The Culture

Michelle Wolf Is the Voice Comedy Needs Right Now

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In January 2013, Michelle Wolf tackled her greatest challenge yet: She got herself fired. Then a 28-year-old aspiring comedian, Wolf had been working at a biochemistry research lab in New York City during the day and doing stand-up sets at bars and open mics at night. But she wanted to devote herself to comedy full-time, so, over the course of nine months, she pushed against every overachiever instinct in her body. “I did less and less work until I got a warning,” she explains, sitting in a booth in the Olive Tree Café, the restaurant above the Comedy Cellar in the West Village. “And then I got fired, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

With the severance, plus some money she’d saved up, Wolf devoted the next year of her life to stand-up. By Christmas of 2013, she was submitting a packet to Late Night With Seth Meyers, which was just staffing up; a couple of weeks after that, she was hired as a writer. In April 2016, after two years writing for Late Night and craving more onscreen time, Wolf jumped to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, where she’s now a correspondent. And on Saturday, HBO will air her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, a hilarious hourlong meditation on bathroom politics, feminism (“I’m not like a buy-my-own-drinks kind of feminist”), Hillary Clinton, birth control, and the innumerable everyday demands of being a woman in 2017.

The cliché of a working comic conjures images of a sad-sack dude shuffling to the club every night to dump his demons on an audience of cheerful tourists slinging back their mandatory two drinks. But, at 32, Wolf isn’t indulging in swooning platitudes about the fickleness of the creative spirit. Every morning, she wakes up, fills an entire French press with strong coffee, and drinks it all. Then she goes to work at The Daily Show, where each day starts with a 9 a.m. pitch meeting. The staff members go off to write and rewrite their jokes before gathering for another meeting in the afternoon to pitch ideas for the next day’s show. They run through a rehearsal of that night’s show, go off to do more rewrites, then return to tape the show at 6:30 or 7. Wolf is usually out the door by 7:30 p.m. at the latest. “Then I come right here,” she says.

“In all my years traveling the world doing stand-up comedy,” Noah told the Voice over email, “there are few comedians I’ve ever seen who exude pure comedy perfection like Michelle. If we’re all normal people, she sees the code of comedy like Neo in The Matrix.”

In between her staff writing duties, penning jokes for Chris Rock’s Oscar hosting gig last year, and performing a prototype of Nice Lady at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Wolf has done hundreds of stand-up sets at the Comedy Cellar, the venerable New York institution where countless comedy stars have honed their jokes. By her estimation, Wolf is onstage at the club somewhere between thirteen and sixteen times a week. Since her first performance at the Cellar in August 2015, she says, “I’ve been here every night that I’ve been in town and been available.”

Growing up with two older brothers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wolf was the kid who’d come into school on Monday morning and re-enact the skits from that weekend’s Saturday Night Live. But that was hardly a career path. “I’ve always been a really big comedy fan, but in my mind, you got a job,” she says. “I didn’t think it was feasible to pursue an art.” Wolf grew up running track — she runs three or four times a week, eight to fifteen miles at a time — and studied kinesiology at the College of William & Mary before graduating and moving to New York.

She got a job in private client services at Bear Stearns, recommending mutual funds and separately managed accounts to people with too much money. Wolf also started taking improv classes at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), right around the time Bear Stearns collapsed and was swallowed up by J.P. Morgan. (“I was young and cheap, comparatively, so I stayed on.”) A few classmates at the PIT suggested she audit a stand-up course — Wolf suspects it’s because in her improv sessions, “I was making jokes rather than playing out a scene” — and she quickly took to it. “The thing that frustrated me about improv was that once it’s over, it’s over,” she says. “You don’t have any body of work or anything. I like the idea of being able to build something.” In an email, the comedian and Late Night writer Amber Ruffin wrote that Wolf “is a perfectionist, and it shows in her stand-up.” When Wolf first got an iPhone, she created a folder in her Gmail account to collect her stand-up ideas and joke drafts. She labeled it “work.”

