Comic Michelle Wolf Responds To Backlash: 'I'm Glad I Stuck To My Guns'

May 1, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 2:12 pm

Editor's note: This interview contains language that some readers may find offensive.

A few minutes into her performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday night, comic Michelle Wolf joked that the event organizers should have done more research before booking her. By the end of the set, the organizers may have agreed.

Though the dinner is known for its barbed humor, critics complained that some of Wolf's jokes were too pointed — particularly those aimed at White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was seated on the dais. Wolf, meanwhile, says she made a "conscious effort not to write any jokes about any woman's looks" into the set.

On Sunday, the White House Correspondents' Association issued a statement saying:

"Last night's program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporters and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."

But while some journalists have suggested that the dinner should no longer include a guest comic, Wolf insists she wasn't there to "cater to the room."

"A friend of mine who helped me write, he gave me a note before I went on," she says. The note, she recalls, said: Be true to yourself. Never apologize. Burn it to the ground.

Arguably, she did just that: "I wouldn't change a single word. I'm very happy with what I said, and I'm glad I stuck to my guns."


Interview Highlights

On what makes the White House Correspondents' Dinner a "bad room" for comedy

It's a large ballroom. The audience isn't miked so ... the laughs aren't very audible in general. But it's also ... formal [and] people don't laugh as much when they're dressed up. There's round tables and people are eating or drinking, so by the virtue of a round table, people are partially turned away from you.

And it's televised and there are all these people that may or may not be able to show genuine reactions and so [some audience members are] constantly thinking, "I need to react in a way that will come off well on TV." ... [That laughing would] make them look partisan or make them look like they're laughing at someone they shouldn't be laughing at.

On whether the organizers knew her work

I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think "Oh, she'll be nice," and if you've seen any of my comedy you know that I don't — I'm not. I don't pull punches. I'm not afraid to talk about things. And I don't think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don't fit in that box.

On having more liberty to make fun of women because she's a woman

As a woman, I have access to hit women in a way that men might not be able to hit them with jokes. I don't mean physically hit. But you know, because I'm a woman, I can say things about women, because I know what it's like to be a woman, if that makes any sense. ... I think in general when I talk about women, like in my special when I talked about Hillary [Clinton], I called Hillary a b****, which you later find out is a compliment. But no, I don't think a man could've gotten away with saying that. It would've sounded misogynistic.

On her joke that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders' "smoky" eye shadow comes from burning "facts"

I think people have a lot of preconceived notions about Sarah's looks and I think a lot of what's happening is they're projecting onto this joke. ... I think it's clear that the joke wasn't about Sarah's looks, but I don't think — to me it's so obvious that I don't even really need to defend it. I think if you listen to the joke you'll understand that it's about the fact that she lies and if it's taken another way I think you should go back and listen to it again. ...

If there [are] two people that I actually made fun of their looks on Saturday it was Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie and no one is jumping to their defense. I made fun of Mitch McConnell's neck and I did a small jab at Chris Christie's weight and no one is jumping to their defense.

On comparing Sanders to Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid's Tale TV series because she's the "mouthpiece" for the administration

I was talking about her personality and I think it says a lot about our society that you would immediately think I was talking about her looks rather than her personality. Because I think if it was a man you wouldn't have jumped to those conclusions. If I was talking about a man you would've been like, "She's talking about his abilities," but because I was talking about a woman you're like, "She's talking about her looks."

What we didn't see at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Part of the dinner that wasn't televised is they were giving out awards and everyone was standing to congratulate the people that were getting awards and [White House press secretary] Sarah [Sanders] was sitting. ... CNN reporters got awards. ... They came up to accept them and [Sanders] sat the whole time, while we all stood and shook their hands. I would say if this is about celebrating the media, she wasn't there to celebrate the media.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So maybe you've heard about the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night where my guest, comic Michelle Wolf, was the performer. Some of the attendees found some of her jokes inappropriate, especially a couple of jokes about White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Sanders, who was seated at the dais, representing the Trump administration, was not laughing. Wolf's performance became the subject of ongoing analysis and debate on cable news and Twitter and websites. A lot of journalists are now saying the dinner should no longer include a guest comic. The White House Correspondents' Association president said Wolf's performance was not in the spirit of the event's mission of offering a unifying message about the group's commitment to a free press while honoring civility, not dividing people.

