By Jordan Yeager
Some comedians train their whole lives to secure an HBO special, headline a Just for Laughs festival, host Netflix’s first late-night comedy talk show, or speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Michelle Wolf is not some comedians. In fact, she never planned to be a comedian at all. After studying kinesiology in college, Wolf jumped headfirst into a career on Wall Street despite never having taken a business course. She started at Bear Stearns in the summer of 2007, less than a year before its collapse during the stock market crash of 2008.
“I got a job on Wall Street, mostly because I was an athlete and I got good grades and those are people who are competitive and want to win,” says Wolf. “Around the same time that Bear was collapsing, some friends came to visit me, and we all went to a taping of SNL. I’ve always been such a big fan, so afterwards I googled how people get onto the show, and most of them started in improv. So I just signed up for an improv class.”
For someone known for their controversial speech-turned-roast at 2018’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it might be surprising to learn that Wolf is not interested in overtly political comedy. Whether you’re watching her 2017 HBO special Nice Lady or seeing her at The Comedy Cellar in New York City, tune into her stand up and you’re not likely to hear much of a political persuasion: “I will never do a Trump joke in stand up,” she says. Her aim at the Correspondents’ Dinner was not just to roast Trump’s administration, but also to hold the media accountable for profiting off of publicizing the policies they claim to staunchly oppose. In 2018, Wolf became Netflix’s first late-night host on a weekly program called The Break with Michelle Wolf (it was the network’s second-ever talk show, after Chelsea Handler’s self-named, two-season series). Though she claims not to be interested in analyzing politics with her humour, many of the topics she touches on in The Break, such as ICE, women’s rights, and the epidemic of backlogged, untested rape kits across the United States, are, decidedly, highly political. The show is laced with sketches that are apolitical too, though, like one about a “Too High Squatty Potty” – a four-foot-tall Squatty Potty that, quite simply, is too high.
“We just did anything we thought was going to be fun,” she says. In one episode, there are several minutes of jokes about crows having sex with dead crows. “We all wrote, like, so many crow jokes. We had to do it – they were all funny! We cut probably five to eight minutes out of that. And I guarantee you no one else on any late night show was talking about it. We really just wanted it to be fun, and for people to maybe not have to think about what’s happening in the world right now.”
After its 10-episode run, Netflix decided against renewing The Break. The modern day algorithm simply wasn’t conducive to the old school late-night format, especially when you take into account that most late-night programs are allowed dozens of episodes to figure out a formula that works for them.
“I’d like to potentially try it again in the future, but I’d want to wait until the landscape is less political,” says Wolf. “Political comedy, what late night shows are doing, it bores me. It’s all the same. I feel like right now, a lot of people just want to hear ‘Trump is bad.’ We already know that! Hearing it again isn’t going to change anything. I mean, you can just vote. That’s really all we can do.”
Despite the fact that Netflix has yet to properly discern an effective method of marketing a talk show through its streaming service, The Break was, ultimately, not a failure. Watching the show, it’s plain to see that the stage is Wolf’s natural environment. Even the jokes the audience doesn’t quite get are funny, if only because she’s enjoying herself so much up there.
Wolf talks modestly of her days as an athlete. But the title of athlete doesn’t give her enough credit. In 2018, Wolf ran her first ultramarathon – that’s 50 miles (or 80 kilometres). It took more than 12 hours. Perseverance and relentless commitment helped prepare her for a career on Wall Street, sure, but it’s also one of the reasons she attributes to becoming successful in comedy so quickly.
“Comedy is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “Anyone can be successful for a couple years. But can you be successful for a couple decades? You’ve got to be consistent. You can take a day off every once in a while, but you’re only going to get better if you’re dedicated to it and you keep pushing yourself and you try to get back to the point where you’re uncomfortable. When you feel uncomfortable, you get better. Part of the reason I think I’ve done well in comedy is because I’ve applied that training mentality; most of it is just putting your head down and doing the work. One of the best things about stand up is that you create your own success. You’re always in charge of how many jokes you have and what your hour looks like – it’s completely up to you. It’s just having that determination, the discipline, and putting in the time and effort.”
Discipline doesn’t always take the same form. Whether it’s running at higher mileage increments every week or committing yourself to writing one joke every day, Wolf proves that the process you take to get there isn’t really what matters, as long as you get it done.
“I never write the same way,” she says. “If I had one way that I wrote and I knew it worked all the time, I’d be thrilled. But sometimes I’ll think of something when I’m just walking around, or, you know, staring at a wall. Most people don’t realize that comedians need a lot of time just to think. And then you think of something, and you’re like, ‘Oh, now I know what this joke is.’ But it’s endlessly frustrating that there’s no one way that that works. The number of times I’ve thought of something as I was going to sleep and then thought ‘You’re definitely going to remember this,’ and then not remembered it in the morning because I did not write it down – I mean, I’m an idiot for not writing it down. I’m always like, ‘This is so good! I’ll never forget this.’ It’s an ego thing at some point.”
JFL NorthWest is quickly approaching, and one of Wolf’s favourite places in the world is Vancouver’s sea wall. Try to catch her set, but if not, you’ll surely be able to catch her mid-run, training for the next ultramarathon.
“I’m excited to be in Vancouver,” she says. “I had a great time last time I was there. And I love Canadian chocolate. You guys have Coffee Crisp! Every time I’m there… I mean, I’ve eaten so many of them.”
Michelle Wolf performs at the Vogue Theatre on February 23 as part of JFL NorthWestcomedy, JFL Northwest, Michelle Wolf