The stand-up comedy world is in the throes of a sea change, as three of its marquee namesAziz Ansari, Louis C.K. and T.J. Millerstand accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct. Muddling matters further is the largesse of streaming giant Netflix, whose lofty $20 million-per-hour paydays for male comics Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle have caused much consternation among lesser-compensated women (and understandably so).
As the so-called Bad Men dissolve from the pop-culture consciousness faster than the McFly family photo in Back to the Future, and as women across all industries reclaim their time, a confident new comedy voice has emerged from the maelstrom.
Her name is Michelle Wolf. And she is fucking hilarious.
If you havent seen the 32-year-olds HBO comedy special, Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady, well, you should get on that immediately. It was, in this writers estimation, the funniest stand-up special of 2017, packed with sidesplittingand blessedly Trump-freejokes on topics ranging from the fragile male ego (A soft penis looks like the sound of sad) and the feminism of naked selfies to pay equity and Caitlyn Jenners brave transition (I still fucking hate your personality). Throughout the hour-long ride, she is both cutting and ebullient, her piercing voice, bobbing red mane, and chortle accentuating each clever punch line.
The through-line is the outmoded concept of the nice lady, and how, in the immortal words of The Real World, its time for women to stop being polite and start getting real. Though the special was recorded in August, two months prior to the disturbing Harvey Weinstein revelations, its a sentiment that aligns perfectly with the current #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
I dont want to say serendipitous, because so many terrible things are happening to so many people, but its kind of serendipitous, I guess, offers Wolf. Its just a good time in comedy right now for women, because its a perspective that people are now more open to.
Unlike her male contemporaries whove struggled with addressing the epidemic of sexual-harassment allegations, Wolf has proven to be more than up to the task. In late October, just after the Weinstein stories dropped, her Daily Show boss Trevor Noah tasked her with creating a humorous bit on the truly horrifying casein just a few hours, no less.
Its a hard thing to make jokes aboutespecially that soon, she recalls. I struggled to find a take on it. Its good to have emotion behind something, but sometimes your feelings can blind you comedically. You have to remain fairly neutral, stand back from a situation, and think of the way it will actually work, not the way it will make your heart feel better.
The result was both funny and spot-on: My solution? Every time a guy gets caught sexually harassing someone, you dont just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman. Its a policy that I call, Pull out your dick, get replaced by a chick.
Wolf is also fearless. In addition to skewing Caitlyn Jenner in Nice Lady, she takes a few clean shots at Hillary Clinton, or rather the patriarchal system that made Hillary Hillary, from one so-called shrill voice to another.
I do have a theory on why Hillary lost: I think its cause no one likes her, says Wolf in the special. You shouldnt like Hillary. Shes a bitch. You have to be a bitch to be that powerful. Were never going to have a nice lady run for president. Nice ladies arent in charge of things, and if youre in charge of something and you think youre a nice lady, no one else does.
Thats the balance you have to create, she says, explaining the bit. I come from the train of thought that you can joke about anything as long as its funny enough. You have to anticipate what peoples arguments against you will be so that you can make a joke-rationale for it. That Hillary bit goes pretty aggressively at her but then it turns into a compliment. Im not a lawyer but I think its similar to writing a good argument where you have to cover all your bases.
Wolf wasnt always the self-assured comic you see on HBO and The Daily Show. At the College of William & Marythe same school Jon Stewart went to, strangely enoughshe was a real big nerd who majored in kinesiology, working in a cardiovascular molecular physiology lab, and ran track and field.
I used to watch those old Gatorade commercials from the 90s where the athletes are hooked up to wires on the treadmill and I wanted to be the doctor working on those guys, because I knew I wasnt a good enough athlete, she says.
After graduating from college in 2007, she took a job at Bear Stearns working in mutual funds and separately managed accounts. Then came the financial collapse.
I was the low person on the totem pole but I felt terrible for the people there whod been there for their entire careers and invested in the company. That was heartbreaking, says Wolf. It would almost have been better if everyone got fired on one day, but it dragged on for years. Youd just hear about people getting pushed to other departments and would think, yeah, theyre getting pushed out. It was pretty soul-crushing.
