Hearing someone yell into a microphone is generally a very unpleasant experience. Whether it’s the grocery store manager telling a kid to stop running down the aisles, an airline gate agent incessantly calling out for a mysteriously missing passenger, or an Alex Jones-type conspiracist spouting ridiculous theories till they’re red in the face, we can all agree that the marriage of loud voices and amplification is almost always an ill-conceived one. Michelle Wolf, however, is a happy exception to this rule. No matter how loud or shrill her voice gets, it still needs to be blasted out of a loudspeaker.
In her new Netflix special, Joke Show, Wolf jumps into her set immediately—no introductions, no opening goofs to ease us in, just straight into an otter rape bit. It’s about as jarring as it sounds, but in Wolf’s seasoned hands, her most abrasive jokes are also the funniest. Part of why this works is her quick connection with the audience. She’s not necessarily going to hold our hands, but she’s ready with a flashlight to guide us through the dark places she’s taking us, and it’s always worth the journey (no matter how vaguely uncomfortable).
Among the darker corners of the set are some familiar paths, namely, outrage culture and feminism. She approaches both with mild incredulity, sprinkling nuggets of wisdom in with her hilarious observations about their pitfalls. Wolf, a self-identified feminist, pinpoints how in-fighting and white women’s privilege undermine the feminist agenda. She doesn’t rail against feminism or call-out culture, but finds the gray areas that make both subjects ripe for the picking. In the age of practically unlimited access to information, we can always find something to be mad about. Wolf knows the importance of choosing one’s battles, after having to staunchly defend herself in response to bad-faith takes on her White House Correspondents’ Dinner appearance,.
The battles that she does pick in the special, though, are endearingly goofy: childhoods should be terrible, birth must be deemed gross rather than miraculous, and men are better suited to have periods than women. Her reimaginings of how our world should be are, of course, funny, but they also show an inventiveness that enriches her jokes. Her whimsical ideas, such as tampons for men with superheroes on the strings (genius!), bring unexpected levity to every subject.
There are few bells and whistles on Joke Show, a special just as straightforward as its title. There’s no artsy or elaborate intro, no guest appearances, no skits or musical interludes. Wolf’s weird and wonderful mind more than makes up for the spare trappings, though, and makes you realize how unnecessary those attention-getting gimmicks often are. When you’re as funny as Wolf, you don’t need to distract from your hilarious—and occasionally disturbing—stand-up.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.