We're going to talk about what this whole episode has been like for Wolf. Wolf is known for doing comedy from a feminist perspective. She's been a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" and a correspondent on "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah." Last year, she had an HBO comedy special called "Nice Lady," and she has a new weekly Netflix comedy series called "The Break" that will debut May 27.

To put this controversy in perspective, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner has for many years concluded with the president doing stand-up, roasting the media and politicians, followed by a guest comic roasting the president, politicians and the media. This year and last year, President Trump decided not to attend and instead counterprogrammed with rallies, giving speeches to cheering fans. Let's hear some excerpts of Michelle Wolf's set Saturday night with some of the jokes that went over well in the room. We'll hear the Sarah Sanders part a little later.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2018 WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS' DINNER)

MICHELLE WOLF: Good evening. Here we are, the White House Correspondents' dinner. Like a porn star says when she's about to have sex with a Trump, let's get this over with.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: And just a reminder to everyone, I'm here to make jokes. I have no agenda. I'm not trying to get anything accomplished. So everyone that's here from Congress, you should feel right at home. And I know as much as some of you might want me to, it's 2018, and I'm a woman, so you cannot shut me up unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: It is kind of - it is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn't even in contact with Michigan.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: It's a direct flight. It's so close. Of course, Trump isn't here. If you haven't noticed, he's not here. And I know, I know, I would drag him here myself, but it turns out, the president of the United States is the one [expletive] you're not allowed to grab.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: He said it first. Yeah, he did. You remember? Good. We're going to try a fun, new thing. OK. I'm going to say Trump is so broke, and you guys go, how broke is he, all right? Trump is so broke...

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: How broke is he?

WOLF: ...He had to borrow money from the Russians and now he's compromised and not susceptible to blackmail and possibly responsible for the collapse of the republic. Yay. It's a fun game. Trump's also an idea guy. He's got loads of ideas. You got to love him for that. He wants to give teachers guns. And I support that 'cause then they can sell them for things they need, like supplies.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

WOLF: Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don't do anything.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You're somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Fox News is here, so you know what that means, ladies. Cover your drinks.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Seriously. People want me to make fun of Sean Hannity tonight, but I cannot do that. This dinner's for journalists. Good night.

(CHEERING)

WOLF: Flint still doesn't have clean water.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Michelle Wolf, welcome to FRESH AIR. I don't know what to say. What was your weekend like? But (laughter) - but kind of like - like, I think you managed to end a long tradition of having a comic at the White House Correspondents' dinner (laughter).

WOLF: I think I broke the dinner (laughter).

GROSS: I think you broke the dinner. Are you surprised at the level of controversy that your routine at the dinner has created?

WOLF: I wasn't expecting this level, but I'm also not - you know, I'm not disappointed there's this level. I knew what I was doing going in. I wanted to do something different. I didn't want to cater to the room. I wanted to cater to the outside audience and not betray my brand of comedy. And I - actually, my friend of mine who helped me write, left a - he gave me a note before I went on, which I kept with me, which was be true to yourself, never apologize, burn it to the ground.

GROSS: When you say you didn't want to cater to the room, you didn't want to betray who you are as a comic. What would it have meant to cater to the room, and how would that have betrayed who you are as a comic?

WOLF: I think a lot of it and what I've seen in the past is just like, you know, they poke a little fun at - you know, they'll go by kind of table by table being - like, pointing at people and making fun of them in a way that I think used to be fun because the dinner used to have the president there. It used to be a - like, fun. We're all poking fun of each other. The president's going to poke fun of us. We're going to hit back. Now, it seems like it's a much more serious environment and to kind of not go after the big issues and just, like, have a little fun in the room seemed just not as exciting to me.

