Michelle Wolf in Effigy: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner

As we finished our last class today, I thought it was only appropriate that I attempt to apply course concepts to an outside event. I stand a mere 10 days from finishing my time at Geneseo (as long as I survive my Capstone!), and I wanted to be sure that concepts like those presented by Joseph Roach were applicable to me outside of the microcosm of our classroom. Which is lucky, because I’ve got something on my mind.

Since Sunday morning, I’ve been consumed by Michelle Wolf’s extremely poignant speech as the headliner at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  She was chosen by the White House Correspondents’ Association to perform, and they condemned her just as fast. The group’s president, Margaret Talev, forsook her almost immediately after the dinner, saying, “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

Any preliminary look into Michelle Wolf’s comedy repertoire would bring back the result that she didn’t say anything out of character for her typical comedy style. As she pointed out in her speech in response to some shocked responses from the audience, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” So why choose her? I would argue that Michelle Wolf stood in as a monstrous double, a sacrificial victim put in a highly visible position to be ridiculed for any perceived slight against the press and/or the presidency (Roach 41). She was an intentional sacrifice made by the press and the White House to satiate those who wanted to see comedians (or liberals or leftists or women or whatever label someone could project onto Ms. Wolf) fail publicly.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner as a whole also relates to memory and forgetting: Stephen Colbert’s 2006 speech was so poorly received at the time and yet is now treated as a classic moment in political satire. The next year, they made a change. Rich Little did impressions of Johnny Carson to make George Bush smile. Obviously, that lesson didn’t stick in the churning, institutional memory loss intrinsic to the White House and Washington, D.C. as a whole. Michelle Wolf, a woman who, as Seth Meyers put it “uses every bit of the First Amendment,” was expected to deliver soft blows. Instead, she did what she’d been doing for half a decade by delivering jokes that mostly disregard propriety or social correctness.

Then she did something completely brilliant. After saying thank you and thus ending her 19-minute speech, Wolf dropped a verbal bomb amid the applause: “Flint Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.” Here, I note that Michelle Wolf stated outright that she wasn’t performing for the people in the room, but rather for everyone at home who would see her speech. She was conscripted to perform in this venue. In turn, she conscripted all of the high profile attendees to listen. Therefore, even the audience at the event was forced to perform whether through laughter, outrage, or the stony demeanor of Mrs. Huckabee Sanders.

The irony of an event celebrating free speech condemning the free speech of the guest speaker that they themselves hired is not lost on me. By using course concepts like monstrous double, memory and forgetting, and conscripted performance, I feel I was better able to understand the multiple layers at work here. As Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi observed, “The White House Correspondents’ dinner has always been a bad aristocratic joke, the punch line obvious to everyone but the participants. ‘Make a joke – but not a real one’ has been its unofficial motto since forever.” The Correspondents’ Dinner itself is an exercise in performative criticism under this view. The sort of light, controlled joking preferred by its organizers usually clamps down on any sort of serious opposition to prevailing political forces.

This year’s dinner was different because Michelle Wolf demonstrated how feeble this control could be. As Adam Conover put it, “You shouldn’t be shocked if you book a comedian and she points out that the emperor has no clothes. Or when she points below the emperor’s waistline and makes a rude joke.” Any attempt to stop her would have conceded that she (and by extension, all dissenters) was capable of truly meaningful criticism. Deconstructing public performance is a staple of what makes comedians successful and entertaining. Only time will tell if those in charge of the event will break the cycle of forgetting after Wolf’s memorable performance.

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