I was very confused Sunday morning when I noticed many political and media figures on Twitter blasting a comedian for something she unequivocally didn’t say.
They were all in a tizzy about comedian Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where many claimed she made fun of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance. Judge for yourself:
Michelle Wolf destroys Sarah Huckabee Sanders at #WHCD pic.twitter.com/pKGSSOCu8d
— Sarah Reese Jones (@PoliticusSarah) April 29, 2018
After watching that video, I had no idea where this outrage was coming from. The most Wolf did was compare Sanders’ actions (NOT her looks) to those of an authoritarian character from “The Handmaid’s Tale” and make a pun based off an old Maybelline slogan that insinuated Sanders uses ashes created from lies “to create the perfect smokey eye.”
Wolf never once commented on Sanders’ looks. I thought for a second I was crazy, but I felt vindicated after seeing a few Twitter reactions from folks who also felt the same way.
The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that Michelle Wolf did such a harsh act WITHOUT insulting any woman's looks. She aimed straight at the white female enforcers & never once suggested that anyone was a bimbo or a dog—like the man they work for surely would have.
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) April 29, 2018
I’m not into jokes about personal appearances. I hate very single Trump fat joke because it’s off the point and reinforces our shitty preexisting body image stuff in America. But smoky eye? Girl that’s not a joke about personal appearance.
— Joanna Robinson (@jowrotethis) April 29, 2018
That still didn’t explain why pundits like Maggie Haberman and Andrea Mitchell were condemning Wolf so strongly for something that a.) she didn’t do and b.) didn’t warrant that level of vitriol even if she had gone after Sanders’ appearance. Then I saw this Lawrence O’Donnell tweet:
I have comedian friends who've done #WHCD. Many writer friends who've written WHCD jokes. I always advised them precisely on the line they shouldn't cross. I respected the line. They did too but still they made mistakes.
Then Trump destroyed the line.
THERE IS NO LINE.
— Lawrence O'Donnell (@Lawrence) April 29, 2018
“THERE IS NO LINE” could easily be 2018’s tagline. Political comedy is a losing proposition now because of our president, who is simultaneously both the most and least funny person on Earth.
For the record, Wolf did make a joke about abortion that understandably crossed that proverbial line for some, and she made other off-color remarks that straddled the line between challenging commentary and offensive for the sake of it.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2018
But she was in a no-win situation. Being the headlining comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2018 is like being Batman: You can be the hero Gotham needs or the one it deserves, but you can’t be both.
Washington seems to have become a particularly humorless place since Trump took office. Say what you will about Barack Obama’s presidency, but the man kept it light when he didn’t have to be stone serious. Washington types seemed more than happy to laugh with him during his White House Correspondents’ Dinner set.
Our current president has shown an inability to take a joke, or any criticism for that matter. Everything Trump does is deadly serious, to the point where it’s almost funny. How many other people could elicit laughter by discussing their views on arming teachers with guns without even trying?
That contradiction makes it almost impossible to make fun of Trump, but also almost impossible not to. He’s an easy target whose every action reflects directly on the United States. What do you do with that as a comedian?
Vulture’s Jesse David Fox tried to parse that question in a December 2017 article aptly headlined, “Trump is One of the Worst Things Ever to Happen to Comedy.” He argued that the demand for Trump-related comedy was stifling creativity from comedians who would rather work off their own experiences than engage in political humor.
“Just like you wouldn’t show up to Webster Hall and expect whoever’s playing to play some uniform idea of ‘music,’ not every comedian is a political comedian,” he wrote. “Most aren’t. But Trump has brought back the feeling of the ’80s, when clubs were filled with nameless men with rolled-up suit jackets and a similar five minutes’ worth of half-baked observation.”
Fox was, however, ultimately hopeful for the future of comedy, arguing that “however undesirable the jokes may or may not be, silence would be worse.”
“Comedians are doing something valuable by just continuing to show up and do what they do,” he wrote. “Comedy might never be good because of Trump, but I’m often reminded that it will continue to be good in spite of him.”
Fox also covered the Wolf controversy, writing about how he believes she did not go after Sanders’ looks and that her critics are ignoring the truth in Wolf’s joke.
What the Michelle Wolf thing brings to light for the 10,000th time is despite being literally the most powerful people in the world, this administration acts like it's punching down to make note of their failings. It's deeply dishonest and DEEPLY insecure.
— Jesse David Fox (@JesseDavidFox) April 29, 2018
“They’re missing the underlying point of Wolf’s comedy: That what should concern every American are the smokescreens that Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other members of the Trump administration create, and that make it so hard for White House correspondents to uncover the actual truth,” he wrote.
The outrage over one of her more innocuous jokes has obscured her smart and biting humor about everything from the Democrats’ ineffectiveness to win congressional seats to the media profiting off the never-ending Trump administration drama and shows just how difficult a political comedian’s job is in 2018. There is no line, yet the line has never been easier to cross.
White House Correspondents’ Dinner host may have been a thankless job long before Trump, but at a time when the president and his administration are caricatures of themselves and D.C. audiences don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Trump’s every breath, it’s now damn-near impossible.