GROSS: Well, you know, it - the way - as you pointed out, the way the dinner has worked in the past is that a comic basically roasts the press, the president, Congress and whoever else the comic wants to address, you know, wants to roast, relevant to the, you know, to the press in the room. But then the president gets to roast whoever the president wants - the media, Congress and whoever. But with President Trump having opted out this year and last year, it's become very asymmetrical because the comic gets to roast and there's no comeback from the president. So how did you weigh that into, if at all, your writing and your performance, you know, the asymmetricality (ph) of it without the president there?

WOLF: I didn't really weigh it in. I also wasn't - normally, the president goes right before a comic, and I wasn't even sure until, like, the day before if Sarah was going to speak or not. But I had already written everything I was going to write, so I was just going off of that.

GROSS: By Sarah, you mean Sarah Sanders.

WOLF: Sarah Sanders, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Because the spirit of the White House Correspondents' dinner has always been like a roast - or at least in the past few years that's what the spirit has been - had you ever participated in a roast before?

WOLF: I've written roast jokes for people, but I've - you know, I've never done - well, I've done - I've judged a couple roasts at comedy clubs.

GROSS: Did you go in with thinking like this is a roast?

WOLF: Oh, yeah. I mean, I went in thinking, you know, we're roasting people. People are going to get made fun of. And the overarching thing that people kept telling me is that - they were like, it's a bad room, and that it just like - they were like it's - nothing ever sounds good in that room. It's a large ballroom. The audience isn't mic'd, so you can't - the laughs aren't very audible in general. But it's also - it's formal, which people don't laugh as much when they're dressed up. There's roundtables, and people are eating or drinking, so by the virtue of a roundtable, people are partially turned away from you. And it's televised. And there are all these people that may or may not be able to show genuine reactions. And so if you're constantly thinking I need to react in a way that is - will come off well on TV...

GROSS: You mean like not seem partisan.

WOLF: Right, yeah (laughter) - that you might not - you might not be giving a genuine reaction to what's being said. You might be giving a...

GROSS: You're saying some people might be afraid to laugh because it will make them look partisan.

WOLF: Make them look partisan or make them, like, look like they're laughing at someone they shouldn't be laughing at.

GROSS: Right.

WOLF: So when I was - you know, when I was writing the jokes and I was working on this, like, I wasn't expecting it to go over well in the room.

GROSS: So during part of your routine, the camera - when you were talking about Sarah Sanders, the camera was on her part of the time. She didn't look happy at all. Did you think about the camera being on her while you were telling the jokes? 'Cause, like, if you're in a stand-up club and you're doing comedy and you're making a joke about somebody in the Trump administration, the camera isn't going to be on them when you're telling the joke. They're not going to be in the room. So this is different.

WOLF: Yeah, it is different. But, you know, there's plenty where you could look back and the camera was on Obama when people were making pretty aggressive jokes about Obama, and he was laughing. And I think having the ability to laugh at yourself is important. I also think that if you - another part of the dinner that wasn't televised was they were giving out awards. And everyone was standing to congratulate the people that were getting awards, and Sarah was sitting.

GROSS: So you think she was kind of, like, sitting in protest...

WOLF: Yes.

GROSS: ...Because these are media awards and she didn't want to stand in praise of the media?

WOLF: Correct.

GROSS: Was there something specifically said about CNN that she didn't stand?

WOLF: Yeah. The CNN reporters got awards - I cannot remember the exact award they got - but they came up to accept them. And she sat the whole time, while we all stood and shook their hands. I would say if, you know, this is about celebrating the media, she wasn't there to celebrate the media.

