On Saturday night, upcoming comedian Michelle Wolf — a Daily Show correspondent who is slated for her own Netflix series — excoriated President Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner with a 20 minute set that hit the administration on everything from hush money for porn stars to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders being an "Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women." In the process, she's set off a conversation about the function of comedy in the realm of politics.
Now, speaking comedic-truth to power has become of a tradition at the annual event known as "nerd prom," which exists to honor journalists and celebrate the First Amendment. The thinking here goes something like this: What could better demonstrate the principles of free speech better than being able to joke about your leader in front of your leader, who is traditionally sitting right there next to you, in the same room, in the spirit of humility and having a sense of humor about yourself. Sure, the rich and powerful people in the room wind up feeling a little uncomfortable every year, but hey, this isn't Russia (yet).
Well, something seems to have shifted this year. You could chalk it up to Wolf's set, which pulled no punches and was probably more tonally eviscerating than most (all) of her predecessors. (Someone like Stephen Colbert, who sort of ushered in a new era for the WHCD comedian set, at least was able to leverage the satire of his conservative Comedy Central character for a little wiggle room for comedic innuendo and "decency"; over the years, from Seth Meyers to Larry Wilmore to Hasan Minhaj, the humor has become more blunt, with Wolf's set a logical extension of that.)
But in fairness to Wolf, she had the task of joking in the Trump era, an era during which, arguably, literally everything about American life is more tonally eviscerating. And for many people, especially in the younger generation, comedy is the only way to discuss some of the knotty, uncomfortable truths about the ways in which this country relates to itself.
Whether you're talking Charlmagne tha God or Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert, Bill Mahr or John Oliver, it's clear that the most effective communicators of this "Fake News" era or those who have license to dispense with facts entirely and can instead wield punchlines in their political provocations. This isn't a new phenomenon: On Jon Stewart's watch, The Daily Show became a legitimate (and sometimes exclusive) news source for the younger demographic. Stewart's show set the house-tone for post-Bush political comedy, and his proteges now dominate the field: Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Hasan Minhaj, Wyatt Cenac — all Daily Show correspondents during Colbert's watch, all with their own shows everywhere from Comedy Central to HBO to Netflix.
Wolf has her own show coming, too, so she shot her shot for maximum PR effect. And a scan of the Sunday headlines will tell you that if getting a dialogue going was one of her goals: She done did it.
But there's more to the story: Wolf stepped into the most fraught relationship between the White House and the press corps in American history. This is illustrated daily in combative press conferences between reporters and the press secretary du jour (once Sean Spicer, now Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who took some tough shots on the chin from Wolf on Saturday night). And as a result of her intense performance, some in the political establishment are taking the moment to question if Wolf was out of line, and moreover, if the trajectory of humor at the White House Correspondents Dinner needs a recalibration.
Even some of the reporters in the White House Press Corps expressed some displeasure, people like NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski have joined the Fox News set in criticizing Wolf and defending the likes of Sanders.
Implicit here is the belief that a night like nerd prom should be about fostering good feelings, whereas others have traditionally thought it should be about flexing some free speech muscle.
Well, about that speaking power to power while power is in the room thing: For the second time, Donald Trump elected not to attend, deciding instead to throw himself a campaign-styled "Make America Great Again" rally in Michigan in an effort to escape D.C. and counter-program against the night. (While we're here: The WHCD is actually a big part of Trump's political origin story. Conventional wisdom says the moment Trump decided to run was in 2013, when a shiny and charismatic Barack Obama took the WHCD stage to lay into Trump, who was squirming and grimacing uncomfortably in the audience. This goes deep.)
We'll know the fate of the WHCD next year. You'll be able to judge by the style of comedian they book. But the question is bigger than just this one night in D.C.
It's more like this: What's the function of comedy in the age of Trump? Whatever your bias, punchlines help soften the punches.
If the D.C. political establishment is offended by the jokes they heard last night, they should also be sure to check the tenor of the rhetoric that is coming out of the White House. Because really, comedians' power comes from their material. In the end, topical comedians are agents of karma: They give back what they get.
Watch Wolf's full WHCD set right here: