By Allie Waxman

Michelle Wolf's Comedy Cuts Through BS Niceties

The comedian opens up about taping her first HBO special, developing her craft and learning from her comedic idols.


HBO: How did you first start out in comedy?

Michelle Wolf: Someone I used to improvise with was like, ‘you should do stand-up,’ probably because I was being a selfish improvisor. The thing that’s frustrating about improv is that even if you have the best show in the world, it’s over when it’s over. You get to build stand-up — I really like that aspect of it. I like writing jokes and you don’t get to do that in improv. Very early on someone told me: if you’re not doing stand-up every night, you’re not doing it. I just ran with that. I tried to do it every night.

HBO: How did you first start to develop your craft?

Michelle Wolf: I did so many open mics. I would write jokes on Twitter constantly, and then slowly over time, open mics turned into shows. If you can get a joke to work at an open mic, it’s a good joke.

HBO: Can you describe your sense of humor?

Michelle Wolf: I try to cut through some of the bullshit niceties, show the real side of a subject and then take it in a weird direction. I always think about my jokes as like I’m driving down a street, trying to go into all the culs-de-sacs along the way. I’m just taking a thoughtful, weird journey.

HBO: How did you prepare to tape your first HBO special?

Michelle Wolf: I wanted to do 100 headlining sets before I taped my special because I wanted to investigate every nook and cranny of every joke. I was on the road for the majority of the year all over the country. It was so unbelievably helpful; I got something out of every show.

HBO: Are you different on and off stage?

Michelle Wolf: I’m very quiet off stage. I think I’m a pretty boring person. I’m not super talkative; I spend a lot of my time running and zoning out. I spend so much time trying to write jokes and ‘be on,’ so when I’m finally off stage, I just want to sit.

HBO: Who are your comedic idols?

Michelle Wolf: I always was such a huge fan of The Carol Burnett Show. I used to love how she talked to the audience before the taping. Throughout the years I’ve spent a lot of time watching really great comedians; at the [Comedy] Cellar [in New York] I’ll watch Colin Quinn and Dave Attell—two totally different joke styles, but also two unbelievable comedians. I’ve gotten to go on the road with [Chris] Rock. You can learn so much from watching every single thing that he does. He’s a great person to have in your corner.

HBO: What does it mean to be a female comedian in 2017?

Michelle Wolf: I don’t really think of myself as a female comedian. I try to think of myself more as a comedian who also happens to be a woman. I don’t necessarily like making the distinction because I feel that it puts us in a different category. I see someone like Ali [Wong] who has done so well this year and it’s so great to see someone like that really explode doing something that is very honest and resonates with women. We’ve got to get more women in comedy, and eventually over time I think it’ll shift. I I think it’s something that has to happen over time, because that’s how any change that sticks really happens. It’s just gonna take a minute.

HBO: Do you have jokes popping into your head at all times?

Michelle Wolf: Some days. If I could pin down one way to do it, I’d be ecstatic. But sometimes it’s because there’s something I see; sometimes I haven’t thought of any jokes for weeks and then all the sudden I’ll think of 10. It ebbs and flows. I think you have to constantly be open to the idea of new jokes, but there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to how I come up with jokes. It’s unbelievably frustrating.

HBO: What advice do you have for up-and-coming comics?

Michelle Wolf: Work way harder than you think you need to.