Michelle Wolf’s Comedy Marathon
They say that nice guys finish last, but what about nice ladies? That’s one of the many themes comedian and Daily Show writer/contributor Michelle Wolf explores in her new special Nice Lady, which premieres tomorrow night at 9:00pm on HBO. The hour is full of sharp and relevant observations – many that made the cut from Wolf’s one-woman Edinburgh Fringe show So Brave – on feminism, the public restroom debate, and the visual horrors of male genitalia. I talked to her about the new special, choosing comedy over sleep, and not making excuses.
How does it feel to have your first special under your belt?
It actually feels really good. I’m so excited for people to see it. I’m also so happy to be working on new material. You can only do jokes so many times and then you’re like, “I have other things to say.”
Most of the material seemed super current. How long have you been putting this together?
Some of the jokes are years old, but I really started putting the hour together in December. I would say that between when I started and when we taped in August there are 20 minutes worth of jokes that just kind of happened throughout the year.
Was any of the stuff in this special from So Brave?
I would say that about half of what was in So Brave is in the special. I said I started working on the special in December, but in Edinburgh you do one show a day for 29 days. That’s when I first started feeling like this is what an hour of comedy feels like. I got myself used to doing an hour. But a lot of the jokes that I did there, after I did them for a month I started to feel like some of them were kind of old for me. I’m not saying the jokes were terrible, but it was one of those things where I was like, “I know these jokes work, but I can do better.”
I imagine you’re pretty busy with The Daily Show stuff and everything else you’re doing. Do you feel like you get enough stage time to work out new material?
Oh yeah. I work 10 to 12 hours a day at the show, but I get up probably between 13 and 20 times a week. I go out every night after work to do standup, 1, 2, 3, spots and night during the week and as many as I can on the weekends.
When do you make time for sleep and self-care?
I don’t need a lot of sleep. I don’t like sleeping. I take time for myself when I need it, but I’m doing something I love a lot that I think is really fun, so that part of it is self-care. I’m having a genuinely good time.
Is it hard to create new material when you have a job where you spend so much time writing for someone or something else? Do you worry that all of the writing and correspondence you do on the show is taking away from material you could be doing onstage?
I would never do something from The Daily Show in my act only because stuff on The Daily Show feels, in my mind at least, very topical. Every time I do something on The Daily Show it feels like when it’s done and on air we’ve covered it. When I do standup I feel that I have a different pacing and cadence. None of it feels right to transfer over. I like to think that instead of the very specific topics we do on the show, I’m more broad. I might pick a topic as a jumping-off point, but then I go on to a broader bit about the subject that hopefully has a longer shelf life. One of the reasons I do a lot of standup during the night is because when you’re writing during the day and writing for someone else — I really like doing that and I think it’s helped me become exponentially a better comedian — at night I get to do my own stuff. Whether a joke you like made it on the show or not it doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day I get to do exactly what I want to do and present it in the exact fashion that I want to. It takes away any frustrations from the day.
I’m curious if you have any routines that you do to keep your mind active. It sounds like you wake up and write or perform comedy until you go to sleep almost every day of the week. Are you just on all the time or do you have to use little tricks to push through?
It’s one of the things that I think I learned very early on in late night at SM (Late Night with Seth Meyers): you have to teach yourself to write jokes even when you’re really not in the mood to. That was the first writing job I had. There’s a monologue every day. There are desk pieces every day. You’re writing jokes everyday. You need to perform. There’s nothing happening in your life where there’s a good enough excuse to say, “I just couldn’t write a joke because my head was in a bad place.” It’s a job, so you have to push that aside and power through. It took me a while to train myself to do that. Any time you are training for something — like, you start off running a mile and that seems really hard, but then it seems easier, so you add three or four miles, and eventually you’re running half-marathons or something. You’re like, “Wow, I didn’t think I could do this.” I use that analogy because that’s also the other thing I do. I run a lot. I go on long runs on the weekends, 10 to 15 miles. It clears my head, reduces stress, and helps me relax. I equate comedy and running a lot because in comedy you’re always training to do better. It’s the same with running: you can always run faster and longer.
Speaking of running, you went to school for exercise science, right?
Then you worked on Wall Street for a while and eventually got into comedy, which really took off for you. Do you ever think of what you went to school for or your old career as a safety net? Would you ever get to a point in comedy where you would say, “Okay, I’m going to go back to one of these other jobs?”
I don’t think you could pay me enough to go back to work on Wall Street. But yeah, I was a kinesiology major and I loved it. It was fun for me. Remember those old Gatorade commercials where it’s an athlete running on a treadmill hooked up to all the wires and stuff? I always wanted to be that doctor, the person who was doing the study on the athlete. There’s a part of me that still thinks that would be really cool, but there’s also this other part of me that knows that once you release a comedian into the comedy world it’s really hard to rein them back in and be like, “Okay, you have to be serious, you can’t make fun of this person, and you have to be professional.” I can’t do that anymore.
Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO.