For Michelle Wolf, the past few years have been, to use a heavily understated term, “eventful.”
The former Late Night With Seth Meyers writer and The Daily Show correspondent launched her own late comedy talk show series at Netflix, The Break With Michelle Wolf, which was unceremoniously canceled after only ten episodes. Meanwhile, since all of this had happened right after the comedian’s celebrated and vilified tenure as the 2018 White House Correspondents Association Dinner host, her show’s cancellation immediately garnered public comment from President Donald Trump himself — even though he didn’t even attend the event.
Now, Wolf is bringing her latest comedy hour to Netflix. Titled Joke Show, the followup to her 2017 HBO special Nice Lady is exactly what it sounds like: an hour of new comedy that is less about Trump or politics and more about jokes and how they’re supposed to work. Uproxx spoke to Wolf about this, as well as many other things, ahead of the special’s streaming debut.
Joke Show begins with a bit about otters, baby seals, and posting on social media, but it feels like so much more than a few cracks about Instagram. I got the sense you were laying out instructions for how to watch the special, and all stand-up comedy specials, going forward.
That’s why it’s the first joke. You can get mad at a million things during the day. We get so excited to be mad these days. We can’t wait. So this is me kind of telling people to take a second, to take a breath, and to think about if this is worth getting mad about. I think there’s a certain satisfaction in scolding people. It gives you a sense of power, a sense of, “I did something today.” We’re always looking for that, but there are always more productive ways to fill that need. At the end of the day, it’s not making you any more important. It’s just ruining someone else’s day.
Did it begin as its own bit, or did you purposefully set out to start Joke Show with a kind of primer?
After I did my HBO special in December of 2017, I went on a little vacation, and during that vacation is when I saw these otters. So, I took a picture and posted it as an Instagram story. That’s when this woman literally messaged me her complaint about it. I was like, “I guess this is my first new joke.” I mean, it’s literally the first joke in the special, but it was also the first joke I had coming out of the old special. It was very much meant to be. Then, society helped me out by continuing on with this online outrage thing. That didn’t go out of style. It still hasn’t. So, it felt right to put it first.
Everyone acts like cancel culture is new, but we’ve always loved doing this. Society has always loved figuratively, or literally, watching people die. I mean, I’ve said this before, but back in medieval times, the best part of a person’s month was when they got to go to the middle of the town to watch someone get beheaded or hanged. Or they got to watch someone get burned at the stake. These were all things people couldn’t wait to participate in or watch. And my theory is this: in those moments, when you’re looking at that person being ripped apart by a lion or whatever, you’re thinking, “Well, life might suck but at least I’m not that guy.”
With social media and the virality of news, or non-news, stories, everything is happening faster now. It’s almost instantaneous, and now that we’re largely used to it, we demand nothing less. Those who can’t keep up are either forgotten or ignored.
Yeah, it all happens immediately. You can do it several times a day, in fact. You can also do it with about the same validity as some of those older things. So, if you give a woman rocks and she floats to the bottom of the river, then she wasn’t a witch. Now, it feels like we’re using the same amount, or at least kind, of logic when we’re going after people. And it’s like, “Well, I guess we were wrong, so sorry, Sally. Our bad!”
Whether you’re a comic, a critic, or an audience member, I think it’s something that we’re thinking about more often now than ever before. I’ll even catch myself wondering about a joke I’ve heard and, because of my dwelling, missing out on what follows right after. So, in a sense, I suspect you’re trying to help everyone avoid — if not temporarily stay — this with Joke Show‘s opening.
I mean, I definitely go after it quite a bit in the special, but to be honest, I don’t care if people get mad at me. I try to present my jokes like a legal argument. That is, I try to think about the things people will get mad out before they get mad at me for it — whatever it is. Because, normally, there are always jokes in those moments, too. You can always snap back with something when someone reacts like that. I really like to cut their arguments off at the legs, before they’ve had a chance to stand up.
Besides, my favorite comedy is not comedy that’s right down the middle. I love comedy that’s divisive. Comedy that some people love and other people hate. If you want to be a great comedian, you have to realize that not everyone is going to like you. That’s just a byproduct of having hard and aggressive jokes with a very particular point of view. But a lot of the time, when people watch comedy these days, they’re like, “Well that’s not the right point of view to have.” They only care about if comedians have the right point of view, but they don’t always. They usually don’t, actually.
One of my favorite things about [Dave] Chappelle’s recent special is that we’re getting to see this guy evolve in real-time. We get to see his thoughts progress at that exact moment. And while everyone else is like, “You should be exactly this woke,” that’s not where he is. Instead, he’s where he’s at and he’s telling us his point of view at that moment, and he’s being funny about it. People usually forget that. They want you to be at this point right now and it’s like, “Hold on! I’m not there yet, and now I’m going to tell you why.”
That reminds me of a bit Patton Oswalt has in Talking For Clapping, when he talks about being criticized for not knowing what all of the right designations to use in “LGBTQ” are. He literally says something to the effect of, “I’m on your side, but I don’t know what all of this is. Give me a second.”
