It’s hard to make a late-night show stand out. For decades, late-night comedy has more or less stuck to the same formatted script – monologue, desk piece, interview, something extra, end of show — with hosts making incremental changes where they could squeeze them in. Just about every host was a straight white guy until very recently, as streaming and cable networks have made more room for the genre. (See: TBS investing in Samantha Bee, BET hiring Robin Thede, Viceland hiring Desus and Mero, etc.) Those new hires, however relatively few in the grand scheme of things, have started to shift the late-night landscape so that shows can, even ever so slightly, take some more experimental risks.
Netflix’s “The Break With Michelle Wolf, which premiered May 27 just days after Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner routine briefly broke Washington D.C., both works within the traditional bounds of late night shows and actively works to resist them. The bones of the show are familiar: Wolf opens the show with a timely monologue before sitting at her desk to aim punchlines at a more specific target. Every episode – three so far, as “The Break” drops weekly on Sundays – even includes some pretaped sketch material. She’s tackling many of the same subjects as her late-night peers, from President Trump’s latest mess to Bill Clinton’s latest confusion about his responsibility regarding Monica Lewinsky.
But “The Break” only uses these typical segments only so far as Wolf and her writers find them useful as a grounding baseline. Otherwise, they relish twisting them into a new shape, deliberately playing with the audience’s expectations to deliver something weirder and more specific to Wolf’s particularly spiky strengths.
Wolf delivers her monologue in wedge sneakers and jeans. Her desk pieces wrap pointed jokes in seemingly familiar formats, like the first episode’s “SPORTS SMASH” segment that took an ESPN style approach to Wolf ranking all the women who have disappointed her lately. She and her guests – so far including “Late Night” writer Amber Ruffin and comedian Neal Brennan – don’t do interviews, but instead perform scripted banter about not wanting to have kids (Ruffin) or play a silly game with the audience that makes everyone involved look just a little bit worse (Brennan). “The Break’s” sketches are uneven, but admirably strange; the first the show debuted were a trio of bizarre ads for an Amazon Alexa that demands to be fed lunch meat, or else.
And yes, there are several segments that frankly would never happen at a show without a female host or head writer like “The Break’s” Christine Nangle. The second episode’s sketch, while messy, let Wolf act out the fantasy of being a terrifying composite of every “strong female character” on TV, complete with a power suit, ambiguous high-powered job, and ravenous sexual appetite.
But the most reliably fun part of watching “The Break” is watching Wolf, whose former “Late Night” boss Seth Meyers recently called “very mean” with a fond smile, tear into a subject with the same kind of no holds barred savagery that made her WHCD routine so electric. For example: she has plenty of scathing words for the men who inspired the recent #MeToo wave for how they abused their power, but also expresses her delight that she can finally go low and tell jokes that might have been considered too rude before the truth came out. (A highlight includes Wolf saying that accused harasser Mario Batali “looks like what a tuba sounds like.)”
She also doubles down on her disdain for the Trump administration, affirming in her first episode that her controversial jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders came from a place of wanting to mock her “ugly personality.” In her latest episode, Wolf alluded to the rumors surrounding Melania Trump’s disappearance from the public eye by saying she hopes that “it doesn’t come out that Donald hurts her, because one, that’s bad, and two … we’d have to make her this brave feminist icon, and I don’t want to do that! I like making fun of Melania because she’s a bad First Lady!”
Whether she’s tearing down a politician, scoffing at a sexist institution, or telling her audience it deserves a break (pun intended) before speeding away on a tricycle, Wolf is always grinning with delight that she gets to do it all on her own weird terms. Not every joke has to land for the show to be even half as much fun as Wolf is clearly having.
TV Review: “The Break with Michelle Wolf”
Talk/variety, 30 mins. Airs Sundays on Netflix.
CAST: Michelle Wolf
CREW: Executive producers Michelle Wolf, Christine Nangle, Daniel Powell, Daniel Bodansky, Lorrie Baranek.