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In his tenure as host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah has benefited from and helped develop a deep stable of correspondents and contributors, which has upsides and downsides.
The positive, obviously, is the ability to go to a Jordan Klepper or Roy Wood Jr. or Hasan Minhaj each as a comedy resource, each with a different skill set.
The downside of having so many resources is that showcase moments for Noah’s team can sometimes be separated by weeks at a time, so it’s necessary to celebrate those appearances. Since Michelle Wolf joined The Daily Show as a writer and contributor last April, her appearances have been favorites for me.
The Late Night with Seth Meyers veteran began as something of a curly-haired Lewis Black-type figure, delivering rants on various political topics. She’s gradually moved behind the desk with Noah and the two have developed a smooth rapport, especially when Wolf has been able to fill in Noah’s knowledge gaps on various women’s issues. Wolf has also occasionally had the opportunity to be a little more serious, delivering her defining moment in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss in November, an emotional monologue that ended with the comic’s voice breaking on the verge of tears.
A couple weeks ago, I got on the phone with Wolf to talk about her acclimation process in her first year on The Daily Show, but then I wanted to wait to follow-up an onscreen appearance before publishing the conversation and that took some patience.
Since Wolf appeared on Thursday’s episode, take a moment to learn more about this sharp and passionate Daily Show voice…
It’s been nearly a year since you signed on, and I’m curious about how you’ve felt about the acclimation process. What have been the challenges of finding your voice in this new show?
I think the biggest challenge for me has been differentiating between being on-camera versus stand-up, because you actually have to present yourself slightly differently. And that’s been probably the biggest struggle for me. And my voice on the show is very much the kind of jokes I might tell in stand-up, except I’m not as political in stand-up. It’s more my delivery, just my presence on camera has been the biggest challenge for me.
Daily Show contributors have always had to find that balance between their real voice and then their character who happens to have the same name as them. What have been the challenges of crafting the Daily Show character of Michelle Wolf?
I think it came a little different from the other on-air people in that I am not really playing a character. It is very close to me as a person. I am almost a little bit lower energy, trying to be more soft spoken, although I still tend to get pretty shrill. It’s more like pacing and having a conversation rather than being a little louder and higher energy, which I am onstage. I am not being sarcastic. Everything I say on-camera is like pretty much how I feel.
I can’t do the math, has there been a regular pattern for your onscreen appearances or really is it just when you have a point of view you go, “Okay, I’ve got this thing. I want to talk about it”? How does that process work?
Yeah, it’s more just like any time a story pops up that either Trevor thinks would be fitting for me or I think would be, or a lot of times we mutually agree on, we both thinks it’s a good story, but it’s not like I have to be on every however many weeks. It’s more just like, “Oh, this is a good thing for you. Oh, you have a funny point of view on that.” It’s been kind of a hectic time politically so I am not short for stories.
In your mind as we got towards November did you have a, “Once this election is over and thank God I no longer need to talk about Donald Trump anymore, I’ll finally be able to talk about …” kind of thing? Did you have an idea of what the next step was that, unfortunately, you’ve had to not get to?
Literally like the day before the election, I would say in my office, “Oh my God, I am so excited tomorrow’s the last day we’re going to have to talk about him.” And I was like, “I am so sick of making jokes about him. I have no more. I have no more ways to describe his orange face. I’ve run out of vegetables to describe him as.” And then he got elected. I was like, “Oh. So it’s this …” I don’t even know what I was looking forward to talking about. I was just like, “I would kill for a really boring policy thing that that we had to work really hard to make funny,” instead of just being thrown all of this, essentially just junk food.
Obviously this is a very fertile time for humor, but I am sure you would just as soon have to work harder to find things to be horrified at. How do you find that balance between “Yay, there is always something to talk about!” and “Oh god there’s always something to talk about!”?
Right. It’s pretty challenging because right now I almost think it’s cathartic for people to hear us talk about Trump in a way that’s not just reporting the news, you know, like the news does. So I think that is a lot of why people are tuning in because they’re like, “I just need to see a funny way to look at this rather than a serious, ‘Everything is burning’ kind of way.” I try to look for stories that come up when we can that aren’t Trump-related, it’s just that he’s so overtaking the media that it can be difficult. Ideally if I could do a whole chat and never mention his name or even reference him that would be really wonderful. We are definitely on the lookout for it. It’s not that I am dying to talk about him every day.
