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Michelle Wolf Had One Job. She Did It Well (Analysis)

Analysis: Despite the current furor, comedian Wolf earned her paycheck at this weekend's annual "nerd prom," delivering a monologue in keeping with the event's traditions.

Attention, Rich Little: The White House Correspondents Association may have need of your services again in 2019.

Little, an affable impressionist who used his acumen with voices to gain appearances on everything from “Love, American Style” to “The Love Boat,” provided the WHCA some measure of relief in 2007, when he delivered a comedy monologue at the group’s annual dinner. In the prior year, Stephen Colbert had sparked a controversy by speaking about then-President George W. Bush, all in the bloviating talk-show host he portrayed on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”  “I stand by this man,” Colbert told the audience. ” I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

Some Bush supporters and aides expressed indignation. Sound familiar? The WHCA tried to soothe furrowed brows by inviting Little to the next event. No one talks about Little’s performance anymore. People are still talking about Colbert’s.

“There was a lot of hostility from the world after that,” Colbert told Variety during an interview last August, in remarks that were previously unpublished. “But a lot of people liked it. It just took a while for them to express it.” Indeed, Colbert’s speech went viral on YouTube, an early example of how content can spark intense pass-along and generate a reaction entirely different from the one displayed by material’s intended audience. Colbert’s lesson from the episode? “Do the jokes you want to do, and if you do the jokes you really want to do, someone will like it.”

The White House Correspondents Association didn’t like what Michelle Wolf had to say at its annual awards dinner this past weekend, but there’s one thing everyone who watched the event can agree upon: She earned her paycheck.

Like Colbert, Wolf poked fun not only at the current president, Donald Trump, but also some of his aides; Democrats; Republicans; and the press corps itself. “I think she’s very resourceful, like she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye,” said Wolf of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary. ” Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.” And, Wolf on the media: “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”

Basically, it’s the same sort of stuff you hear out of this event every April.

This year, however, the WHCA took things one step further, issuing a press release the following day to say that Wolf’s monologue “was not in the spirit” of the group’s mission to call attention to the value of a free press as well as great journalism.

That statement is almost as funny as any of the many jokes Wolf let loose with at the gala. Because one has to wonder why Wolf’s jokes weren’t in keeping with the group’s values, while other funny business by Larry Wilmore or Wanda Sykes was. Wilmore raised hackles in 2016 by poking fun at Lester Holt, Don Lemon and Wolf Blitzer (“Speaking of drones, how is Wolf Blitzer still on television?”) – and by using a racial epithet at the end of his remarks. Asked if he would have changed anything, Wilmore told Variety, “I would have doubled down. I did what I was supposed to do. When you’re taking chances, you know it’s not going to please everybody.” Wanda Sykes in 2009 took on Rush Limbaugh, comparing him to Osama bin Laden. “I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker,” noted Sykes. “But he was  just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.”

The WHCA needs the comedians it hires every year. It clearly craves the notoriety they bring. Otherwise, its event would be televised by the same number of cable networks that broadcast the industry’s annual Pulitzer Prizes or Loeb Awards. Which is to say, none.

The oh-my-stars-and-garters reaction of various journalists, sundry critics and, now, the association itself, seems misplaced. After all, if previous comics didn’t bring an end to this years-long tradition, Wolf certainly won’t. TV has withstood worse. CBS continues to broadcast despite the controversy Janet Jackson generated in 2004 by revealing part of her breast during the network’s broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVIII. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has faced not even a little opprobrium despite broadcasting an increasing number of accidental profanities by a number of its hosts in recent seasons.

If this non-controversy really upset the WHCA, its members would long ago have stopped booking “SNL” cast members and “Comedy Central” stars and replaced them with “Up With People” or whatever amalgamation of the Beach Boys is touring this century.

Michelle Wolf is about to launch a new series on Netflix. The WHCA ought to launch a good, hard look at itself and figure out what it really wants to accomplish with its “nerd prom” each year.

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