Michelle Wolf committed a grave comedy error at the Correspondents' dinner: She told the truth

The Correspondents' dinner is a celebration of wealth and influence. Wolf's crime was to break its unspoken rules

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 1, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)

Michelle Wolf attends the Celebration After the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Getty/Tasos Katopodis)
Michelle Wolf attends the Celebration After the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Getty/Tasos Katopodis)

In "Rabelais and his World," the Russian political theorist Mikhail Bakhtin outlined the dynamics of what he described as "the carnivalesque." This was an aesthetic sensibility and space where humanity is emancipated from the limits imposed by the powerful, life is celebrated, equality is real, free and honest speech is permitted, the "grotesque" is nurtured and peasants or serfs are at liberty to mock the king while keeping their heads attached to their bodies.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner possesses few if any of those attributes. Instead, it is a celebration of the affluent and the influential, where the powerful gather to mock one another, all the while behaving within the confines of prescribed social norms. The comedian-host is supposed to gently prod and poke fun (in some vague style of "good taste") at a group of journalists, pundits and politicians who publicly operate as though they are enemies most of the time but in the most important ways are members of the same social class. The punches can be thrown low -- but not too low. The fight is fixed but it should still look believable. (In professional wrestling this is called a "worked shoot.")

It would seem that comedian Michelle Wolf broke those rules at last Saturday's Correspondents' dinner. As a result, she has been subjected to esoteric complaints rooted in performance theory and comedy. Apparently she is not supposed to make fun of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' appearance; some consider this lazy because a person usually cannot change how their face looks. Others have said her performance was "mean-spirited" and "just not that funny." Again, those are subjective judgments operating outside of any fixed criteria that can be easily and universally qualified or agreed upon.

It has been said that an old lady falling down a flight of stairs is always funny if the story is told correctly, but some comedians have observed that such a scenario is not funny -- unless the old lady was pushed down the stairs by someone else. Humor truly is in the eye of the beholder.

Beyond debates about style and form, Wolf broke a more important rule: she dared to tell the truth.

Yes, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a professional liar. Here Wolf is spot-on: "I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies."

The American corporate news media is in a mutually abusive symbiotic relationship with Donald Trump. Wolf diagnoses this perfectly.

You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.

Wolf spoke even more truth to power at the close of her routine. Four years after its drinking water crisis made national news, Flint, Michigan, still does not have clean water -- in a country where the Republican-led Congress voted to give millionaires and billionaires even more money by further cutting the social safety net and raising taxes on poor and working-class people.

The negative reaction to Wolf's WHCD speech demonstrates other truths as well.

Donald Trump has still not personally praised, invited to the White House or otherwise honored James Shaw Jr., the unarmed black man who stopped an apparent white supremacist armed with an assault-style rifle from killing even more black and brown people at a Nashville Waffle House restaurant a week or so ago. Yet President Trump somehow found time to complain on Twitter about Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

As a matter of routine, right-wing media personalities and politicians repeatedly said horrible and cruel things about Michelle Obama and her family, such as that she looked "like a man" or a "gorilla," was some kind of "ghetto baby mama" or was "unattractive" and "tacky" in her style and dress. It would appear that throwing racist stereotypes at America's first black First Lady was acceptable among conservatives. Yet telling the truth about a prominent white Republican woman is verboten. This is just another reminder of the toxic relationship between racism and sexism.

Conservatives and their media love to complain that "liberals" and "progressives" -- especially college students -- are cowards who need "safe spaces" to hide from the supposed truth. Here, the hypocrisy is almost too obvious to merit comment: Conservatives believe in safe spaces as well. But theirs is much larger: The American right wants all of America, its media and every area of public life to be a zone where they are free from criticism, free to twist and distort empirical reality to fit their whims, and empowered to treat nonwhites, women, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, atheists, Muslims, LGBT people and any other group deemed to be the Other with consequence-free disrespect and bigotry.

The era of Trump poses a great challenge for comedians: how does one effectively make fun of the absurd and ridiculous come to life, in the form of the president of the United States and his followers? Moreover, matters are so surreal that one must wonder if this is all just a prank gone wrong -- or gone right, depending on one's own point of view -- an elaborate scenario cooked up by a latter-day Andy Kaufman?

Of course this is not a new idea. Zach Schonfeld expounded on the "Kaufman theory" in a 2016 Newsweek essay, writing that it "hinges on the notion that Trump’s bid for the presidency is so outlandish — the gaffes, the boasts about penis size, the policy reversals and white nationalist overtures — that it must surely be performance art.

More specifically, the work of Andy Kaufman, an idiosyncratic figure who yanked performance art in bizarre, unprecedented directions, whether he was impersonating an incompetent comedian known as Foreign Man or pretending to revive an elderly lady who feigned a heart attack on his stage.

The theory is weirdly cemented in election rhetoric. Even weirder, different iterations of the joke often seem to have sprung up independently of one another. . . . It’s a crucial distinction: Kaufman fans frequently aren’t comparing Trump to Kaufman so much as they’re likening him to Tony Clifton, the belligerent lounge-singer character created by Kaufman in the late 1970s. As Clifton, Kaufman would don a filthy mustache and shout insults at audience members in a voice that resembled a coked-up Bugs Bunny's. Kaufman frequently insisted on having Clifton perform as his opening act, confusing both audience members and media outlets who didn’t realize it was just Kaufman in a wig.

Schonfeld observed that the "sheer joy" of a Kaufman performance "is that you have no idea what might happen," and the "sheer horror of a Trump presidency, for the overwhelming swath of the country that loathes him," is precisely the same. So the claim that Trump is really Andy Kaufman is a form of "goofy reassurance" or "a way to ascribe meaning to a world without meaning, a world as chaotic and unpredictable as the grammatical decisions in a Trump tweet."

Ultimately, arguing about the merits of a comedy performance, instead of spending that energy sounding the alarm about America's constitutional crisis under President Trump, signals once again to how much the Fourth Estate has failed in its most fundamental responsibilities.

As Noam Chomsky has warned, the media wants access to the powerful above all else. As such, too many leading figures in the media -- including those at last weekend's dinner -- are still stuck in a decades-old habit, trusting or hoping that Trump and his administration will somehow regress to the political mean and become normal. They do not seem to understand that in the age of Trump, longstanding rules and norms have been skewered and left for dead, the body still quivering on the floor. There will be no miraculous resurrection.

Sure, feel free to yuk it up (or not) about Michelle Wolf's performance last Saturday. But there is nothing funny about the truths she dared to speak.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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