On Saturday evening, Michelle Wolf, a comedian who broke into the business on late-night television and “The Daily Show,” scandalized a village inhabited by politicians, lobbyists and reporters by ... wait for it ... being a comedian.
Wolf, the latest professional wit invited to entertain those gathered at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner by roasting the president, the media and the rest of the Washington establishment, cracked wise, funny, ruthless, cruel and vulgar for 19 minutes about subjects near and dear to those stakeholders.
She took on topics like the White House assault on facts; how women’s issues, political spin, and dissembling intersect uncomfortably with luminaries such as Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders; President Donald Trump’s possible dalliance with a porn star, his wealth and his courtship of white nationalists; Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick; Al Franken and sexual harassment; Democratic ineptitude; and the tangled, symbiotic relationship between journalists and the president.
“And just a reminder to everyone, I’m here to make jokes,” Wolf said at the top of her routine. “I have no agenda. I’m not trying to get anything accomplished. So everyone that’s here from Congress, you should feel right at home.”
Lots of the dinner guests, we now know, did not end up feeling right at home as Wolf toed the line between being provocative and being offensive - a line that comedy, particularly political comedy, routinely blurs. Many of the critical responses to Wolf’s caustic monologue wound up showing the extent to which the joke here truly is on tribal, insular Washington itself, and why cozy media events like Saturday’s dinner are inevitably uncomfortable and better off put to rest.
A tour around some of the reactions to Wolf - whom journalists invited to the dinner to exercise her own ribald form of free speech - also throws some Trump-era hypocrisies into relief.
Dennis Miller, a conservative political comedian and “Saturday Night Live” veteran, seemed to forget that he’s an occasionally nasty comedian himself when he took to Twitter over the weekend to slam Wolf. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, was so put off by Wolf’s routine that he and his wife fled the dinner. Fair enough. But the Schlapps weren’t so insulted that they couldn’t continue to partake in the event’s other vaguely swampy festivities. They reportedly showed up at a swanky after-party hosted by NBC at the Art Museum of the Americas.
Journalists - liberal, iconoclastic, free-speaking journalists - also took to Twitter to criticize Wolf or sympathize with her targets, notably Sanders. Perhaps not surprisingly, the president’s press secretary got some of the most rousing support from veterans of the fourth estate, including Andrea Mitchell.
I’m not so sure that Wolf was the “worst” since Don Imus skewered Bill Clinton for his extramarital affairs and Hillary Clinton for her legal problems at a media dinner in Washington back in 1996. Remember Stephen Colbert’s savage roasting of President George W. Bush at the Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006? That was pretty brutal (and uncomfortable and funny). How about Seth Meyers teeing up Trump at the 2011 installment? Tough stuff. And funny. (And maybe the reason Trump hasn’t shown up at the last two dinners.)
Sanders is an interesting exhibit in Washington tribalism. She has presided over myriad press conferences in which she has gone out of her way to insult the reporters present, while also accusing the press of “purposefully misleading the American people.” She also regularly goes to bat for a boss who has described the media as the “enemy of the American people.” Some of Sanders’s supporters in the press complained that Wolf made fun of the press secretary’s looks. I thought that Wolf was making fun of the press secretary’s demeanor and character; that’s a distinction with a difference.
In the meantime, it’s worth identifying the real problem with the Correspondents’ Association dinner: Journalists enter perilous territory when they take too much pleasure in getting dressed up and going out with the people they write about.
The event is firmly part of a certain nostalgic Washington tradition, one that’s rooted in the idea that there’s a shared faith in the fundamental value of fact-based journalism. But there isn’t. And that’s a fact that can’t be obscured by the kind of bland humor for which Wolf’s critics seem to pine.
So let’s just stop trying.
O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”