That blinders-up attitude is on display in Nice Lady. Although it was taped in August, the special feels retrofitted to this moment, when the entertainment industry (for one) is cycling through a seemingly endless torrent of bad news about your favorite dudes. Over the past decade, the comic most closely associated with the Comedy Cellar has been Louis C.K., the subject of a recent New York Times report that confirmed years-long rumors of sexual misconduct. The introduction to C.K.’s FX sitcom, Louie, immortalizes the tiny basement space, tracking C.K. as he travels from the subway to the Cellar, stopping at the corner of MacDougal and West Third to inhale a slice of pizza. A regular at the Cellar, C.K. was known to pop in unannounced, even at the height of Louie’s popularity, to try out new material. He’d frequently pepper his show with bits of stand-up, the Cellar’s iconic brick wall and stained-glass sign forming a now-familiar backdrop.

The night after the Times article hit, Vulture sent a reporter to the club. She wrote that while most comics referenced C.K. in some way, others — including Wolf — did not. Wolf hasn’t just appeared alongside C.K. at the Cellar; in 2016, she had a small role in his self-funded TV show Horace and Pete, and last year, she opened for him on tour. In an interview with New York magazine last June, C.K. singled out Wolf when asked to name promising comedians, calling her “relentless, funny, consistent.”

But when I bring up, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Silverman, the “elephant masturbating in the room,” Wolf deflects. “In the biggest moment in my career so far, I don’t really want to spend time talking about bad men,” she says firmly. “I want to focus on me and what I’ve done and my hard work.”

The truth is, the fact of Wolf herself — her rapid rise to the top of New York’s comedy food chain; an hourlong HBO special, one of only seven that the cable channel has produced in 2017 (others include sets from Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Gethard, and T.J. Miller), and for which it reportedly paid an unprecedented sum; the way her comedy reframes everyday truisms, from an unapologetically female perspective, as totally absurd — all this is a powerful retort to the ceaseless flow of stories about celebrated men who’ve used their clout to keep women down.

“Michelle has the perfect combination for comedy,” says her former boss Seth Meyers. “She is kindhearted and also deliciously cruel.” Chris Rock, who invited Wolf to open for him on his 2017 tour, echoes Meyers’s sentiment: “Michelle is just one of the funniest people I know,” he says. “Like most great comics, she hates everything. She’s helped me out way more than the other way around.” 

“Michelle has a very loud laugh to begin with, but it was loudest whenever I flubbed,” adds Meyers. “I would mispronounce something and would immediately hear her and see the silhouette of her hair bouncing. I am not being sarcastic when I say I truly miss that.”

Early in her special, Wolf uses her own distinct voice as a way into Hillary Clinton and why she lost the 2016 election. (“I think it’s ’cause no one likes her.”) When she performs, Wolf speaks clearly and deliberately, her voice scraping up against the top of her sinuses before crumpling into a contagious chuckle. “Somehow I got this weird Midwestern twang to my voice where I say my a’s weird — I say ‘cay-at’ and ‘hay-at.’ I don’t know, I’m broken. No one else in my family talks like me, or looks like me,” she says, referencing her shock of naturally curly, naturally orange hair. (“I’ve seen pictures of Carrot Top where I’ve been like, ‘I mean, we do look alike.’ ”)

“People have made fun of my voice for a while — rightfully so,” Wolf acknowledges. “This is a voice that deserves to get made fun of. But it wasn’t until people kept commenting on Hillary’s voice that I was like, oh — it’s, like, a thing. It actually helped me think of the joke. It was like, ‘Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!’ ”

In Nice Lady, Wolf jokes about sucking the helium from a balloon and realizing, with dismay, that it caused absolutely no change to her voice — an incident that actually happened on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. It happened, of course, at the Cellar. “Even when I write during the day, when I get to do stand-up at night, it’s, like, the thing I get to do for me,” Wolf says. She likens stand-up to a science experiment, a situation that’s totally under her control. “It’s my thoughts, my jokes. It’s the most fun I have. A lot of people, very often, they’re like, ‘You need to take time off, you need to do things for you.’ But this is more fun than the other stuff I do!”

