These days, most comedy specials do that thing where whatever central analogy or joke or story the comedian in question is using to frame the whole act usually gets built into the middle or the end of the evening. Then, that thing usually gets worked into the title and you sometimes spend the whole special wondering when the title is going to get dropped in and you can go, “okay.” It’s not bad, it’s just normal.
In Nice Lady, Daily Show contributor Michelle Wolf’s debut HBO special, she flips that expectation on us. That is, she gets straight to Hillary Clinton, stating the thesis of the hour right up top: If we’re expecting our leaders to be “nice,” we’re missing the point. She reserves special contempt for the people who critique Clinton’s voice, modeling her own as a way of saying “shrill” voices are ones that “get shit done.”
From that point on, Nice Lady is an exhilarating exercise in sledding downhill from atop the elephant in the room. Given the dour state of the comedy industry right now, it’s hard to overemphasize what a relief it is to spend time with a comedian who is so effortlessly in control of her material that all we have to do is hang on for the ride. The audience can’t bristle without her swooping in to show us how easily we play into her hand: When she says, “the detective work on [Bill Cosby] has been lazier than his eye,” they groan; she swiftly rejoins,“I think the least we can do at this point is make fun of Bill Cosby’s eye.”)
The pace of the hour never lets up, with Wolf bouncing from a demonstration of how to use farts as a rape whistle, to comparisons of the vagina (a “square peg, round whole situation” when it comes to having children) and balls (“a goblin’s coin purse), to a nearly breathless, rapid-fire monologue that illustrates societies’ contradictory expectations of women. All along she populates meticulously prepared material with enough footnotes and asides to keep it from sounding too efficient. All comedy specials are edited, but Nice Lady keeps Wolf in the driver’s seat of the hour’s tonal arc, such that you cannot see the seams. This is thanks in part to the special’s director, and her fellow Daily Show contributor, Neal Brennan, who has mercifully constructed a comedy special without a single reaction shot of the audience. It turns out, you don’t need to prove that the sound of laughter is indeed coming from real people. Comedy special directors of the world, take heed.
Political comedians and comedy shows, especially The Daily Show, have always had to navigate criticism of “clapter,” or: when an audience’s response to a joke is more that they agree with it than that they find it particularly funny. Here, Wolf assures us that she’s able to have it both ways. She’s both speaking so particularly to the audience’s concerns and frustrations that they frequently erupt into applause, but the building blocks of her comedy are all intrinsically funny on their own—there’s no inauthentic laughter. Though Wolf is still one of The Daily Show’s most reliable elements, Nice Lady announces her as a voice that well deserves its own platform—one where she can keep getting shit done.
Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady airs on HBO on Saturday, December 2nd at 9 p.m. EST.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.