Why you should care
Because she’s comedy’s breakout star of 2018.
You can catch Michelle Wolf at OZY Fest 2018, this summer’s hottest party, in New York City’s Central Park on July 21–22. Details and ticket information can be found here.
What would convince a sane person to voluntarily run 50 miles? Well, any old person can do a marathon, according to Michelle Wolf. “Like, even you did a marathon,” she once teased Late Night host Seth Meyers. “Except for that one you didn’t finish.”
Seasoned runners know that swimming, cycling and weightlifting enhance performance, activating muscles that running alone can’t build. Wolf’s career has been its own exercise in cross-training: She pivoted from studying kinesiology to working in finance, and from doing improv to performing stand-up comedy. Each move has required agility, allowing Wolf to flex her muscles in a new arena.
Many know the 33-year-old as the fiery comedian who shook up the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but Wolf began on a different trajectory. The Hershey, Pennsylvania, native worked in a cardiovascular physiology lab at the College of William & Mary after an injury derailed her track career. Then after graduating in 2007, she worked at the financial firm Bear Stearns — where she had a front-row seat to Wall Street’s 2008 unraveling.
During her stint in finance, Wolf started taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) in New York City. Toward the end of her program at PIT, she began experimenting with stand-up comedy and found her comfort zone. “Stand-up I have some control over,” she told Brooklyn Magazine in 2014.
Indeed, Wolf’s discipline and rigor have fueled her success. Late Night With Seth Meyers hired her as a writer in 2014, and she sometimes appeared on camera with characters such as “Grown-Up Annie.”
She began working as a correspondent for The Daily Show in 2016, and this April launched her own Netflix show, The Break With Michelle Wolf.
In her world, art and science aren’t at odds. Ali Farahnakian, founder of PIT in New York and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Wolf’s former teacher, says she approaches her craft like a meticulous scientist — she works hard, is eager to experiment and doesn’t fear trying new things. And she’s always looking for ways to “send the elevator back down to the folks who have helped her,” Farahnakian says.
As a comic, it’s easy to get discouraged by favoritism and nepotism, says Dan Soder, a New York–based comedian and actor who became friends with Wolf through comedy about eight years ago. “Then you watch someone like Michelle, who has just kicked ass all the way to the top.”
On camera, she speaks and moves with full command. Her dark red curls bounce, and a grin slips out just as she delivers the end of a joke, as though she can’t quite wait for the audience to get there. Her own enjoyment of the moment feeds the audience, energizing her in return. And of course, there’s that distinctive “fire alarm of a voice she has,” says Soder.
Wolf is artfully crude, says Steve O’Donnell, who has written for The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Chris Rock Show and Late Night With David Letterman. O’Donnell briefly collaborated with Wolf on a team of handpicked writers when Chris Rock hosted the Oscars in 2016 — facing a similarly charged circumstance to Wolf’s correspondents’ dinner performance, with #OscarsSoWhite as the Donald Trump–size elephant in the room that year. Even in an all-star group, Wolf had already earned Rock’s respect, O’Donnell says.
And Wolf’s brand of comedy has gotten only more focused over time. Her subjects are clearer now, Soder says. It’s about feminism. It’s about Trump.
Wolf’s remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner cut into Trump and his staffers with gleeful enthusiasm from the get-go. After opening with a reference to Trump’s dalliances with porn stars, she said: “Yep, kiddos, this is what you’re getting tonight. I’m going to skip a lot of the normal pleasantries.” Later, after a joke landed awkwardly, she quipped that the White House Correspondents’ Association should have done more research before booking her.
Trump fans complained that she was over-the-top and crass in attacking the president. Several journalists — The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell among them — criticized Wolf’s jokes, particularly those targeted at press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Wolf compared Sanders to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale, in what many saw as a jab at Sanders’ appearance.) The White House Correspondents’ Association issued a statement that said the dinner “was meant to offer a unifying message. … Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
The comedy world shrugged off the criticism, if it registered at all. O’Donnell says Wolf’s attacks might have garnered more attention because she was less widely known. “It seemed more like guerrilla warfare — sort of someone bursting out of the tree line, causing a big ruckus, setting a couple of half-tracks on fire, then disappearing into the woods,” O’Donnell says. “The goal of the comedian is to speak truth to power using comedy,” Farahnakian adds. “Entertainers use sugar to make the medicine go down. In the same way that the fool is able to tell the king what nobody else can in Shakespeare’s King Lear, comedians can tell people how they really act.”
Always politically conscious and vivacious, Wolf has ridden the momentum of the controversial performance. After the Republican National Committee called the left “unhinged,” she embraced the term. “Expecting people not to be unhinged right now is like expecting someone whose house is on fire to just keep calmly rearranging her bookshelf,” she said during a segment on her Netflix show, pacing across the stage clad in black jeans and sneakers. “What’s that — my pant leg is ablaze? Well, thanks, but Jane Austen is next to Jonathan Franzen, and that simply won’t do!”
With comedy increasingly intertwined with politics, Wolf’s breakout moment is coming at the perfect time. And if her preparation and ultramarathon prowess is any indication, she has the stamina for the long haul.