Quick. What’s your take on this White House Correspondents Dinner brouhaha?
It’s whipsawed me in a big way. I saw Michelle Wolf’s routine live; it made me so uncomfortable I almost changed the channel.
(Yes, they call the dinner “the nerd prom.” I don’t even want to think about what they’d call a woman who’s home on Saturday night watching the Nerd Prom on TV.)
Wolf had some good lines. Loved the “not accomplishing anything” shot she took at Congress, Poking fun at CNN’s relentless “Breaking News” graphics made me laugh. When she tweaked Rachel Madow for her long, meandering monologues—that resonated. Even scrapping jokes about cabinet members because they’ve all been fired got a smile.
The trouble started for me when Wolf said, “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration.”
Maybe she shouldn’t have talked about the women in the Trump administration, at least not the way she did. Her comments about Kellyanne Conway and especially Sarah Huckabee Sanders set off a firestorm of criticism.
My reaction: the monologue was too mean for my taste. I’ve never been a fan of insult comedy. I didn’t like it any better from this hip young woman than I did years ago from Don Rickles.
I felt bad for Sarah Sanders, in particular; sympathy put me “on her side.”
But the pendulum swings, doesn’t it?
Within hours, people were piling on Michelle Wolf, and I found my sympathies with her. The president blasted her, of course. So did all kinds of columnists. And those perpetually- yapping-panelists on TV.
Prominent members of the White House Correspondents Association tweeted their tsk-tsks. The Association president threw the comic under the bus: The “program was supposed to offer a unifying message…not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Oh please. They hired a comedian known for caustic political humor. And then they were shocked (shocked, I tell you!) when they heard…caustic political humor.
We can assume they were also worried about whether Sarah Sanders would ever call on them again in press briefings. Whether Kellyanne Conway would appear on their TV shows. Whether the president would deign to chat with them again on Air Force One.
This points to the fundamental flaw in an event for journalists that includes the very people those journalists are supposed to be watching, interviewing and reporting on. Maybe next year, the White House Correspondents should celebrate the First Amendment by themselves, and let the pols have their own party.
The brouhaha also gives us some clues about how to handle ourselves in front of an audience.
Know your audience.
Who are they? What do they expect from you? How can you best deliver it?
And what do you want them to think, feel or do after they hear what you have to say?
When it comes to humor, be careful.
Most of us, when we’re speaking, aren’t mainly trying to be funny. We’re out to inform or educate or advocate for a position. But humor does help a speaker connect with the audience, keep people engaged, and get their buy-in.
Unless it goes south. So avoid humor that could be construed as racist, sexist, ableist or any other kind of –ist. You want to be provocative but not offensive.
The best target for a funny remark is, of course, you. Self-effacing humor works well, especially for speakers who have a lot of personal presence. (Used badly, or by someone who seems weak, it can come off as a lack of confidence.)
Remember that gender still matters.
This doesn’t make me happy, but I’m convinced we’d be having a different national conversation if, say, a Michael Wolf did the routine at that dinner.
I suspect a man would not have said, “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration.” Male comedians don’t hold back from tweaking the Trump women…but I’d be surprised if they’d package those lines together and label them that way.
So in a sense, Michelle Wolf had more freedom than a guy would have to skewer women.
But I also think the reactions to Wolf’s jabs were much stronger because she’s a woman. And there’s still an expectation that women should be nice. That they won’t play as rough as the guys do. Comedian Guy Branum says Wolf “is to some extent being criticized because we don’t expect a woman to be that harsh.”
We’ve come a long way and all that jazz. But we still run into gender-based expectations. And female performers have less leeway with a big portion of the public when it comes to vulgar language, vivid put-downs, or even taking strong stands.
Wolf told NPR’s Terry Gross, people look at a woman and think, “’Oh, she’ll be nice…’ I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves, and I don’t fit in that box.”
Michelle Wolf ran into a buzzsaw for a lot of reasons. Being an outspoken, expectation-defying woman was one of them.
Which could be a cautionary note for other outspoken, expectation-defying women. Not to hold back, necessarily. But when they don’t hold back, to be prepared for the backlash.
Maybe you have another take-away from the controversy? Tell us about it in a comment below.
Know your audience: Who are they? What do they expect from you? How can you best deliver it? And what do you want them to think, feel or do after they hear what you have to say? if this was a business meeting where one was attempting to convince or sell something to the audience I would agree, but it was not. This was an audience made up of political people who on a daily basis conduct themselves in ways that I teach my kids not to do. An audience that includes the President,who on daily basis insults & bullies.
Ms. Wolf spoke to this audience the way the audience speaks to the American public & to each other. I find it ironic that they were insulted by Ms. Wolf, when she did to them what the audience does to the public every day since the beginning of this administration.
I agree with you about the irony in the way some people reacted to Michelle Wolf’s monologue, Eugene. And boy, did I take some heat for making that point on social media!
And, I think no matter where I’m speaking it’s a good idea to start with who’s my audience? And what do I want them to get out of this experience–what outcome am I going for?
this, imo is more about the times we are in. The people so offended twisted what she said and put it in their neat little box. Some things that have been said by these people are far more offensive than anything she said. Have tou ever watched a Sarah Huckabee press briefing. She is more condescending and belittling than pretty much anything Wolfie said. What people with a real hard line agenda want you to do is eventually think what they are doing is the norm so they can keep their “ truth” moving forward. this goes on in corp america and it is happening right now with our political system / POTUS. What he is. doing is not really that different than what others have done before him. The difference is its so blatant and over the top that you would have to be in full blown denial not to see the flat our untruths. people will follow them all into the abyss becuase they feel that this is our time and to get our agenda done we will go for it. Be careful what you ask for.
my true hope is people really take this as a wakeup call and truly get involved. the sad truth is change takes decades and the sad truth is we will flip the political party switch and instead of real change we will get puppies instead of man eating sharks but really be in the same place
The times we’re in certainly have a lot to do with the reaction to the White House Correspondents Dinner, Larry. We’re already so polarized, it doesn’t take much to set off a firestorm of indignation (feigned or otherwise), name-calling and retaliation. Will people take it as a wake-up call? I’m not optimistic.
Catherine, you are right about the danger of humor. One man I know was speaking in front of women who sell Mary Kay. He told a joke about working women. How stupid!
Humor in the workplace or on stage should be self-deprecating, clean, and not hurtful.
That WAS stupid, Jill. Funny how opaque people can be about who’s in their audience and what will (or won’t!) be funny to them. Your humor rules are good ones.