Critic's Notebook: Michelle Wolf Goes Low With Raunchy Humor

The fast-rising stand-up comic delivers a mostly unfunny and profane routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

With her stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Michelle Wolf achieved something I wouldn't have thought possible.

She made Donald Trump look classy.

Wolf is a comedian very much on the rise after an acclaimed HBO stand-up special and with a weekly late-night show debuting on Netflix next month. But she didn't help herself with her profane, mostly unfunny monologue in front of an admittedly very tough crowd. Her delivery was faltering at times and many of the jokes were in poor taste and fell flat. Making fun of the Trump administration and its motley cast of characters should be a cakewalk. Wolf turned it into a cake left out in the rain.

Naturally, President Trump wasn't there, preferring to give a rally in front of a typically diverse group of white supporters in Washington Township, Michigan. Not subtle, that Donald. Washington Township, get it? Just like Washington, D.C., only without elites. But really, why should Trump attend? The dinner is in support of the First Amendment, the one constitutional amendment that he'd like to repeal.

It's ironic, because Trump has been the best thing for journalism since Watergate. It wouldn't be surprising if The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which have seen their circulations soar in recent years, began advocating for the removal of presidential term limits. That theme was brought up by Wolf toward the end of her monologue, and it was one of her most pointed, if not particularly funny moments. "You helped create this monster and now you're profiting off him!" she chided the journalists in the room.

Another one of her lines of attack, apparently designed to get under Trump's skin (you know he was watching), was to make jokes about his wealth, or lack of it. "Tonight, I'm going to try and make fun of the president in a new way," Wolf announced. "Mr. President, I don't think you're very rich." It was a good idea that was undercut by weak writing. A running gag in which she would begin "Trump is so broke…" as the audience responded with a chant of "How broke is he?" led to a series of mostly lame one-liners.

Wolf's humor was often needlessly vulgar, and worse, lacking in wit. Conservatives will have a field day lambasting her for her line, "Abortion — don't knock it until you've tried it," and they won't be entirely wrong. It's not easy to make Kellyanne Conway sympathetic, but Wolf managed it with a bit suggesting that Conway get crushed by a tree. And surely there must be funnier Ivanka jokes to be made than "She's about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons."

Representing the administration at the main table was White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Because as anyone who's seen her press briefings can attest, Sanders can really light up a room. She certainly didn't do so this evening, scowling as Wolf delivered a series of jokes that, to be fair, didn't deserve a more good-humored reaction.

Equally bad were Wolf's jokes about Vice President Mike Pence, the highlight of which was "Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn't gay." Not sure what that means, except that they both have close-cropped gray hair.

Wolf dutifully made a few, very few, jokes about Democrats, and took a few potshots at the media as well. But joking that "the most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles" is just lazy writing.   

Wolf's awkward stand-up routine was a botched opportunity that won't help liberal or journalistic causes. But it was a beacon of hilarity compared to the opening video featuring House Speaker Paul Ryan, apparently taking a break from firing members of the clergy. The painfully unfunny segment featured Ryan mocking his job prospects after his impending retirement from politics and made it very clear that stand-up comedy won't be among them.