Comedian Michelle Wolf is in a good place. Her new Netflix special just dropped with a unique format (rather than a one-hour chunk, she dropped 3 episodes with an interest in adding to it down the road if the audience is there) and she’s seeing the benefits of exploring the world and getting serious about her work/life balance both on-stage and off. But while Wolf feels like the special is great, she’s equally excited to see the effects of her choices on the new material that she’s working on during her current tour. Because naps and breaks aside, the work never stops.
Uproxx spoke with Wolf recently about all of that, navigating a world where her relationship influences her material more, controversial french fry dipping sauce picks, and growing up in the shadow of an amusement park.
In the opening for the first episode of the special, it seems like you’re eating french fries from various locations, and I’m curious if there is a city, specifically, that you want to call out that has the best french fries?
French fries are an excellent food.
I had curly fries about two hours ago.
It’s also one of those things that, obviously stand-ups, we’re all over the place. It’s like you can always depend on a french fry. I tend to eat them everywhere. The ones I had in Denver were really good, but they also have a honey mustard dipping sauce, and I’m a big fan of honey mustard. This might be a controversial opinion, but I don’t like ketchup. I know, I’m going to be bold enough to say it, but I don’t like ketchup and I’m a mustard person.
Speak your truth. What was behind the decision to do this as three episodes instead of the standard hour?
Well, I mean, I wanted to try something new, but also, based on what’s happening on social media and our general attention spans, I thought it would be more fun to section (it off). I also had an abundance of material, way more than an hour. I had about two hours’ worth of material, so I thought it would be more fun to just section them off into episodes that felt like you were seeing a satisfying chunk of material rather than just sandwiching it together in an hour. I thought that would be a nice way to break it up. If you watch all the episodes, you actually see that it’s five, it’s just the second episode and the third episode have two episodes in each. It sounds way more confusing. (But) that’s how I originally wanted to do it as these various-length episodes that just fit whatever the amount of jokes that were in it. Netflix thought it would be better to be more like 30 minutes. I don’t know if I necessarily agree, but we did make the compromise to get it on the platform. Hopefully people like this and in the future I’ll get to do it the exact way that I’d like to do it.
I was also thinking about the future where it’s like, oh, you can release three, four episodes at a time when you have a 15-minute chunk on this and a 20-minute chunk on this, and just instead of waiting to have a whole hour-long special, you can release episodes here and there whenever they’re ready.
How did living abroad influence the material here? It feels like there’s some stuff that’s maybe a little bit more inward. Was that a direct result of being a little less connected to the ebbs and flows of the US for a time?
I think first of all, any travel or extensive period of time you can get outside your normal cultural environment is going to affect your point of view, which I think is really important for evolving as a standup. But also I really made the choice to take a step back from, I was living in New York and I was really, really grinding for a lot of years and I’m very happy with all the work that I did there. But I do think it was also important for me and ultimately my comedy to have a little bit of a more balanced life where it’s like I get to live and see and do things. And then I can write and make jokes and do standup. I think living abroad and spending time in Europe has really allowed me to do that more.
One of my fears as a comedian is if I wasn’t doing it every night that I would get worse. But I have to say, I think my comedy’s only getting better. These episodes that are coming out I really, really like. But the hour I’m working on now, I already love and it’s still new. It feels like at least, for me, I’m making the right decision to jump out for a bit and experience life and then be able to come back in and do a bunch of jokes about it.
With everything going on in the US specifically over the last five, or six years in that period when you’re abroad, when you see news break from the US, does it hit differently when you’re out there?
Obviously, every place has its own issues, but I would say less about hearing the news and more about the general feeling. When I came back to the States, it felt tense. You can feel it. It’s almost like it feels like we’re in that awkward pause in an argument where we’re just waiting for someone to say something and start arguing again or break something. It’s like sometime before dessert at Thanksgiving where we’re like, you don’t really know what’s going to happen, but you’re pretty sure it’s not going to be good.
Europe, these guys know how to take a break in Europe. Obviously, I think Europeans can be very passionate about a lot of different things, but you know what Europeans love more than anything? Free time and vacation. They’ll take any holiday they can get. They will sit out in a cafe and watch people and have a coffee. It’s nice to be able to do that. It’s something that I think we could really benefit from here as well, but I don’t really think our society’s set up that way for people to sit and enjoy each other’s company.