That creative obstinacy has served Wolf well, and it informs the kinds of jokes she tells. She rarely mentions Trump in her sets, because it feels too easy, and because everyone’s got a Trump joke. “I’m very selfish when it comes to stand-up,” she says. “I want to work on what I want to work on.” But like a messy spill, the outcome of last year’s election seems to have seeped into every crevice of our lives regardless, and Wolf’s comedy is not immune.

“That’s kind of where the whole ‘nice lady’ thing evolved from,” she says, lowering her self-professed “crazy” voice to a quietly determined murmur. “No, we can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over. The time for doing things just to please other people for no reason — because it’s what we were raised to do — is over. We’re done being nice. That’s kind of the overarching theme of the show, so even though I don’t talk about it a lot, it’s more just like — yeah, I’m done.”

On a recent Friday night, I went to see Wolf perform at the Comedy Cellar. She was the only woman on the bill, and the last comic to go up. The show was sold-out, so I turned up an hour early, gave my name to a large man sporting a black “Comedy Cellar” beanie, came back at showtime, waited to hear my name called, showed the man my ID, was handed a slip of paper and instructed to turn off my phone, and descended the street-facing stairs down to the shoebox-sized room, where a waitress showed me to my seat. Each stand-up performs a fifteen-minute set, introduced by the night’s bantering host. Then you pay your bill, wait for the waitress to stamp your receipt, and show your proof of purchase to the doorman on the way out. On Fridays, the Cellar offers four shows a night, back to back, and this process, from seating the audience to delivering each patron her minimum two menu items to ushering the crowd out the door at the end, runs as smoothly as a Japanese rail line.

It was early, the first show of the night, but the place was packed and lively. In between the first two sets, host William Stephenson quipped, “Louie’s gonna come out and jerk off in front of you. I brought a tarp for the front row.” The audience laughed. A mother and her adult daughter sitting near the stage — the room is so tiny the round tables that make up the front row are pushed right up against the stage, which itself is so narrow, most comics end up hugging the wall — were easy targets for crowd work. It became a bit of a running joke. One comic, Des Bishop, commented on how attractive both mother and daughter were, then added, “Maybe that’s inappropriate. I’ll wait for Page Six to tell the story” — an apparent reference to a Page Six report that claimed Chris Rock dropped by the Cellar recently and tried out some sexual harassment jokes that fell flat.

Wolf went up last. She opened with a bathroom bit from Nice Lady, and moved on to some new material about dick size. There was no hint of hesitation, no self-conscious hedging — she was confident, masterly, louder than anyone else onstage that night. The audience was in hysterics from start to finish, and then we were out the door, wiping stray tears on the sidewalk in the cold November air.

In October — shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke — Trevor Noah devoted a segment on The Daily Show to the topic of sexual harassment. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, “but I’ll tell you who I really want to hear from — The Daily Show’s own Michelle Wolf.”

Wolf took the stage in her uniform of long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and delivered a short monologue on Weinstein and the #metoo social media campaign he spawned. “Trevor is right,” she began. “This problem is bigger than Harvey Weinstein.” She talked about the “obstacle course” women tackle every day: “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!”

She closed the routine by pointing out that it’s not enough to just fire individual men who harass women. This moment isn’t just about sex; it’s about power. “My solution? Every time a guy gets caught sexually harassing someone, you don’t just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman.” The crowd erupted. “It’s a policy that I call, ‘Pull out your dick, get replaced by a chick.’ ”

Noah returned to the stage, microphone in hand, as the audience cheered. “Michelle Wolf, everybody!”

Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady premieres Saturday, December 2, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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