GROSS: If you're just joining me, my guest is Michelle Wolf. And she's a comic who has a new show starting in May on Netflix. And Saturday night, she was the center of controversy after performing at the White House Correspondents' dinner. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "LESTER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Wolf. And if her name sounds familiar to you but you never knew her before, if you know her now, it's because people have been talking about her for days, ever since Saturday night when she performed at the White House Correspondents' dinner, where it's typical for a comic in their performance to roast the press and the president and Congress. But her remarks did not go over well in the room, and it's led to a lot of controversy.

You had several jokes that were controversial about abortion, about the media. You said something about Kellyanne Conway that I expected to cause more controversy than it actually caused. But as we record early in the morning on Monday, the most controversial joke has been about Sarah Sanders. So I want to play what you said about Sarah Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2018 WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS' DINNER)

WOLF: We are graced with Sarah's presence tonight. I have to say, I'm a little starstruck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in "The Handmaid's Tale."

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Mike Pence, if you haven't seen it, you would love it.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited because I'm not really sure what we're going to get, you know - a press briefing, a bunch of lies or divided into softball teams.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: It's shirts and skins. And this time, don't be such a little bitch, Jim Acosta.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Like, maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's lies.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: It's probably lies.

GROSS: So that was Michelle Wolf Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' dinner.

So a lot of people thought that you were attacking Sarah Sanders for her looks. I don't really like to put you in the position of having to dissect your joke, but I'm going to ask you to do it anyway. What was your intention for this joke?

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: I think people have a lot of preconceived notions about Sarah's looks. And I think a lot of what's happening is they're projecting onto this joke. I made a conscious effort not to write any jokes about any woman's looks in this speech. And, you know, I think it's clear that the joke wasn't about Sarah's looks. But I don't think, you know, it's - to me, it's so obvious that I don't even really need to defend it. I think if you listen to the joke, you'll understand that it's about the fact that she lies. And if it's taken another way, I think you should go back and listen to it again.

GROSS: So when you mention her eyeliner, are you criticizing her eyeliner? And if so, is criticizing her eyeliner different than criticizing how she looks?

WOLF: I said she had a perfect smoky eye. So I was complimenting her eyeliner 'cause it's fine. Her makeup's fine (laughter). It's the fact that - I was saying, she burns facts, and she uses lies for her smoky eye.

GROSS: So you also compared her to the Aunt Lydia character on "A Handmaid's Tale" (ph). And for any listeners who don't watch "A Handmaid's Tale" - and I imagine there's a lot of people who don't watch it - would you describe the character of Aunt Lydia? And Lydia is played by Ann Dowd.

WOLF: Yeah, the character of Aunt Lydia is kind of the mouthpiece for the administration in "The Handmaid's Tale." She's the woman that kind of is in charge of all the handmaids and is kind of like the sergeant, so to speak. And she's the one that enforces all the rules.

GROSS: And the rules have to do with - women have to be trained to serve to be handmaids and to be fertile and carry - you know, be pregnant as often as possible because that is their role.

WOLF: Yeah, the role of handmaids in "The Handmaid's Tale" is essentially like pregnancy slaves, I guess. I don't know a better word for it. They're supposed to produce and have babies against their will, essentially. And I was commenting on how her actions for the Trump administration are similar to Aunt Lydia's in "The Handmaid's Tale." She communicates from the president just like Aunt Lydia communicates the objectives of the society.

GROSS: So some people think that that part was also insulting to Sarah Sanders' looks. And in some ways, if you were insulting her looks by comparing her to Ann Dowd, would you be insulting Ann Dowd as well?

WOLF: Yeah, which is very unfair. Ann Dowd's gorgeous, and she's a very talented actress, which I think is more important. But, you know, I think to look at that and say I was insulting Sarah's looks, you had to think - you had to want me to be insulting Sarah's looks. I mean, it's like, I was talking about her personality. And I think it says a lot about our society that you would immediately think I was talking about her looks rather than her personality, because I think if it was a man, you wouldn't have jumped to those conclusions. If I was talking about a man, you would've been like, she's talking about his abilities. But because I was talking about a woman, you're like, she's talking about her looks.

