As mentioned in her introduction at the White House correspondents’ dinner Saturday night, Michelle Wolf’s breakout HBO comedy special from last year is called “Nice Lady,” a descriptor she happily admitted during that performance did not apply to her. This wasn’t self-effacing; for her it was in part an admission that she preferred being someone who got things done.
With a Netflix talk show debuting next month and the difficult task of roasting a sitting president and his press corps now behind her, both of those things remain undeniably true. Wolf pulled no punches in her under-20-minute set, did not go for easy laughs and didn’t let either side of the aisle grow too comfortable.
Least of all White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had the job of attending the dinner in the place of President Trump, who for the second consecutive year refused to attend the event, preferring to be with far friendlier faces at a rally for supporters in Michigan.
“Is this better than that phony White House correspondents’ thing? Is this more fun?” Trump asked the crowd. Based on the pained expression Sanders wore as Wolf turned her way, she would most certainly agree.
“I love you as Aunt Lydia on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Wolf said to Sanders, seated to her left. “Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you would love it.” Sanders scowled, giving no indication she planned to be a sport as the night’s most visible representative of the administration.
“I actually really like Sarah, I think she’s very resourceful,” Wolf said, turning toward the press secretary in the latter part of her set. “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.
“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies,” she added as a sympathetic groan rippled through the room, and Wolf grinned.
In her defense, she had set ground rules in the first few minutes of her set. “As much as some of you might want me to, it’s 2018 and I’m a woman, so you cannot shut me up — unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.”
But Sanders and the Stormy Daniels case were far from Wolf’s only targets in a set that also took aim at Megyn Kelly, Fox News, Democrats, Kellyanne Conway, Rachel Maddow and, of course, the president, whose absence she noted early on with a reference to his line from the “Access Hollywood” video as an explanation for why she couldn’t grab him and bring him to the event herself.
With Trump a frequent target on late-night TV, Wolf smartly looked for a new approach to potentially get under her target’s skin and focused on his finances, which still remain something of a mystery in the absence of the release of his tax returns. “Mr. President, I don’t think you’re very rich,” she teased. “I think you might be rich in Idaho, but in New York, you’re doing fine.”
The Trump-is-broke bit went on into some call-and-response gags that didn’t always land (especially a merrily too-soon Southwest Airlines joke), but Wolf leaned into the tepid response, finally ending the bit with a straight-faced recitation of how Trump’s finances could have opened the door to cooperation with Russia and threatening the republic. “Yaaay,” she said. “It’s a fun game.”
Wolf wasn’t done dipping into less-funny realities during her set, holding the media culpable for “creating this monster” in Trump and then profiting from his endless supply of outrageous news, and then she closed her set with the reminder, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water!”
It wasn’t always the most comfortable collection of jokes for her audience, or even for her, as she was seen afterward on C-SPAN’s feed posing awkwardly for photos on the dais. But based on the material that led to her getting the gig in the first place, that was never going to be her intention.