‘I’ve learned a lot,” says Michelle Wolf at the top of her show, and we all know what she’s referring to. “I’ve learned that not everyone is gonna like me.” The unspoken subject is last year’s White House correspondents’ dinner, when Wolf’s no-holds-barred jokes about the Trump administration brought down upon her the righteous rage of the Republican establishment. It was a breakout moment for a comic already fast emerging as one of the US’s sparkiest social commentators. And it certainly hasn’t frightened her off confrontation: this first solo UK gig since reveals a Wolf gleefully shedding any remnants of sheep’s clothing, and walking towards controversy.
But not topical controversy. Her set is surprisingly light on politics. The president doesn’t merit a mention; instead, the show grapples with sex and gender. This is Wolf in the mode in which she introduced herself to UK audiences at the 2016 Edinburgh fringe, careening into subjects such as abortion and childbirth, periods and penis size, always on-hand with the amoral take, careful not to give woolly new woke-isms a free pass, even as she turns her fire on the chauvinism that predates them.
She takes a circuitous route to get there. The palate cleanser is a gag about otter-on-seal rape, her example of how “we can turn anything into a controversy these days”. To those who get too exercised about such matters, she says – as Aziz Ansari did in his recent show – “You’re too woke. Go back to sleep a little.” But that argument doesn’t get developed, as she sidesteps towards battle-of-the-sexes comedy. A riff on childbirth and periods asserts (and revels in) how “gross” women are, despite pretences to the contrary. An “if men had periods” hypothesis reaps big laughs, as Wolf imagines women grateful everywhere for their suddenly more emotional menfolk.
Male emotional inarticulacy is a cliche, of course, and it’s not the only gender stereotype at play here. But usually Wolf keeps lazy thinking at arm’s length, as she discusses the fractures within feminism and the efforts of white women to simultaneously check their privilege and retain their victim status. The most eye-catching routine, though, concerns reproductive rights (“It’s OK! We’re at a joke show!”) – and the glee with which Wolf takes a blowtorch to anti-abortion pieties is quite something. “You know how people say you can’t play God?,” she asks, before a mischievous little “who me?” expression delivers her silent punchline.
It’s a show that sees Wolf firmly establish indelicacy and outspokenness as her Joan Rivers-style brand. “That’s right, I’m a vulgar, disgusting bitch,” she boasts, reclaiming the terms that have been used to attack her. The show’s closing chapter seals the deal, as she addresses herself to penises, and the idea that angry women “need a big dick”. “What do you think I want out of sex,” counters Wolf, “a hole in my back?” before proposing a new male/female genital matchmaking system based on shoe sizes. Her whole ambivalence towards “dicks” is amusingly calibrated, and there’s a pleasingly unlikely thought experiment about a mother’s right to see her adult son’s equipment.
You could interpret all this as a veiled dig at the US’s famously priapic commander-in-chief. Or you could honour Wolf’s choice to wholly ignore the man whose presidency helped propel her into comedy’s big league, where, judging by tonight’s gig, she firmly belongs.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.