GROSS: So you're in the position of being a feminist comic getting criticized by other women, including some very powerful, incredibly smart women, for doing something sexist, for criticizing a woman for her looks. And you say like, no, that's not what I did; listen more carefully. But how does it feel to be a feminist being, you know, criticized by other women in addition to a lot of men who are criticizing you, as well?

WOLF: I mean, isn't that sort of what we do as women, unfortunately? You know, we - we're our own worst enemy.

GROSS: Well, no - well, I said that the women see themselves as standing up for another woman. You know, they're standing up for - they - I think they see themselves as defending Sarah Sanders against a careless or, you know, inappropriate joke.

WOLF: I mean, I think they should listen to the joke again because it's clearly not about her appearance.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you think it's maybe a little bit sexist to think that Sarah Sanders, as a woman, needs to be protected from a couple of jokes at a roast because I haven't heard men be protected that way at roasts.

WOLF: Yeah, I mean, if there was two people that I actually made fun of their looks on Saturday, it was Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie, and no one is jumping to their defense. I made fun of Mitch McConnell's neck, and I did a small jab at Chris Christie's weight, and no one is jumping to their defense.

GROSS: After one of your jokes about the Women's March and the - I can't say the word - the p-hat (ph) that women wore - and then you made a joke about female genitalia - you said, and I quote, "you should've done more research before you got me to do this." I got the impression you really meant that.

WOLF: Yeah. I mean, I think - I don't know. Maybe I'm projecting this, but I think sometimes they look at a woman, and they think, oh, she'll be nice. And if you've seen any of my comedy, you know that I don't - I'm not (laughter). I don't pull punches. I'm not afraid to talk about things. And, you know, I don't think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves, and I don't fit in that box.

GROSS: Do you have any regrets about having done the dinner?

WOLF: I'm honestly - I wouldn't change a single word that I said. I'm very happy with what I said. And I'm glad I stuck to my guns.

GROSS: My guest is Michelle Wolf. She performed at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night. Her new Netflix series "The Break" begins May 27. After a break, we'll listen to and talk about her comedy on "The Daily Show" and her HBO special. And we'll remember photojournalist Abbas, who documented expressions of religion at their most spiritual and most extreme. He died last Wednesday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAN BENNINK AND DAVE DOUGLAS' "CHEROKEE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic Michelle Wolf. On Saturday night, she performed at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner as part of a tradition in which the president does a comedy set, followed by the guest comic. The sets are usually more like roasts. President Trump declined to attend the dinner this year and last. As we discussed in the first half of our show, Wolf's performance proved to be very controversial. Now we're going to talk about the comedy she does on her own turf. She was a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers." She was a correspondent on "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" but left the show to start her own comedy series, a weekly show called "The Break," which premieres on Netflix May 27.

Michelle, I want to play a clip from your recent HBO special "Nice Lady," and this is about not wanting to be married or have a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "MICHELLE WOLF: NICE LADY")

WOLF: I don't want to have a baby or a family. I want a career. That's what I want. And I know there's a lot of people out there that are like, but Michelle, you don't have to choose; you can have it all.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Women can have it all. Yeah, stop saying that. You act like all is good. All does not mean good. You've never left an all-you-can-eat buffet and thought, I feel really good about myself.

(APPLAUSE)

WOLF: That crab and pudding is sitting really well together.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: I sure am glad I went back for spare ribs.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: All is not good. And even if we do try to have it all, even if a woman out there definitely wants it all, we've put up too many obstacles in your way to make it possible. It's like, oh, congratulations, you're having a baby? Great, couple of things, we're going to need you to get that car accident of a body back to work as soon as possible because this is America and we don't think you need time to recover. Also, you should breastfeed, it's what's best for the baby.

