the great bits

Michelle Wolf Is a Master of the Period Joke

Michelle Wolf in Nice Lady. Photo: HBO

“I’m so sick of women comics talking about their vaginas.” This is said by people who find fault with women who do stand-up, and it’s said often. I have yet to see any of these critics cite an actual vagina joke, let alone the multiple vagina jokes that would justify their annoyance. Saying you’ve heard too many female comedians discuss their genitals is bizarre. Proportionally, you’ve heard hardly any. Until this decade, stand-up at the professional level was nearly 90 percent male. Every permutation of “Penises vary,” “Erections are embarrassing,” or “Testicles are sensitive” has been presented thousands of times, yet the first comprehensive look at the basic common female experience of menstruation I’ve ever heard is “Period” by Michelle Wolf. It’s from 2017.

Among my wife’s biggest complaints about men is that we do not understand just how extreme the discomfort and mess of the menstrual cycle is. This male ignorance and indifference to something half of humanity goes through every month exasperates her. I shared this ignorance. It took being married to me for a woman to feel comfortable enough to explain it. On “Period,” from her HBO Special, Nice Lady, Wolf puts into exquisite words something many women have thought their whole lives, yet felt shamed into silence. Listen to it now.

If you doubted for an instant the power of the taboo Wolf is challenging, listen to the dead quiet of the audience after she says the words “every month we get our periods.” I defy you to find a thicker silence on a piece of recorded media than the two seconds that begin at 00:10. There’s not a single murmur of agreement or even recognition. “We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Wolf acknowledges. Even when she says “It is the only time a human is bleeding and that’s not what the conversation is about,” the laugh is muted and tentative.

To expose this injustice, Wolf proposes an equivalent male example. “If Paul walked into the office …” she begins. She doesn’t waste time introducing Paul or telling us there’s an office somewhere. The audience can catch up. Each extra word a comedian puts between their premise and their punchline weakens a joke’s momentum, like a stack of mattresses between a bullet and its target. As soon as Paul is presented — his arm gone, blood spurting everywhere — and before Wolf has even completed the sentence, she switches tack again, in a brilliant rhetorical move. “Some of my guy friends,” she interjects, have told her this analogy is “too extreme.” “Oh is it?” Wolf replies, in a perfectly mocking, condescending tone. Wolf’s male friend now suggests she use the example of a nosebleed instead. “You think it’s like a nosebleed?” she asks, and something remarkable happens: The audience, who have been subdued until this point, begin to laugh and cheer. It builds and builds to 11 seconds of sustained applause, cut off only by Wolf needing to continue. This is one of the longest applause breaks in the middle of a bit I have ever heard. It’s the opposite of the reticent hush that greeted Wolf when she first brought up the topic. Her precise words demolish the taboo and release the emotion underneath: Men do think it’s like a nosebleed. Wolf transforms the audience’s indignation at this absurdity into a chorus of full-body laughs and well-deserved adulation.

Wolf returns to the story of Paul. Not backing down from her original metaphor, she confidently proclaims that “Paul’s arm’s viciously torn from his body.” The crowd applauds for nine seconds.

Moving briskly through her “Paul at work” anecdote, Wolf steps on several laughs. Conventional stand-up wisdom says this is a mistake; quashing a laugh can discourage the audience from doing it again. Wolf knows, however, that there is a big payoff coming. It’ll be even bigger if she can get to it quickly, without stopping for “small potatoes” laughs. At the 1:54 mark, after describing how Paul would not have to slink away to see if he had bled through his bandage, Wolf tells the audience, “That’s happening at your work.” This direct address is a rare tactic for stand-up. She makes it personal. At their place of employment, women are walking around pretending to bend down to tie their shoes and going, “Oh, I’m okay.” Bringing the truth home earns Wolf a six-second applause break, her third in just over two minutes.

Wolf continues. “Every day, at some point during your day, you talk to a woman who has her period and you don’t know it because she says things to you like, ‘I’m good, how are you?’” Here, halfway through the piece, she plants an idea she’s going to call back at the end of the bit. Foreshadowing is a common writing practice, but it’s rare in stand-up. You don’t have much time to do anything with your words except deliver the laughs the audience demands. The sign outside didn’t say “The Comedy and Literary Device Store.” You administer their serotonin hit and leave your Dickens tricks at home with your books. It’s a testament to Wolf’s expertise that she gets it in without slowing the bit down at all.

At its core, stand-up is a transgressive art form. It’s the ideal medium for moments when the rules of decorum mask oppression. Wolf’s next segment is gloriously impolite. She describes the horror of a period fart from multiple angles, conjuring images of women fleeing parties and diving off cruise ships, suggesting Marilyn Monroe’s skirt was blown up by her flatulence. “Why are you so emotional?” men will ask menstruating women. Maybe, Wolf offers, it’s because they “haven’t shit in a week and have a turd the size of Danny DeVito” in them. She then makes the DeVito-sized poo a character. Imbuing the turd with all the joyous defiance of a woman forcing men to confront facts they’d rather ignore, Wolf screams, “I’m not going anywhere!”

Wolf’s ending is fantastic. She imagines all the effort men would put forth if they bled monthly. Wolf can’t believe our only actual innovation has been smaller tampons, as if that was the main problem: “We were causing too much of a commotion carrying our bazookas to the bathroom!” She praises the stealth with which women help each other. “I’ve given out four tampons since I’ve been onstage,” she says amid eight seconds of applause. After comparing these exchanges to the crafty drug deals on The Wire, Wolf calls tampon removal “Stringer Bell.” “Is that gross?” she challenges the audience. “’Cause a woman did it today and then shook your hand and said …” Wolf changes her voice mid-sentence. Her confident delivery deflates into the meek tone of a woman shamed into silence about her natural bodily functions. Echoing her earlier bit of dialogue word for word, she mumbles, “’I’m good, how are you?’” The audience rewards Wolf’s deft full-circle conclusion with a nine-second ovation.

30 whole seconds of “Period” are just Wolf waiting while the audience applauds. In the six remaining minutes of the track, Wolf gets a laugh every ten seconds. There are stretches, like the “fart” section, where she gets one every two seconds. This isn’t because the audience is blown away by a novel premise — Wolf isn’t discussing a disruptive new technology, a divisive politician, or the celebrity scandal of the moment. She’s talking about something as old as the first human being, yet something no comic has dared address in quite this way until now. The crowd’s raucous approval shows that far from being “over” vagina material, they were hungry for it. The passion and eloquence of Wolf’s comprehensive insights make “Period” one of the Great Bits, and make me hopeful that the era of women comics making vagina jokes has just begun.

Michelle Wolf Is a Master of the Period Joke