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Why Michelle Wolf's White House Correspondents' Dinner speech was an inside job


Michelle Wolf's speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a mic-drop-worthy lesson in doing your research - or at least pretending you did. 

US comedian Michelle Wolf's speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April was hilarious, dirty, mean and brilliant  if it was off tone that’s the organiser’s fault.

Wolf laid into President Donald Trump, his policies, his team and the media at the annual event, run by the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), an organisation of journalists who cover the White House. 

“I’m delighted to announce ‘Nice Lady’ Michelle Wolf as our featured entertainer this year,” said WHCA president Margaret Talev, in the lead-up to the event. “Our dinner honours the First Amendment and strong, independent journalism. Her embrace of these values and her truth-to-power style make her a great friend to the WHCA. Her Pennsylvania roots, stints on Wall Street and in science and self-made, feminist edge make her the right voice now.”

WHCA President Margaret Talev on stage at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Photo/Getty.

Talev would later regret those words – apparently. I say apparently because it seems absurd and a little impossible that she would have selected Wolf to host the televised event without knowing what she was in for.

Nevertheless, after Wolf's speech provoked the expected outrage from Trump et al, Talev released a statement via Twitter: “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honouring civility… Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

As baffling as it may seem, Talev may not have done her research on the comedian she was hiring beyond the title of the comedian's stand-up act, Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady. Wolf’s incisive takedown of the entire WHCA and the President could have been predicted by anyone who had seen even 10 minutes of her previous work. 

She’s known for her barbed comedy sets on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and she’s responsible for segments like Kellyanne Conway's Artful Deceptions and Ivanka Trump's Fake Feminism. It’s a given that the host of the dinner rips into these people every year.

To be fair, the WHCA did say in their statement that her speech wasn’t “in the spirit” of the evening. While it was the same type of speech typically heard at the dinner, her tone was dirtier, meaner and more lowbrow than the rest of the event – but it was not off brand.

Wolf’s style of comedy is well established and she didn’t diverge from it – in content or tone. If she didn’t match the tone of the event, that’s the fault of the person who chose a comedian with a comedic style that didn’t match the event; a comedian whose style was more cutting than the event could cope with for their “unifying message”. Don’t hire Kanye West if you want Michael Bublé.

Comedian Michelle Wolf on stage at the White House Correspondents' Dinner at The Washington Hilton, April 28. Photo/Getty.

As Seth Meyers observed, “That’s like a parent sending an email saying ‘yesterday’s birthday was meant to celebrate Kevin turning 6 years old. Unfortunately, the stripper’s dance routine was not in the spirit of the party.’”

Or as Stephen Colbert said, “Being mad at her for doing her job is like accusing the valet of briefly stealing your car.”

In further response (cough, damage control, cough), Talev correctly noted that “comedy is meant to be provocative and it doesn’t always hit the mark and sometimes it hits the mark with some people and not for other people.” In this case, the people the performance did not hit the mark for were those getting roasted – which included Talev.

The performance did, however hit the mark for previous WHCA dinner hosts Colbert and Meyers, as well as fellow comedians Dave Chapelle, James Corden and Trevor Noah who were all quick to support Wolf.

Wolf’s response to her critics was simple. “I wouldn’t change a single word that I said.”

Wolf not only stuck to her personal brand of comedy, but also to Talev’s description of her style as truth-to-power. She pointed out such a massive stack of (for the most part controversial) issues that her detractors cannot possibly address each one. She had done her research to the nth degree - something that those who chose her had apparently not.

Or had they? Because the great part about Wolf’s speech was that she knew what she was doing and knew that everyone was going to be upset. “You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” Wolf mutters through laughter between the damning quips. And she is, again, right.

It was too obvious of a mistake to be a real mistake. Talev, who chose to hire Wolf over any other comedian, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a major in Political Science from University of Maryland College Park . She isn’t silly.

So, I believe there is another hero of the day. I think that Talev had done her research. I think she knew that Wolf was going to bring the house down. I think she chose her deliberately.

And while Wolf’s microphone was attached to the stand so she didn’t get the mic-drop that she so deserved, maybe, later, after everyone left, Talev did.

10 important things Michelle Wolf called out in her WHCA speech

  • Congress gets very little accomplished
  • Trump is not very rich
  • “Trump had to borrow money from the Russians and now he is compromised and susceptible to blackmail and possibly responsible for the collapse of the republic”
  • CNN love breaking news which is ironic because they have broken the news
  • Trump is racist and is supporting and legitimising White Nationalists
  • White nationalists are really just Nazis
  • Mike Pence is weird
  • Sarah Sanders burns facts to use as (skilfully applied) eyeshadow
  • There is a lot of news being made and we could cover everything but instead all news covers the same three topics
  • The media created Trump and is now profiting by covering him