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Michelle Wolf’s “Nice Lady” and What We Expect from Standup

At the outset of “Nice Lady,” her recently released HBO special, the
comedian Michelle Wolf offers a warning. “I should just let everyone
know,” she says, widening her already bright, orb-like eyes.

“I am a
feminist.” The proclamation doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, register as
a surprise: Wolf, who is in her early thirties and is based in New York
City, exudes a degree of urbane hipness that often leads one to assume
some form of progressive politics.

Even so, the line feels jarring. The
crowd offers a weak ripple of applause; the special was filmed at
N.

Y.U.

’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, where one might expect
an audience to consist of people who share her self-identification, but
they seem hesitant. Wolf pounces: “Just one person, that’s all,” she
says, doing a quick inventory with an air of mock resignation.

“That’s
about average.” What one thought would be a commonplace turns out to be
a challenge.

The tension, I think, stems less from the assertion itself
than from its divergence, so early in the set, from what has become the
standard posture—or, at least, the standard male posture—in standup
comedy: a bearing of disinterested self-effacement, allowing space to
lecture here or there, maybe even at length, but always with a caveat: What do I know? I’m just here to make you laugh. Wolf fruitfully
decides to take the opposite tack.

This is what I believe, she seems to say. Now hold me to it.

Wolf, an on-air contributor to “The Daily Show” and a former writer for
“Late Night with Seth Meyers,” is obviously familiar with the other,
looser approach to the ethics of standup, and sometimes makes quick
feints in its direction. “Feminism is fairly unpopular, so I should also
point out, I’m not, like, a buy-my-own-drinks kind of feminist,” she
says, seeming to undermine the stance she’s just taken.

“It’s, like, I
want equal pay . .

 . and a Chardonnay.

” Then a pregnant, listening pause:
“Well, then, just the Chardonnay.” It’s soon clear, though, that this
slackness is a temporary put-on, a parody of somebody else’s
flightiness.

Wolf doesn’t hesitate to judge those who would stray from
material issues, such as the wage gap, in favor of fluffier fare—those
who, for example, are worked up because they “wanna ‘free the nipple’ on
Instagram,” as she puts it. “It’s, like, Hey, can we focus?!” She is
unconcerned about symbolic matters—such as the effort to get a woman on
the twenty-dollar bill—and she is not a fan of the self-help-descended
imperative for every woman to consider herself beautiful.

She’d rather
have a useful friend than a pretty one, anyway. “That’s why we should
respect people: not for how pretty they are, for how useful they are,”
she says.

“What would you rather have, a pretty friend or a friend that
can help you move? Always a friend that can help you move!”

After ten or twenty minutes of sharp, almost caustic jokes like
these—Wolf has a friendly, peppy demeanor but delivers her punch lines
like shanks to the gut—viewers accustomed to the typical comic’s
comportment might start to wonder when she’ll move on, maybe get to bits
about TV shows, or technological confusion, or relatably frustrating
encounters with family and friends. But she never does veer far from
that initial announcement—“I am a feminist”—and the joy of watching Wolf
work is partly in the relentlessness of her focus.

When she talks about
dating, it is to uncloak the farce of men walking women to their doors
at the end of an evening out, in a gesture of protection. “At that point
in the night, the most dangerous thing at my door is you!” she says.

She
indulges in extended roasts of the male anatomy, such as the “goblin’s
coin-purse” one finds between a man’s legs. Wolf’s analysis of our
recent electoral catastrophe is blunt.

“I do have a theory on why
Hillary lost. I think it’s ’cause no one likes her,” she breezes, adding,
“We’re never gonna have a nice lady run for President.

” Wolf wouldn’t
have it any other way: niceness leaves truths untold and avenues for
recourse unexplored. “Nice” belongs somewhere off to the side while the
real work goes on.

In contrast to that other kind of comedian, Wolf rarely pretends to be speaking
extemporaneously, or to be searching for words. She doesn’t hide the
care with which she considers the effect of each word in a line; each
line in a joke; how the rhythm carries her toward the end.

After each
punch line, she tends to pile on a flurry of tags—sometimes four or five
extra lines, deepening and tweaking her meaning but also hinting at the
inexhaustibility of her subject. As if to say, I could go on.

She
isn’t an especially physical comic, but the bodily bits she has hold
traces of the same precision—a quick, absurdist impression of Ruth Bader
Ginsburg is one of the funniest moments of the set. Wolf’s verbal
control and singleness of intent remind me of another tenacious
character, the late George Carlin, whose goofy delight in the sounds and
cadences of American speech never obscured the genuine irritation,
bordering on rage, that fuelled his jokes.

.

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