As Facebook and Google continue to swallow the advertising industry whole, media outlets ever more desperately chase those coveted clicks and eyeballs, luring audiences with the reliable bait of sensationalism. Nothing plays quite like shock and outrage, and when all else fails, there’s always a Donald Trump rally to fill the time or a “whataboutist,” bad-faith take to fill the op-ed pages. If The New York Times and CNN have disappointed with their urge to both-sides every issue to death, liberals have come to count on late-night comedians to step into the much-needed role of truth teller.
Michelle Wolf is having none of that. Over the course of 10 uneven but steadily improving episodes of her abruptly canceled Netflix series, The Break With Michelle Wolf, the 33-year-old comedian flatly refused to play this part. “I’m not gonna try to teach you anything or discuss political policy with you,” she vowed in the first episode. “I guess I’m sort of like a cable news show in that way.”
To some viewers, this may have seemed like a bait and switch; Wolf’s show arrived on the heels of her fantastic and somehow controversial White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech, which offered no mercy to the president and his enablers in the press. For those hoping for the second coming of Jon Stewart, The Break may have been a letdown. At its best, the show was a canny deconstruction of contemporary late-night comedy, which has been swamped with political satire since Stewart, the former Daily Show host, turned Bush-era liberal outrage comedy into its very own TV genre.
In the three years since Stewart stepped down, the already blurry line between journalism and entertainment has thinned to a fine mist, a perpetual fog that leaves viewers blindly groping for solid ground. But unlike almost every other late-night host in the age of Trump, Wolf didn’t take this reality as an invitation to climb aboard a soapbox. On The Break, she wore the uniform of skinny jeans and high-top sneakers that she wears in her stand-up sets. She wasn’t fiery or pissed off; she was sardonic and irreverent. She’s the Vivian Gornick of comedy: Just as Gornick lives in service to the tale and not the teller, Wolf lives in service to the joke, not her own persona or crowd flattery.
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Despite Wolf’s declaration that the title of her show promised a break from the relentless flow of Trump-related news, The Break was, of course, political. The show’s writers, led by Christine Nangle, demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the viral outrage cycle that is the news in 2018; in the opening monologue of the final episode, released on July 29, Wolf mentions that Ivanka Trump’s clothing line has folded, and instructs viewers to start buying up her wares now: “Nazi memorabilia tends to skyrocket in value.” In an aside directed at Fox News, Wolf adds, “Since we know you’re watching, we made this to save you the trouble” — and suddenly the screen is overlaid with a Fox & Friends graphic, accompanied by a chyron that blares, “ ‘COMEDIAN’ MICHELLE WOLF CALLS IVANKA TRUMP A NAZI.”
Despite The Break’s unapologetically liberal, feminist perspective — in one segment, Wolf presented a literal “salute to abortions” — the series didn’t only go after predictable targets of liberal indignation. The Break hit a high note in its eighth episode, which demonstrated the show’s stubborn refusal to pander to its left-leaning audience. Since this is a comedy show in 2018, Wolf declares at the beginning of a desk segment, one thing’s for sure — it’s going to be “sincere and angry.” “There will be graphics and facts,” she intones with rehearsed self-importance, “and it will feel a little bit like school.” She then proceeds to take apart the standard structure of such a segment, ending with a middle finger raised and a bleeped-out, “Fuck you, Trump!” The crowd applauds wildly as the words “standing ovation” appear in block letters on the screen.
The bit takes aim at the slightly smug, self-congratulatory tone of so much political satire these days: Can you believe I, a mere entertainer, have to do the media’s job? It finds a counterpoint in an earlier sketch that skewers The New York Times opinion section. Wolf plays a journalist pitching an editorial on foreign policy to the paper of record, before she learns that all submissions must first go through a Mad Hatter-like trickster on a tricycle named “Op Ed.” The man launches into a jaunty song-and-dance number (“Opinions are like assholes / I want to taste them all”) that suggests there is no logical editorial process behind the paper’s notoriously bad takes; there’s only an anarchic impulse to host any and all points of view, a carnival directed by a chaos-craving clown.
The sketch positions journalism as pure spectacle, just as the “sincere and angry” segment positions late-night comedy as a righteous fact-finding mission. The Break was the rare comedy to point up this contradiction rather than shrink away from it. It will be missed.