In the comedy world, 2017 has been a year of struggling to stay timely. When the most monumental breaking news is reduced to a tiny blip in record time, it’s difficult to make something that feels relevant without leaning on that day’s crisis. So in her debut special, “Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady,” Wolf takes a slightly different headline-free tack and ends up with an hourlong set that makes for a very funny time capsule for where we are now.
“Nice Lady” was filmed in mid-August and, as you may have heard, a lot has happened since then. But it’s even more a testament to Wolf’s approach to topics like workplace equality, birth control, and societal expectations that they feel ready-made for the full swath of what this year has offered. Wolf doesn’t have to reference the downfall of powerful men in the past few months when so much of what makes this a great set is the universal truth that existed long before those men’s misdeeds made front pages.
Hillary, the environment, feminism, and bathrooms can easily sound like a horrible Facebook rant word cloud, but Wolf manages to bring something fresh to each of those subjects. Sometimes it’s her personal perspective (her personal take on reactions to different kinds of voices sets a perfect tone for the rest of the special), but sometimes it’s about adding the tiniest extra detail to a familiar premise (the phrase “quilting” comes up in a particularly unlikely circumstance).
What makes “Nice Lady” so strong is that it never has a manufactured feel. There’s an intensity to some of Wolf’s exasperation about dating norms or human body tendencies that never feels over-exaggerated. It’s one comic’s unapologetic look at life, national conversations, and the state of the species all in one.
Wolf has no false overblown style forcing people to take notice, nor is her approach reserved so as not to upset certain audiences. Like her hunched-over impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there’s a sense of control that also makes these insights shine through. In a section about Mother Nature personified, she stays firmly planted and lets a line or two breathe before moving on.
Wolf has been a valuable contributor to “The Daily Show” for the better part of the last two years, after working on the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” writing staff. “Nice Lady” is less zeroed in on public figures than the Weinstein, Rachel Dolezal, and Ivanka Trump segments she’s been on-camera for in the past, but there’s still plenty here about what society expects from women to be mostly evergreen. The specificity isn’t connecting to some outside newsmaker that everyone is directing their anger at for the day — it’s pointing at the absurdities of everyday life with the added knowledge that some people out in the audience (i.e. dudes) might be grappling with these ideas for the first time.
Wolf engages with the crowd in an interesting way, too. Rather than just delivering insights from on high, “Nice Lady” finds her flipping perceptions on the audience, even in the moment. (One Cosby joke is a perfectly laid trap, which the crowd falls for, further proving her point.) Taking on mansplaining without necessarily calling it by name, there’s a very particular delight in the way that Wolf dismantles pervasive assumptions and misconceptions on the male side of the ledger.
When Wolf opens up “Nice Lady” with “What a time to be alive,” there’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek element to it. But for as much as 2017 has been a year of the unthinkable, it’s also been a year of change and getting things out into the open that much of half the population never really considered before. “Nice Lady” isn’t an Do-Better Manual for men, it’s an appreciation of the things women continue to do in the face of double standards. For many of the best jokes in “Nice Lady,” Wolf delivers the punchlines with a knowing smile, not in a smug style, but in a “we’re all in this together” way. With the exception of a well-deserved finale, Wolf isn’t here to bombard you with her own self-assured brilliance. She aims to give voice to a lot of cultural anxiety in a singular way.
By putting even more of those truths out with a wink (be they about nipples, texting, or childbirth) Wolf’s adding her part to the collective self-reflection that this year has been. Once “Nice Lady” is out in the world, Wolf’s future in the comedy world should be even brighter. Let’s hope we can all be so lucky.
“Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady” premieres December 2 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO. It will be available to stream on HBOGO beginning December 3.