tv review

Michelle Wolf Plays the Classics

Michelle Wolf in Joke Show. Photo: Jeff Neira/Netflix

Near the end of her new Netflix special, Joke Show, Michelle Wolf winds up to a broad closing premise, an observation that carries her through the final several minutes at the end of the hour: Women are gross. Grosser, in fact, than men. It’s true! The premise allows Wolf to thread together many of her bits from throughout Joke Show, which includes sections on male periods, birth, and her own abortion, as well as an extended section on feminism and equality. “Women are gross” is a nice summary of it all, and, because she loops it through a story about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it allows Wolf to acknowledge her most well-known public appearance and finish with a nice little political button.

“Women are gross” is also a fitting place for Wolf to end Joke Show because she wields it like an act of self-making. She is vulgar, she tells the audience. Women should be allowed to be vulgar, and Wolf should not be punished for making exactly the same kinds of jokes male comics have made for decades. She leans into the gentle friction of it. There’s the vague ickiness of discussions about vaginal discharge, the sense of boundary-crossing as she describes how emotional men would be if they got periods, and it’s more of a chuckle of recognition than it is a jolt of revelation.

There’s a trap built inside “men have been doing it forever, and so women should be allowed to do it, too” comedy. If anyone has been doing it forever, the contours and the premises will feel like known territory, even if the person now shaping the contours and reframing the premises is a woman rather than a man. They are premises that feel like classics, setups that work — like introducing a shared language rather than surprising the audience with a new idea. For audiences familiar with Wolf’s previous work, they are classics — the male-period bit in Joke Show is a reworking of previous period jokes from her earlier special. Wolf starts from a place she knows people will already recognize and then has confidence in her supremely careful joke writing to pull the premise into a funny, newly interesting angle almost in spite of itself.

Wolf identifies the trap and then almost always leaps over it. Sometimes she does it by presenting the most succinct, incisive version of some well-trodden territory. No one is surprised by descriptions of birth as a physically nightmarish experience, but Wolf still pulls off a “birth is terrifying” joke by delivering an incredibly tight, streamlined version. She begins with an image of a woman’s body as looking like a car accident, follows it up by imagining an insurance adjuster examining the wreckage and declaring it “totaled,” and then caps it off with one line from a hopeful husband looking forward to a new rental vehicle. “What are we talking about here?,” Wolf imagines the husband asking. “Like a mid-size Japanese?” She could’ve pulled that metaphor further, sure. She could’ve leaned on it and stretched it. But as it is, it’s a precisely turned, carefully crafted version of a hoary classic, and she knows better than to overstay her welcome. It is a razor-sharp, short, to-the-point joke, edited until it’s so lean you could almost imagine it getting written into an old-school joke book, and it feels fitting for a special called Joke Show.

There are also some brushes with the comedy equivalent of new standards. If the old standbys are that men and women are different, the new standards of the last few years are lines about how audiences have too many opinions, social media is bad, and bloggers are people who couldn’t get someone to have an actual conversation with them. Again, Wolf typically sets up the trap for herself and then figures out a way to wriggle out of it. Her opening joke about an Instagram commenter pointing out that otters rape baby seals is the goofiest imaginable iteration of “people don’t need to comment on everything.” Deftly, she uses that otter-seal story to reframe debates about consent, wokeness culture, and internet pile-ons in a way that does legitimately feel surprising, especially when she takes a sharp turn into dog breeding.

There’s a kind of defiance to a special like this, a proud nose-thumbing about what women comics are allowed to do, and about the art of taking familiar premises and chipping away at them until you make something legitimately new. But I wonder if the impact of it is different than what Wolf imagines it might be. She plays much of the hour like naughtiness, like the taboo-crossing cheekiness of touching things that you’re not allowed to touch, with the hope that people will gasp and shake their heads at her daring.

Aside from the material on her own abortion, though, little of it is actually daring in content. Instead, it’s closer to the experience of watching a truly talented musician do covers of hit records. The pleasure is in the way Wolf finds new ways to interpret them, in the technique required to hone the material until it’s this sharp and effective. The pleasure is not in the experience of witnessing the shock of the new. But there’s something to be said for thoroughly crushing the classics.

Michelle Wolf Plays the Classics