In March 2008, right around the time Bear Stearns was falling apart, a few high-school friends came to New York City to visit, and they all went to a taping of Saturday Night Live. Afterward, she thought, How did they get to do this? So she Googled the cast members and discovered that each and every one of them had done improv.
She immediately signed up for a beginners improv classlevel 1 at The PIT, or Peoples Improv Theaterand found it exhilarating. She had, after all, grown up idolizing Carol Burnett. Wolf would go directly from Bear Stearns (and later JPMorgan) to The PIT.
I used to go to improv classes in my skirt-suit from work, wearing heels, she remembers with a laugh. I finally started bringing pants and sneakers to wear and thought, Oh yeah, you can move!
At one of her improv classes, she befriended someone who worked in a computational biochemistry research lab as a recruiter. And so, after three-and-a-half years in finance she took a job there, because it provided her with more flexibility to explore comedy. She soon got into stand-up, and worked on it all day, day after day, writing jokes, performing sets, and tweeting.
It gave me a ton of time to sit at my computer and tweet all day, which really helped with my joke-writing, shares Wolf. I would just read the news and tweet jokes about the news. It teaches you an economy of words.
Wolf eventually began doing less and less work at the lab, devoting more and more time to comedy, and got fired. But shed saved up enough money, along with her severance, to last a year: I tripled down with so much fear inside of me because I was like: This is it. I have a year to make it.
She was fired in January 2013. In January 2014, she got hired on the new show Late Night With Seth Meyers, where she worked in the writers room and participated in the occasional sketch. Then, feeling the itch to perform more on-camera, she joined The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in April 2016.
Nice Lady is no accident. Its a late December evening and Wolf has, with the aid of an entire French press, worked from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. writing jokes (a process they call gangs) all day at The Daily Show before meeting me for more coffee. After our chat, shell head downtown to perform three stand-up sets, including at the famed Comedy Cellar.
I did 21 shows last week, she says, and thats on top of her Daily Show job. I have a new hour Im working on. I wanted to go on tour after the special came out, and I didnt want to do the same stuff. So Im workin on it. Its great and terrifying to work on new jokes.
She pauses, reflecting on her regimen. Its a lifestyle thats not necessarily conducive to women most of the time, because touring and doing stand-up a lot is not easy when you have a baby. Its easy for a guy because the baby can stay home, but Ali [Wong] brings her baby with her all the time, which is a very tough thing to do, and she has a great support system around her. But thats not the norm.
Wolfs well-received Comedy Cellar sets soon caught the eye of high-profile stand-up comedians, including Hannibal Buress. When host Chris Rock was recruiting joke writers for the 2016 Academy Awards, Buress recommended Wolf. She vividly remembers running into Seth Meyers office and frantically yelling, I just got a voicemail from Chris Rock telling me to call him back. What should I do?! You should call him back, said Meyers.
Several of Wolfs jokes made it into the Oscars telecastincluding a great sorority racist bitand Wolf eventually opened for Rock on several European dates.
Hes become a friend and a mentor, which is crazy. Theres no past me that would ever have thought this would happen, she says.
Another of her mentors is Louis C.K., whos been accused ofand confessed toserial sexual misconduct. Wolfs guest-starred on Louis web series Horace and Pete, opened for him on tour, and spent many nights shooting the shit with him at the Comedy Cellar.
When I mention the Louis scandal, she says matter-of-factly: Hes always been very supportive and generous, and my experience with him is very different than others, I suppose. But, in this kind of big moment in my career, I dont really want to talk about stuff that a man did.
Fair enough. After all, it wasnt Louis C.K. who performed thousands of stand-up sets or spent years in a pair of late-night writers rooms meticulously honing her craft, transforming from a nerdy scientist into the stage-commanding badass in Nike His you see before you today. It was Michelle Wolf.
To do stand-up, you have to have a strong point of view, and doing stand-up gave me that strong point of view, she says, cracking a smile. It made me a person.
Michelle Wolfs The Not Nice Comedy Tour kicks off Feb. 1 in Philadelphia. Shell be performing March 8-10 at Carolines in Manhattan.
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