It wasn’t all the swearing in Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner “roast”. In the Trump era, four-letter words have long since lost their shock value – and, as the comedian herself said, who outside of the room would have heard them anyway (unless they’d been watching C-Span)? And it wasn’t the reference to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ “perfect smokey eye” – which, if it described her appearance, can only have been an object of praise.
Nor could all the offence have sprung from the notion that Wolf had allowed the mask to slip – that she’d strayed away from comedy into the realm of truth-telling. She came close, but she always managed, masterfully, to pull it back at the last minute. From first to last, she was telling jokes – and for anyone to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best.
She established this at the outset, saying: “I’m here to make jokes. I have no agenda.” The fact that she indeed had an agenda is irrelevant. On the face of it – and in terms of comedic convention, that’s all that matters – she was faithful to the time-honoured comedian’s fall-back position: “Only kidding, folks.” Nothing more was demanded by Gary Cooper in The Virginian, when Walter Huston started to call him a long-legged son of a bitch: “If you wanna call me that, smile,” he said. Wolf smiled all the way through.
All in fun
Indeed, she kept firmly within the guidelines carved into stone almost 100 years ago by the American philosopher and humourist Max Eastman:
The first law of humour is that things can be funny only when we are in fun. There may be a serious thought or motive lurking underneath our humour. We may be only “half in fun” and still funny. But when we are not in fun at all, when we are “in dead earnest”, humour is the thing that is dead.
Wolf may have come close to transgressing Eastman’s “second law” of humour:
When we are in fun, a peculiar shift of values takes place. Pleasant things are still pleasant, but disagreeable things, so long as they are not disagreeable enough to “spoil the fun”, tend to acquire a pleasant emotional flavour and provoke a laugh.
But coming close to the line is not crossing the line.
Wolf certainly brought up some “disagreeable things”: Roy Moore’s alleged paedophilia; Michael Cohen’s reported payment of hush-money to Stormy Daniels – supposedly on behalf of the president; the presidential grabbing of pussy; the hypocrisy of loudmouthed anti-abortion politicians who are ready enough to get one for their “secret mistress”. She covered Kellyanne Conway’s lies, Sanders’ lies, Trump’s lies … but still, she smiled. She kept the right side of the line.
Nothing she brought up was anything more horrific than Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” to fatten up the starving children of Dublin in order to sell them as “dainties” to wealthy cannibals, thereby bringing in some revenue and eliminating the embarrassment of child poverty. Only the Nazis couldn’t see that Swift had been joking.
Comedy with a conscience
Of course, there were some very uncomfortable moments when the laughter dipped, when Wolf had to work the room a little harder, when perhaps she got too close for comfort to the thin line of comedy.
In this, she at least had Mark Twain as an angel on her shoulder. The edgiest moment of his comedic life was when he delivered a monologue on the occasion of a dinner in honour of the revered poet John Greenleaf Whittier (the “roast” had yet to be invented).
Twain had concocted a yarn about three filthy tramps in a mining camp attempting to pass themselves off as Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson – all of whom were in the room as Twain spoke. They, along with many – but not all – of their august Boston guests, sat in stony silence (much like Sanders and Conway). Twain’s close friend William Dean Howells was appalled, calling the monologue “a hideous mistake”.
Twain himself wrote an apology to the three subjects of his joke, but that was in many ways a polite self-betrayal, for, as he wrote to a friend: “Nobody has ever convinced me that that speech was not a good one. My purpose was clean, my conscience clear.”
In the days following Wolf’s roast, the calls and demands for her to apologise rained down on her head – even from journalists who have otherwise been hostile to Trump and Sanders. These included Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
But jumping to Wolf’s defence was American writer Arwa Mahdawi, who declared in The Guardan:
If anything, the likes of Haberman, Brzezinski and Mitchell owe America an apology. They’re all incredibly smart women with extremely important jobs. They’re supposed to be holding power to account, not sucking up to it.
Wolf’s response, in effect, has been: “My purpose was clean, my conscience clear.”
In the end, if Wolf has anything to apologise for, it is not for breaking Eastman’s first two laws of humour. Rather, it is for contravening the dictum of Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, who wrote over a century and a half ago:
House serfs have no right to smile in the presence of their masters. Only equals can laugh amongst themselves.
One outraged Trump supporter, Matt Schlapp, stormed out of the dinner, tweeting: “Enough of elites mocking all of us.”
Yet, Schlapp – the fabulously wealthy chair of the American Conservative Union and political consultant to the Koch brothers and a host of fabulously wealthy corporations – had proposed a bizarre inversion of Herzen’s dictum. To him, it was Wolf who was the “elite”, the “master”, while he and all the administration officials at the top table were, presumably, the “house serfs”.
But such topsy-turvy delusions aside, Wolf did her job as a comedian, telling truth to power while wearing the mask of Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Twain, and Lear’s fool: “Only kidding, folks” (even if she wasn’t).