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Schwartz: Michelle Wolf’s jokes needed to ‘push the line’

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

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Good comedy should do more than make you laugh. It should make you cringe and think to yourself, “Yikes.” It should make you question yourself and the world around you. And it should rarely leave you content with the way things are. Good comedy is almost never safe.

That brings me to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this past weekend, a posh event for high-profile journalists, politicians and celebrities. President Donald Trump notably declined to attend the event, instead sending White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders in his place. While ceremonious in nature, the WHCD is known for being the night when Washington’s elite come together by hiring people to make fun of them.

Michelle Wolf, like many comics before her, was hired to do the annual roast at the dinner. But she did more than roast; she set the place on fire.

Wolf touched on many of the most noteworthy screw-ups of the Trump administration, including Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, the lies of Huckabee-Sanders and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, the implications of #MeToo and even the complicity of the media in Trump’s election and presidency. She spared no one.

As I watched Wolf’s set, I cringed. I questioned. And I certainly didn’t feel content after it was over. Naturally, I think she killed it.

While past speakers at the WHCD have told some jokes that acknowledged the inherent privilege of the event, Wolf took it to the next level. I’m sure many people in that ballroom felt uncomfortable upon leaving, and that was necessary. Wolf made it clear with her set that she wasn’t speaking for the room — she was speaking for the rest of the country that wasn’t high-status enough to be invited. Good comedy punches upwards at those in power, and Wolf made us realize that those who work for and report on President Trump deserve to be held accountable just as much as he does.

Take Matt Schlapp, who tweeted that he and his wife walked out of the dinner and that he’d had “enough of elites mocking all of us.” Schlapp used to be a lobbyist for the Koch Brothers and is currently the chairman of the organization that stages the Conservative Political Action Conference. He is undoubtedly one of the “elites.”

That’s not to say some of Wolf’s jokes didn’t go too far — one mentioning abortion comes to mind, in which she says, “Don’t knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you got to get that baby out of there.” This isn’t problematic because it mentions abortion. It’s problematic because it trivializes a serious issue for low-income women, particularly women of color, who are losing access to abortion. The joke punched down at them more than it punched up at Vice President Mike Pence, at whom it was directed.

But, as a whole, Wolf’s set was the refreshing, solid roast of Washington we needed to see. Not surprisingly, some were too taken aback. But for me, it is most disheartening to see that many critics of Wolf have not been politicians, but journalists.

It seemed people were most angry about Wolf’s joke about Huckabee-Sanders, of whom she said, “She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”

Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC called for Wolf to apologize to Huckabee-Sanders and “others grossly insulted.” Maggie Haberman of The New York Times called the Press Secretary’s ability to sit through the jokes without walking out “impressive,” while Mika Brzezinski of Morning Joe said Huckabee-Sanders was “humiliated on national television for her looks.”

These comments are overblown. Wolf wasn’t insulting Huckabee-Sanders’ makeup. She was calling her out on her peddling of President Trump’s lies.

Those criticizing Wolf have failed to remember what her job is. She had an obligation to call out every single privileged person at that dinner, and she did it better than anyone else before her. Wolf has said that she does not regret her performance, and I agree that she shouldn’t.

Journalists should be redirecting their swift critiques away from Wolf and toward those she named in her set. They should be asking President Trump to apologize for his grotesque comments about nearly every single marginalized group in this country. They should be holding his administration accountable for gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and pulling out of the Paris climate accord. They should criticize the Republicans who endorsed actual pedophile Roy Moore or enacted legislation restricting women’s health care.

It’s as if Wolf talking about the things politicians have done wrong is worse than what those politicians have actually done. If journalists intend to hold comedians to such high standards, they should certainly do the same for politicians. Or, if they wish to remain objective, they should let the comedians do their jobs and focus on making sure our elected officials get to work.

Chicago Evening Post journalist and satirical writer Finley Peter Dunne once said — through a fictional character named “Mr. Dooley” — that “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is also the job of the comedian. As Kathy Griffin (who was infamously torched when she posed for a picture holding a mock-up of Trump’s severed head) said in a massively insightful Twitter thread, “A comic’s job is to go over the line and then push the line and go over it again. … By pushing the line, we force people to think differently, to ask questions and disrupt the status quo.”

The discussion of who should be given the license to push those lines and who should even be allowed to call themselves a “comedian” is valid. But by pressuring Wolf to apologize for pushing that line — for not only doing what was asked of her as a guest of the WHCD, but for also fulfilling her role as a good comedian — journalists are missing the point. Who they should really be criticizing are the people in our government who have said and done far worse.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at alexschwartz@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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