In the fallout of Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House correspondent’s dinner Mitch Benn explores the potholes of a misunderstood joke.
It’s quite the week to be in the comedy business, and in particular the political comedy business.
The fall out from Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House correspondents’ dinner continues to rain down, and the ultimate outcome is as yet unknown. The American media – and just for once, not just the right wing-nut fringe of the American media – seems to be joining in a chorus of condemnation of Wolf, with particular reference to the cruelty of her digs at White House press spokesperson Sarah Sanders, who was in attendance on behalf of her absent boss.
What’s telling about a lot of the criticism being aimed at Wolf is not that it’s unfair (although it is: she turned up and did exactly what she’d been hired to do) but that it’s dishonest. Provably, demonstrably dishonest. Eminent print and television journalists are lambasting Wolf for having made fun of Sanders’s appearance for cheap laughs. This did not happen.
I can’t stress this enough: what Wolf is being criticised for – and in certain quarters, threatened with career-ending boycotts for – is something she did not do. This is easily verified: her whole set is up on YouTube. If you’re interested, the relevant section comes at about 13 minutes in. Wolf makes reference (complimentary reference, in fact) to Sanders’s make-up by way of taking a dig at her blithe disregard for facts.
Now I’m sure Sanders did feel uncomfortable; nobody likes being called out for being a liar and a bully, which is why I’ve spent my life confronting bullies and try to keep lying down to a bare minimum, but at no stage did Wolf call Sarah Sanders ugly or make any other reference to her physique or appearance, and yet it is for that offence – that entirely imaginary offence – that she finds herself being hauled over the media’s coals.
Of course, it’s possible that Wolf’s decriers are sincere in their outrage, and simply didn’t get the joke. This is always a danger with comedy; it’s inherently subjective and will, on occasion, be assessed by those with either a limited sense of humour and imagination, or indeed, none whatsoever of either.
A few years ago I retweeted a joke on Twitter; it was just after North Korea had successfully hacked Sony Pictures’ computers (apparently in revenge for a Seth Rogen movie). The joke took the form of a photo of Kim Jong-un sat at a computer terminal, surrounded by uniformed generals, to which someone had added the caption ‘I dunno, try ‘password’… OMG!’
Now the joke, obviously, is the idea that Sony’s sole layer of internet security had consisted of a single firewall to which the password was ‘password’. Nice little joke, as the few dozen people who retweeted my retweet seemed to agree. But not one guy; soon after I posted the picture this one tweeter started demanding I apologise for posting such a racist joke, and, when I demurred, started calling me a racist to anyone who would listen (I seem to recall he didn’t have many followers). Utterly bewildered, I managed – after several attempts – to get him to explain why he thought the joke was racist, and he explained that obviously the point of the joke is that Koreans are all stupid. He hadn’t got the joke.
It’s very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t ‘got’ a joke, but thinks they have, how mistaken they are. I explained the Kim Jong-un joke to the angry tweeter but he wasn’t having it; I think I may have blocked him in the end. For all I know he’s out there calling me an unrepentant racist to this very day.
There is another explanation for Wolf’s pillorying; the journalists in question may be feigning outrage for what Wolf ‘said’ about Sanders as cover for their genuine embarrassment over what she said about them. Wolf pointed out that Trump (and let us not forget that poor old Sanders was only at that dinner because the president himself was, for the second year running, too cowardly to attend) is the media’s creation; that the press and television hyped him up and now dine out on his excesses, whether approvingly or in (mock?) horror. That while minorities suffer and world peace hangs in the balance, the news organisations have become spokespersons and cheerleaders rather than tribunes, for fear of losing that most treasured commodity, ‘access’.
Thus far, Wolf has not apologised, nor should she. Disappointingly, the organisers of the dinner have issued a statement sort-of apologising on her behalf, and of course, the Great Orange Hope himself, who spent the evening hiding from the dinner at a rally in Michigan surrounded by a security blanket of cheering supporters in MAGA hats, is now calling for the dinner – which, incidentally, he is the only president not to be brave enough to attend (the sole previous absentee was Ronald Reagan in 1981, and he was recovering from an assassination attempt) – to be abolished.
Causing offence, where offence is the appropriate response, is a satirist’s job. You can live in a free society, or you can live without fear of being offended. Not both.
Now, perhaps more than any time in living memory, in the US and the UK, we need to be offending each other more, not less. Because when we’re offended, when we’re angry, when we’re arguing… at least we’re awake.