But don't do it in public, you pig. Do it in the old janitor's closet underneath the bridge with the rest of the breastfeeding trolls. And don't ask to take time off from work when your kids are sick. We'll think you're not dedicated. Also, why are you such a bad mom? By the way, your salary is just enough to cover the cost of child care. And we know you're exhausted, you don't really know who you are anymore, you're trying to balance your old life and your new life but quick, go have sex with your husband.

He's about to leave. He doesn't understand what you're going through. Quick, go now and, sweetie, smile.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's Michelle Wolf from her recent HBO comedy special "Nice Lady." So I think you're serious about not wanting to have a baby or be in a relationship. Do some people think there's something wrong with you when you say that?

WOLF: I mean, yes. But I, you know, I don't know, I'm just different than what people, I think, want me to be or want a woman to be.

GROSS: In part of your comedy special, you say, you know, having a baby is the coolest thing your body can do. And so to not have one, it's like me being a bird but saying, thanks, I'm going to walk. Did you ever want to, like, just physically experience childbirth?

WOLF: Yeah, actually (laughter). I think that's, like, I mean, I genuinely think it's, like, extraordinary. It seems very neat. And, you know, like, I'm a science person. I love science. I was, you know, I was a kinesiology major in college.

GROSS: That means the science - studying the science of body movement.

WOLF: Yes, yeah. And I, you know, I wanted to go into exercise science. I'm fascinated by the human body and what it can do. And I do think there's something really cool about being pregnant and having a baby. I'm just not sure I want the rest of that (laughter). You know, the lifetime after that part of it.

GROSS: So I want to play another excerpt of your recent comedy special on HBO called "Nice Lady." And this is a part in which you're talking about Hillary Clinton. And you say that you voted for her but you understand why some people don't like her. And so here you are on your comedy special.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "MICHELLE WOLF: NICE LADY")

WOLF: I get not liking Hillary. But the one thing that I think is completely unforgivable is some people would be like, well, you know what it is? I just can't listen to her. She has such a shrill voice. And it's like, well, sometimes...

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: ...That's just what happens to your voice. Sometimes you're a person with a shrill voice. And there's nothing you can do about it because you don't get to choose your voice.

(APPLAUSE)

WOLF: I was never like, oh, you know what? I'll take the voice that causes dogs to gather outside. No, no, I wanted to be so shrill that if I sucked the helium out of a balloon, it wouldn't change my voice at all. That might be a 100 percent real thing that happened to me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so that's Michelle Wolf from her HBO comedy special "Nice Lady." Let's talk about your voice. I wasn't sure how you'd sound as yourself, not on stage but just, like, talking to me. And I'd say your voice sounds, you know, sounds a little different when you're just talking to me. Does your voice change on stage naturally? Do you emphasize certain qualities in it when you're on stage?

WOLF: Well, I also know how nice your voice is, so I'm making an effort this morning to keep it at a tone that's not offensive (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, are you kidding? No, no, no, no, no. I don't even know how to take that. But...

WOLF: No, you have such a soothing voice, and I was like, just, Michelle, just keep it down (laughter).

GROSS: No, just yourself. Be - whatever you are, be you.

WOLF: Yeah, I think I'm just louder on stage. And when I get louder, it gets shriller.

GROSS: My voice gets higher when I try to get louder.

WOLF: Yeah, mine does - yeah, it does. At the same time the volume goes up, the shrillness goes up. But, I don't know, I love my voice. I think it's great. I'm happy to make fun of it because I know it is a bit silly. I also for some reason when I'm on stage, I can sound very Midwestern, which I'm not. I'm from central Pennsylvania. But I just think being on stage kind of amplifies little quirks in my voice that aren't necessarily in my, like, day-to-day conversation.

GROSS: So you used to be a contributor on "The Daily Show." And I want to play a clip from one of your appearances on "The Daily Show." And you were with - you were at the desk with Trevor Noah on this. This is from May 8, 2017. And you're talking about an all-male Senate Republican working group to find a consensus on health care. It was all-male and all-white. And as this excerpt starts, we are seeing on the screen a photo of all the men in this group. So this is Michelle Wolf with Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

WOLF: Seriously, look at the senators who we're trusting with health care. That doesn't look like the panel that protects women. That looks like the panel that says, well, she drowned, guess she wasn't a witch. Throw in another one. Thirteen white guys and no women, 13 white guys and no women. In that group, they were able to get two Mormons but no women, which is weird for Mormons because normally they want extra women.