I’m starting to feel like my ancestors made a mistake when they left Italy.
I would maybe take the trek back.
In terms of working in family stuff and relationship stuff more into your act), what’s the conversation like when you’re establishing what’s something you can talk about, what’s something you don’t want to talk about? Is that a decision you make on your own or is that a collaborative decision?
It’s really a decision I make on my own and it’s just like, I want to tell the best jokes I possibly can tell. Sometimes that’s about things I observe in society and other times that’s things that are happening in my life. I’m just not someone who’s ever going to talk about something that I don’t feel comfortable talking about or sharing. It’s pretty easy for me to draw that line because I’m not looking for jokes in places that I don’t want to tell them. I also love jokes, so if I think of something really good and it’s about my personal life, I can’t not tell it.
I’m curious if you’ve walked a line with that and maybe gone over once or twice.
I don’t think so. Normally, if I tell a joke, and I don’t tell it anymore, it’s because it either didn’t work or I just haven’t figured it out, which most of the time I believe that all jokes will eventually work. You just have to be at the right point in your life and your ability to tell them. Sometimes you just get the idea for a joke way too early. You’re just not a good enough comic to tell it yet.
Have you revisited things that you’ve kind of put down in the past? Where you feel like you’re at a different point where you can make them work?
For sure, for sure. I mean, there’s so many of them that I couldn’t even give you specific examples because I’ve done it often where it’s like I’ll have a premise and then I’ll put it down for a while and then pick it back up and be like, oh, it works now. It’s either because I’m more confident in it or I’ve come up with a different way to say it, or I had different experiences that I can throw in there. It’s one of those really interesting and fun things about comedy where I think everything you want can be a joke. You just have to figure out if you’re good enough to tell it.
Who decides that? Is that something you decide over time or just from your own experience or is it the audience? I’m guessing it’s some kind of mixture. How do you determine the hierarchy?
Comedy’s interesting in that way that it’s like you can’t do it in a vacuum. The audience is part of the instrument and I think a lot of us comics can be stubborn in the sense that we’re like, “No, this joke is going to work.” But at some point, the audience does have to agree with you and you just have to find out a way to make that happen.
It is up to both of you, but I don’t think the audience is… the best jokes, the audience isn’t deciding to laugh or not, they’re just laughing. I’m sure we’ve all been watching something or someone or been at a show, or even just on the street. If you see someone, I don’t know, trip in a funny way or run into something, you’ll laugh voluntarily and I think that’s the best. When the audience doesn’t make the choice to laugh, they just end up doing it is when you know. You’re like, “Okay, I’ve made a good joke.”
Last question. You’re from Hershey, Pennsylvania. I’ve spent a little bit of time there. I’m from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Did you grow up in Hershey or was it more you were born there and moved away?
Born and raised Hershey. Born in Hershey Medical Center, went to Hershey High School. My home. Worked at the Subway in Hershey Park.
Oh, so you were a sandwich artist?
I was a sandwich artist. That was the first art that I ever did.
Do you get sick of living near a theme park like Hershey?
I mean, as a kid growing up and even my teen years, it was really cool because first of all, I was always just running around as a kid. Even my friends in high school, we used to play crazy games of tag and stuff, so we were always doing kid things. But it was cool to be by the amusement park because there used to be a thing where the park used to close at 10:30 PM but at 10:00 PM they would let you in for free. I don’t think they do this anymore, but at 10:00 PM they would let you in for free because the park was closing. We used to go. We’d run to a roller coaster. There’d be no lines left, so we’d ride it four times and then leave the park and that was very fun.
I really liked growing up there and I had a lot of really good friends and we had a blast. It was good for me. I haven’t spent much time there in the past 10 years or so, but it was really good when I was a kid.
I’m sure the statute of limitations would’ve run out. I think you can answer this truthfully. Was there ever a time that you thought to or did try to stay at the park after hours to really test the limits of the security?
You know what? I would honestly be way too scared of getting in trouble to do that. Thinking about it now, that seems genius, but I was way too scared of getting in trouble to do that. I was quite a rule follower.
Michelle Wolf’s series of micro specials, ‘It’s Great To Be Here,’ is available to stream on Netflix