That first post-election appearance you had felt like a breakout moment for you and your voice and sort of the place at the end where you cracked, where you were sort of on the edge of tears, it hit me hard and I am curious how hard that appearance was from your point of view.
That was such a weird day to begin with. I remember we left the office very late because we had a live show election night. We left the office very late. I walked home. I walked by the Javits Center [where Hillary Clinton’s rally was], it’s on my way home and I walked by it, or as close as I could get to it at night. I just kept picturing all those people that have … I don’t know … Everyone around, they seemed very sad and no one was really happy or loud. Then that night when I watched Trump do his acceptance speech, I was like, “Oh this is real.” Then the next day when I watched Hillary get up there…
I have been a fan of Hillary for a very long time. I think she has done a lot of really really good work but I think is overlooked because people have maybe not really respected her because she’s a woman. The one thing we know that’s true about Trump is that he says a lot of bullshit, a ton of bullshit, we all know this. He is full of it. You never really know what he means, but you do know the one thing that has been consistent about him through out his life is he values women based on age and beauty. And that’s it. That for me was the really sad, hard thing because that’s the thing I’ve actively worked against. You know to be like, “No, I am funny. I am smart. I don’t want to be evaluated on those two things.” That’s the thing that’s been so hard for women to get away from and that’s the thing he is bringing back in the spotlight.
So not only were we not getting the first female president, we were like turning back the clock to when women were judged differently. Even the fact that throughout the whole campaign [story of] Hillary was, “Did she smile enough?” “Did she smile too much?” Her voice. What she’s wearing. It was rarely based on her merit. No one ever asked, “Why did Trump not smile?” Because he never smiles. It’s very creepy. You know? It’s just a double standard that I think every woman has fought her entire life and not only to see this woman who has worked so hard for America to be shut down, to also know that that part of a woman — that smart, intelligent, just hard-working woman persona was no longer going to be the one that’s like heralded — was so disappointing. Especially coming off our first lady, Michelle Obama, who’s such a smart, capable person. Then all of the sudden you’re just like, “Oh, yeah. He doesn’t care about those kind of people.” Those aren’t the kind of women he thinks are valuable.
Then your voice cracked at the end of that. How close did you come to losing it entirely?
I mean, I cried a little bit right after I walked past [the Javits], but I also — like I hate showing emotion. It’s still a thing when people bring it up, I’m like, “Uh-uh…” I’m glad it happened because I think a lot of people were feeling the way I felt and I think they wanted the go-ahead for it to be okay to feel like that. Maybe. That’s just my opinion. Also, at the same time, I am not really an emotional person so it’s always been a little strange, in a sense, for people to be like, “That was really great.” And I am still sort of embarrassed I guess.
Is there a different quote unquote “responsibility” that you guys have started feeling kind of collectively since November 8th? Has it changed the tone of what your mission plan is?
For me, first and foremost, it’s always been “Be funny.” And then I think that the second point, and I’ve always felt this way but it’s more important, is that you have to be funny and educate people. You know? Whether it’s conservative or liberal, you have to make sure people are getting all the correct information, rather than just information they want to hear. It’s faulty for us to think that one side is always wrong. I don’t agree with probably 99 percent of the things Trump says or does, but every once in a while he says something that I am like, “That’s not wrong.”
It’s important for people to, instead of automatically assuming everything the opposite side says is incorrect, you have to at least listen and see why someone might feel a certain way. I don’t know if I’ve actually done this in any of my segments, but I personally believe that you have to try to educate people in order to bring them to an understanding. Even if they don’t agree they can understand why some might feel a certain way.
Now I want to go back a little bit to the shaping of your onscreen comfort zone. I feel like when you started there were a lot of stand-up-type things you were doing and you’ve sort of moved more to the desk for recent segments. Does that feel right? Does that feel like a place where for this show you’re more comfortable?
I think so. As a stand-up, it’s more comfortable to be standing. Trevor has actually helped me a lot with presenting myself sitting down, trusting that the laughs will come and relying on the jokes and more of a conversational delivery. It’s been a real challenge for me because it’s completely out of my comfort zone. But he’s been super instrumental in helping me just develop that and learn how to be on TV.
It’s funny because Trevor, when he started, he was behind the desk for the opening monologue. He didn’t find that was working for him and he moved sort of the stand-up opening and now he’s moved back. What is it that people at home maybe don’t necessarily understand about the differences between those two delivery systems and what works in one situation and doesn’t work in the other?