It’s almost just like, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I missed that news story.” I’ve been working on this new bit about how when we change words, there should be an Amber alert on television to let everyone know about it. So, when something like that happens in culture, an alert goes out. “This is the new word now!” And I’m like, “Oh, thank you! Yes, that’s very helpful.” I think a lot of people just assume you should know all of this stuff immediately. And we don’t. Or, at least I don’t always know it that quickly. I didn’t just know it, whatever it was. I need to catch up. And it’s all just very funny to me, that we want people to progress so quickly but when it comes to things like race and racism, we’re moving at a snail’s pace. People want you to know how you’re supposed to refer to certain groups now, but when you ask if we can deal with 400 years of ingrained societal racism, at least for a second, they freak out.
We tend to be selective in OUR outrage.
It just seems like there are lots of things that can be fixed much more easily than others. Like, with the use of preferred pronouns now. Great. I will try my very best to use the correct pronouns. It’s a very simple fix. But when you try to go back in history to address the fact that we’ve murdered millions of people in the slave trade and beyond, it’s like, “How do we fix that one?” It’s a little bit harder than saying “they” instead of “he” or “she.”
You’ve already mentioned Chappelle, but what other divisive comedians and comedy are you a big fan of these days? Who out there, among the many comics who try not to stay comfortably in the middle, fits this bill for you?
I mean, I obviously love Chappelle, but I also love Dave Attell. He’s just a joke machine. He’ll make fun of everything and everyone, and all of his jokes are just unique and brilliant. Plus, there’s Colin Quinn, Keith Robinson… there are so many. Especially comedians who maybe don’t get as much attention as they should: Dan Soder, Sam Morril, Joe List. They’re all really good comics. You can see them developing their own points of view. I would highly recommend getting on these guys now before they blow up. But to be honest, I just love good jokes. I’m such a fan of jokes. I love things I would have never thought of. And whether I agree with the point they’re making isn’t important to me. I just like to laugh, to appreciate a good joke.
I can get behind that. I tend to like the extremes of joke construction — the shortest one-liners, like with what Anthony Jeselnik does and Mitch Hedberg did, or the longest narrative bits. Based on 2017’s Nice Lady and now Joke Show, you’re more of the latter. Especially with Joke Show, as some of these bits go on for a while, consisting of joke after joker after joke. Has that always been your approach?
Yeah, though I’m still, in the scheme of things, a pretty young stand-up. This is just my eighth or ninth year of doing this. But the more experience I gain, the more jokes I tell and the more specials I do, the more I go for this longer stuff. For this one, I just wanted the otter joke to feel like a hypothesis. It was basically my thesis statement, and then all of the other jokes just ran off of that and came together. And I’m not just hitting on a topic. I’m dissecting a topic.
I say this all the time, and sometimes to my own detriment, but I like to drive down every cul-de-sac. I don’t want to just go through the neighborhood. I want to hit every cul-de-sac, so I can find every nook and cranny there is to be found. Sometimes, I end up driving a bit too far and have to cut stuff out as a result. It’s like, “All right. You went on that weird tangent for about three minutes too long.” But that’s just what I like to do, and I think this special is definitely an evolution from the last one in that sense. At least, I definitely wanted it to be more of a cohesive show than simply an hour of jokes.
I don’t want to focus on the opening section about otters and seals too much, but it’s not the only routine in Joke Show that explores the animal kingdom. I was beginning to wonder what your morbid fascination with this subject, or subjects, was — especially after the giraffe childbirth bit.
I watch Planet Earth way too much. A lot of the time, you’ll be out for a road weekend, and if Planet Earth happens to be on — or, one of those BBC America or other network’s nature documentary marathons — I’ll put it on in the background all day. It’s good background noise. One of my friends will put Planet Earth on when he leaves the house so his dogs have company. So, I guess I’m a little bit like those dogs. I’m fascinated by this stuff. I love it.
I also think relating stuff back to the animal kingdom can work really well for jokes. I mean, listen — we’re humans, but we’re also animals. We’re the nicest of the animals, though. Probably. I did see this thing once about how Komodo dragons will bite a water buffalo, and then their poison slowly kills it over two weeks. They just follow the water buffalo around as it gets weaker and weaker. And I’m like, “What an asshole nature is! The Komodo dragons couldn’t bite it again?” It’s just the cruelest thing, but at the same time, this camera crew just there, watching them do it. That’s just so funny to me. Sure, they have to document this stuff because it’s nature in action, but nature is still being a huge asshole. It almost makes you feel better about what we do as humans. It’s like, “Yeah, we’ve done so many horrible things, but at least we don’t bite someone and then wait for them to die over two weeks.”
I’m remembering the big to-do that was made over a moment in Netflix’s recent Our Planet documentary with David Attenborough. There’s a scene when walruses plummet to their deaths, and the camera crew gets really emotional but keeps filming. It’s horrible, but to be honest, my initial reaction was to laugh out loud. It was too ridiculous to believe, at first.
There’s another one, I think, in that series involving a bird. In order to keep other animals from eating their eggs, these birds lay their eggs on top of a cliff. But when the eggs hatch, the babies have to get down and they’re most likely going to hit a lot of rocks on the way. The narrator even says something like, “If they hit the right part of their head, they’ll survive, but if they don’t, they won’t.” And I’m like, “Jesus. Well, I’m just going to watch this before bed and have nightmares.”
‘Michelle Wolf: Joke Show’ is now streaming on Netflix.