Michelle Wolf Is the Future of Stand-Up Comedy
The ‘Daily Show’ correspondent is a comedian to watch in 2018—and beyond.
The stand-up comedy world is in the throes of a sea change, as three of its marquee names—Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K. and T.J. Miller—stand 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 haven’t seen the 32-year-old’s HBO comedy special, Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady, well, you should get on that immediately. It was, in this writer’s estimation, the funniest stand-up special of 2017, packed with sidesplitting—and blessedly Trump-free—jokes 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 Jenner’s 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, it’s 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, it’s a sentiment that aligns perfectly with the current #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
“I don’t want to say ‘serendipitous,’ because so many terrible things are happening to so many people, but it’s kind of serendipitous, I guess,” offers Wolf. “It’s just a good time in comedy right now for women, because it’s a perspective that people are now more open to.”
Unlike her male contemporaries who’ve 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 case—in just a few hours, no less.
“It’s a hard thing to make jokes about—especially that soon,” she recalls. “I struggled to find a take on it. It’s 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 don’t just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman. It’s 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 it’s cause no one likes her,” says Wolf in the special. “You shouldn’t like Hillary. She’s a bitch. You have to be a bitch to be that powerful. We’re never going to have a nice lady run for president. Nice ladies aren’t in charge of things, and if you’re in charge of something and you think you’re a nice lady, no one else does.”
“That’s 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 it’s funny enough. You have to anticipate what people’s 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. I’m not a lawyer but I think it’s similar to writing a good argument where you have to cover all your bases.”
Wolf wasn’t always the self-assured comic you see on HBO and The Daily Show. At the College of William & Mary—the same school Jon Stewart went to, strangely enough—she 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 wasn’t 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 who’d 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. You’d just hear about people getting pushed to other departments and would think, yeah, they’re 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 beginner’s improv class—level 1 at The PIT, or People’s Improv Theater—and 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 she’d 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. It’s 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, she’ll head downtown to perform three stand-up sets, including at the famed Comedy Cellar.
“I did 21 shows last week,” she says, and that’s on top of her Daily Show job. “I have a new hour I’m working on. I wanted to go on tour after the special came out, and I didn’t want to do the same stuff. So I’m workin’ on it. It’s great and terrifying to work on new jokes.”
She pauses, reflecting on her regimen. “It’s a lifestyle that’s 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. It’s 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 that’s not the norm.”
Wolf’s 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 Wolf’s jokes made it into the Oscars’ telecast—including a great “sorority racist” bit—and Wolf eventually opened for Rock on several European dates.
“He’s become a friend and a mentor, which is crazy. There’s no past me that would ever have thought this would happen,” she says.
Another of her mentors is Louis C.K., who’s been accused of—and confessed to—serial sexual misconduct. Wolf’s 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: “He’s 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 don’t really want to talk about stuff that a man did.”
Fair enough. After all, it wasn’t 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 Hi’s 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 Wolf’s The Not Nice Comedy Tour kicks off Feb. 1 in Philadelphia. She’ll be performing March 8-10 at Caroline’s in Manhattan.