I mean, you'd think they'd at least put Mike Pence in that group so his wife would have to be there too.

TREVOR NOAH: Well, to be fair, to be fair, Michelle, just because this bill is being worked on by only men doesn't mean that they can't be fair to women.

WOLF: Oh, sure, I mean, they could be fair to us. But this is what they've done so far.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The bill in its current form would hit women especially hard. For example, women who are pregnant, have had a previous C-section, have irregular periods, have breast cancer and endometriosis among others could all be slapped with a pre-existing condition label, opening up the door for insurers to potentially deem them uninsurable.

WOLF: I'm sorry, you'd have to pay extra for insurance if you get irregular periods? OK, quick glimpse into a lady's life.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Every period is an irregular period.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: It's not like a paycheck, where it arrives on the same day every month. Your period is more like an outdoor cat. You know it's going to come back at some point, but you're never positive when, and you have no idea what it's going to have in its mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Michelle Wolf on "The Daily Show" one year ago. And you've done a lot of humor about what men don't understand about women's bodies. How did you start using that as a topic for humor?

WOLF: I just think it's so laughable, the fact that there's these things that happen to women constantly on a day-to-day basis that we just don't talk about because men think they're icky, you know? Like, I mean, periods are a thing women are dealing with all of the time, not just when they have their period. It's days throughout their cycle, weeks before. You know, we all have different symptoms. We all go through different things. Everyone gets - not everyone, but people get different, varying versions of PMS and, you know, when your skin breaks out - you know, all that stuff. And we just don't talk about it. And it's something that we're constantly living with. And I think part of the reason we don't talk about it is because we want to protect men from having to hear about it, and I'm just so sick of it.

GROSS: What reactions do you get from men in the audience when you talk about women's bodies?

WOLF: I think pretty good. I mean, I try to do it in a way where I get men to laugh. A lot of times when I - especially, I have a period joke I told in my special - you know, when I'm telling that joke, I will normally look at men to see how they're reacting to it, and they all seemed to be enjoying it.

GROSS: If you're just joining me, my guest is Michelle Wolf. She performed at the White House Correspondents' dinner Saturday night, and as you may have heard, it was very controversial. And she also has a recent HBO special called "Nice Lady." Next month in May, she has a new Netflix series, a weekly series that will begin called "The Break." So we're going to take a short break ourselves and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOL BORDELLO SONG, "NOT A CRIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Wolf, who's coming off of a weekend in which a lot of people were talking about her because she performed at the White House Correspondents' dinner, and some of her jokes did not go over well in the room, and it's led to a lot of controversy. She also has a recent HBO special called "Nice Lady." She wrote for Seth Meyers. She was a correspondent on "The Daily Show," and now she has a new show starting at the end of May on Netflix.

So let's talk about your life. When you were in high school and your first year of college, you were hoping to be an athlete. You were - you did track. And describe the kind of events that you did in track as - in high school and in college.

WOLF: Yeah, I was in track. I did the high, long and triple jump. And I ran the 400 and the 800 in high school, as well, but my main events in college were the jumping events.

GROSS: You had an injury. You hurt your ankle in your freshman year of college, which kind of ended your track career. What happened?

WOLF: It was the day before my first indoor meet, my first meet ever in college. We were practicing long jump. We were doing - we were just practicing some jumping form with this box and this foam thing, and I just landed wrong on my ankle. And I immediately got up and started walking it off because as a jumper, you twist your ankle all the time. And as I was walking it off, I looked down, and my ankle was already incredibly swollen. And I was like, oh, I think this is bad. And it was a third-degree ankle sprain, and it was on my takeoff foot. And I was just never really able to put the same amount of pressure on it, even after it healed, that I had been previously. I think it was the last of several ankle sprains. And, you know, when you sprain something, your tendons get looser, and they never really go back to their original strength. And this was just kind of the straw that broke the camel's back.

