics dubbed the speech “a profane hate-fest” and decried Wolf’s alleged vulgarity. Obviously, Wolf possesses firsthand knowledge of cancel culture’s vehemence.

During “Joke Show,” the once-burned comedian uses her platform to comment on the controversy. Apparently, before taking the stage that fateful night, Wolf began a conversation with a reporter who called her “pretty vulgar.” Now, the comedian provides a rebuttal to his assertion. “I know all the stuff I talk about … but men talk about almost all the same stuff,” she says. “And as soon as men do it, people are like, ‘Yeah, but they’re men’ … If you want to call me vulgar, go ahead. … It took me a little bit to get comfortable being described that way.” With this statement, Wolf highlights a thriving double standard in the comedy community.

Although she acknowledges this sexist reality, Wolf’s comedic routine does not leave her fellow women unscathed. Rather, she identifies with and points out the passivity of superficially-woke white women. She explains this accusation with the statement, “I’m not saying white women weren’t oppressed. You know, for the longest time we couldn’t vote or have bank accounts, but for the most part we had nicer houses … It was a very air-conditioned oppression.” Mockingly, while defending her fellow inactive peers, she exclaims, “It’s almost impossible to start a revolution from under a duvet.” As she expounds on this topic even further, Wolf pushes her stereotypical valley girl impression to the max, allotting early settlers and Rose from “Titanic” an identical nasally drawl.

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Indeed, much of Wolf’s material in “Joke Show” focuses on gender issues. She spends a large chunk of time on menstruation, urging viewers to demystify the terminology surrounding the reality. Naturally, childbirth surfaces in the conversation next, and Wolf makes her skepticism regarding this seemingly magical event clearly known. The comedian even advocates a new description technique in order to gain adequate maternity leave. If women would describe labor like on-the-ground reporters describe hurricanes in Florida, employers would never question an extended work absence.

As the show continues, Wolf eagerly tackles another hot-button issue. The topic of abortion bursts into the comedian’s monologue. Wolf seeks to open conversation around the controversy and achieves this by sharing her own experience. Bluntly, she summarizes her opinion with the statement, “My abortion, not a big deal for me. I left work, I got an abortion, I drank half a LaCroix, and then I went back to work. Not a big deal, and I also think a pretty good advertisement for LaCroix.” Although flippant, Wolf shrouds this portion of the special with an open-minded air, encouraging viewers to independently interpret their own experiences.

Viewers, after a moment of reflection, might notice a disparity within Wolf’s material. The comedian opens her newest special with an extended diatribe against cancel culture. Controversy, she maintains, should never dominate a person’s mind. Although social media provides an outlet for outrage, users can easily allow the feeling to distort their perspectives. Indeed, the bulk of Wolf’s speech warrants serious contemplation, and many of her statements are brimming with validity.

However, after relaying this speech, Wolf begins a comedy routine that relies on controversy for its primary appeal. Hot button issues repeatedly surface throughout “Joke Show,” and ultimately bring controversy back to the center of a viewer’s mind. Oftentimes, comics intentionally structure jokes this way, trying to highlight social issues in a subtle manner. Wolf, having just condemned a hyper-politicized society, doesn’t seem to set out with this goal in mind. Rather, the comedian decries a love of disagreement and proceeds to deliver a performance with controversy acting as its lifeblood.

Ultimately, the comedian relies on controversy to lend her material a far-reaching, relatable vibe. After all, any Netflix users who stumble upon the special can process jokes about divisive topics like gender, politics and race. To her credit, Wolf’s quirky charms make these attention-grabbing jokes genuinely funny, and the comedian’s delivery is perfect every time. If one overlooks the disparity between Wolf’s opening speech and actual routine, her heated humor lands impolite in all the right ways.

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