There’s something about us as stand-ups that when we’re on our feet we feel more in control of the situation and in control of our bodies and our delivery. There’s a lot of nuances to stand-up that you definitely see when you watch someone like Chris Rock in that his body position is also part of why the joke works. You know? So like I think that’s the difference for us. When you’re sitting, you’re relying almost completely on your words. When you’re standing you can put a little more arc into it, in terms of like, “Oh, if I lean over a little bit I can lean into this punchline. I can literally lean into it,” rather than sitting behind a desk and letting the words do the work.
I’ve definitely noticed that there is a lot more banter between you and Trevor. What is the dynamic that you guys have? And is your onscreen dynamic, has it come and fed out of your behind the scenes rapport?
Behind the scenes we probably make fun of each other more than we do on camera. That’s probably how I relate to people best. I mean we’re very, very good friends. He’s a friend of mine, but he’s also a mentor and little bit of a coach in a way. He’s kind of just like a rock for me when I am out there. You know? Like I 100 percent trust him and he is just a comfort on set.
It has been a calculated decision to get more of that into the onscreen segments? Because it feels like it has and it feels like that’s been a good and fruitful dynamic that you guys have been working with.
I think it’s also the more the audience is comfortable with our dynamic and the more that that develops the more we can bring it out. We’re both growing at the same time and it’s the nice thing about having a newer show where there is room for growth and development. Rather than it being, “Oh, this is what it is. You just sit in here.” You know? It’s like, “No, no. We’re all learning and evolving together” and that’s very nice.
And I swear this isn’t the sort of thing I normally pay attention to, but given the first time I saw you, you must have been doing Grown-Up Annie with Seth Meyers. When you do segments with straight hair, Michelle, does that feel like another character to you?
It’s weird. A lot of people comment on my hair being straight. I straighten my hair very few times throughout the year and it’s only in the cold winter months because it’s the only time my hair will stay straight. If there is like a tiny bit of humidity in the air it’s curly again. So I think everyone thinks it’s like this big thing, but it’s really just like, “No, I just tend to do this from time to time in like January, February.” It’s a nice change of pace for me and I feel like the same person.
I don’t even think I look that different, but I also see myself all the time so I might not be the right perspective. I really think I am the same person with curly or straight. I get a lot of feedback on the segments and I would say so much of it is about my hair. I am not saying it’s good or bad, but it’s just hilarious to me. I get a lot of the people their feedback they’re like, “Go back to curly.” And I see in their avatar that they’re curly haired and I’m like, “I am not abandoning you. I am gonna go back. The problem is it’s just every once in a while it’s nice to be able to run your fingers through your hair.” And you can’t do that with curly hair. I am sure as a guy you totally understand.
And I genuinely feel weird when I notice it.
I also think my hair is such a big part of me. I mean literally, it’s very large. I’ll see someone, and they’ll do a double-take and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you at all.” Which is also fun for me. If I can, like, sort of be two different people, great. But yeah, it’s a very hilarious phenomenon in my eyes.
It gives you a secret identity.
It really does.
Though you’re putting it on TV so it’s not so secret or effective anymore.
I would be the worst spy.
How different in terms of time consumption is writing for Daily Show versus Late Night?
Honestly, for the two it’s probably about the same amount of hours but it’s just very different kinds of writing. At Late Night, you got a little bit of break from politics. You know? You would do Extreme Dog Shaming or New Slogans or some sort of silly, totally non-political segment. Or even in some monologue jokes we do sports or entertainment so you have like a little mental break from politics. This is, I would say, a little bit more mentally exhausting because not only are you writing about specifically one topic but I’m consuming so much more information. And like, “Oh, this happened with Russia, well what’s the history on this with Russia? Oh my God and then what happened? I am much more well-read here I guess.
Which has its downside lately. What do you consume to get out of this dark political world that we’re in? What is your escape, personally?
This is probably the exact opposite of what Trump wants to happen, but because of him and like all this political nonsense I’ve been reading a lot more books lately. Mostly British spies or crime novels. So it’s not like I’m enriching my soul, but it’s just been like a nice escape to be like, “Oh a book.” No commercials. Nothing that can remind me of him. It’s a good old crime novel. I am reading The Spy Who Came In From the Cold right now. It’s an oldie but a goodie. And then of course I watch a lot of House Hunters and a lot of Chopped on TV when I am like, “I am done with the news. I’ve watched too much news today.”
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