GROSS: Did you go through an identity crisis? Like, who am I if I'm not doing track?

WOLF: Yes, a hundred percent. Like, I've always worked really hard in school, but, like, track was, like, a huge part of my life. And I absolutely loved it. I still am such a big fan. It's my favorite sport. But when I was doing track, I was a track athlete. And then that stopped, and I was like, oh, who am I? And it legitimately took me a while to figure that out. I don't really think it was until I'd started doing comedy that I was like, right, I'm this person.

GROSS: At what point did you start doing comedy?

WOLF: So in March of 2008 - or it might've been late February - friends of mine came to visit, and I went to a taping of "SNL." And I was - I've always been such a big fan. And after that taping, I was like, how do these people do this? How did they get into this? And so I googled all of them, and they - almost all of them started in improv, so I signed up for an improv class. And after my first improv class, I was just like, this is fun. I want to do something like this.

GROSS: So, you know, your HBO comedy special is called "Nice Lady." Did you ever want to just be nice? Because you talk about how like, you're not nice, and Hillary Clinton isn't nice, and no woman who has power is, like, nice. And if they think they're nice, they're just kidding themselves.

WOLF: Yeah, I mean, I do think for the longest time, you know, I did want to be nice. I thought that that's how - I thought that's how I was supposed to be. I thought I was just supposed to be nice and pleasant, and I realized that's no fun.

GROSS: Here's another thing. Like, in comedy, you call people out. You have no problem with that. But often in real life, like, you'll hear somebody - I mean, when I say you, I mean any woman will hear somebody saying something like really sexist or offensive or racist or, you know, homophobic, whatever. And then you have to figure out, like, do I say something, or do I just kind of, like, let it go? And in some ways, it's, like, easier to call somebody out on stage or just to call out, like, a kind of behavior on stage than it can be in real life. So how do you handle it in real life?

WOLF: I mean, it's something that I really consciously work on to, you know, feel confident enough to call people out as things are happening. It took me the longest time to even, you know - you know when you're, like, sitting on either, like, a bus or a plane - not a plane, more like a bus or a train - and someone puts their seat back too far or is talking, like, really loudly on their phone?

GROSS: They put their seat back too far, and it's on your knees because you're in back of them.

WOLF: Yes, exactly, yeah. There's been - it took me the longest time to be able to say to a person, like, excuse me, can you put your seat up, you know? Or like, can you stop talking on the phone so loudly? And, you know, it's silly that it would take a long time to get to the comfort level to say that, but, you know, like, I have been in the past very afraid of confrontation. And just even getting to that point I was like, all right, good. Now I can tell people, hey, can you please not talk so loudly? And, you know, I think it's, like, you have to make an effort for those things, though. So, like, when it comes to the actual important things, you know, say someone's being racist in front of you to someone, you have the guts to be able to say, hey, that's not right. Don't say those things.

GROSS: Have you said that to people?

WOLF: I've actually - I've never been in a position where it's happened right in front of me. I like to think if it did happen right in front of me I would be able to but, you know, hopefully - well, I mean, hopefully it doesn't happen (laughter) but if it does, hopefully I have the guts to do it.

GROSS: Well, Michelle Wolf, thank you so much for coming. I know this was, like, a really crazy period for you. Thank you so much for taking the time to come to our show and to be willing to talk about the White House Correspondents' dinner. Thank you.

WOLF: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Michelle Wolf's new Netflix weekly comedy series, "The Break," premieres May 27. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an excerpt of my interview with photojournalist Abbas, who documented expressions of religion from their most spiritual to most extreme. He died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGABLE PLANETS SONG, "REBIRTH OF SLICK (COOL LIKE DAT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.