According to the president of the United States, comedian Michelle Wolf “totally bombed” at her roast at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend. If you watch the video, it’s almost possible to see the web of tension Wolf weaves over the course of her act (which included jokes about gun control, Trump’s affiliations with white supremacists, and various politicians’ sexual assault allegations). Several of her punchlines were met with stony silences, punctuated by gasps and muffled laughter.
And yet, waking up this morning, Wolf found that she had achieved something few entertainers ever will: she had become a household name overnight. Her scathing roast, which came hard for politicians and prominent members of the press, has put her name on everyone’s lips, not to mention all over thinkpieces, tweets, and articles from virtually every major news outlet.
Every year, the dinner — a swanky event at which government officials and members of the press who write about them get together to make speeches and jokes about the state of journalism in America — features a comedian who roasts the president, the administration, and the press. Seth Myers, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel have been featured in recent years, but 2018’s comedian was lesser known: Michelle Wolf, a writer for The Daily Show. Perhaps Wolf’s relative obscurity helped her get the gig. After all, would anyone have knowingly booked her if they’d been aware of her brash politics and unflinching crudeness.
Or as Wolf put it herself: “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.”
Many of Wolf’s jokes addressed Trump himself, though for the second year in a row, he wasn’t present. “Of course, Trump isn’t here, if you haven’t noticed, he’s not here,” Wolf said. “And I know, I know, I would drag him here myself, but it turns out the president of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab.” For those members of the audience who were affronted by her crude language, she added, “He said it first, yeah he did. You remember? Good.”
She went on to brutally lampoon most high-ranking members of the Trump administration, but the joke that seems to have gained the most attention was aimed at Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary and Trump’s proxy for the evening.
“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.”
Hey mags! All these jokes were about her despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though? 😘 https://t.co/JRzzvhBuey
— Michelle Wolf (@michelleisawolf) April 29, 2018
And while Republicans have been quick to leap to Sanders’ defense, many comedians and writers have argued that Wolf was simply being blunt in calling out those in power — something Trump himself claims to do.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies to the American people almost every day and defends the lies, incompetence and cruel behavior of the most unqualified and embarrassing President in modern times. You think the jokes last night were harsh? Wait until history has its way with her.
— billy eichner (@billyeichner) April 29, 2018
Please point us to the tweets where you said something like this about the President of the United States when he was attacking people at rallies and his supporters were laughing…
IT WAS A ROAST. https://t.co/KUg3iUb0oO
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) April 29, 2018
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
While Wolf paid particular attention to Trump and his current (and ever-rotating) administration, she did seem to spare a moment for almost everyone involved in the media circus that surrounds the current government. She made fun of Hillary’s campaign for its tactical failures, MSNBC for its nonsensical slogan (“This is who we are”), and Mike Pence for refusing to meet with women without his wife present. She ended by taking news outlets to task for being “obsessed” with Trump. “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.”
And while her jokes may not have entirely landed in the room, it’s clear that her intended audience wasn’t really the group of bureaucrats and reporters in the room. It was everyone else. And in that respect, her set was a huge success. Her set has stirred up debate, galvanized both sides of the political spectrum, and, most importantly for her career, captured everyone’s attention.