On The Couch with Michelle Wolf

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Michelle Wolf

The patient is verbose and at the same time thoughtful in her answers, revealing a desire to find the perfect statement. Her varied past—as a former Bear Stearns employee, as a Kinesiology student—would suggest a lack of sense of self, or perhaps poor decision-making skills. Her knowledge of herself, however, and the world around her betrays a deeper understanding of what the future brings for this talented comic. Although she is quick to point out her shortcomings, she has clearly noticed her personal growth as a performer, as well as her success as a comedy writer. From her time as a standup comic making the rounds at open mics to her current job as a writer (and occasional actor) for Late Night with Seth Meyers, Michelle Wolf is just growing into her new role as a successful comedian.

When and how did you start performing comedy?

I started performing in March of 2008. I moved to New York in July of 2007, because I got a job at Bear Stearns, a bank that doesn’t exist. I had no intentions of doing comedy, honestly, I just wanted to make money. And then in March of 2008, Bear Stearns collapsed, and I think like a month before that, my friends came to visit me from back home and we went to a taping of Saturday Night Live. I had always been such a huge fan, and afterwards, I was like, “I want to do that!” So I Googled everyone on it, and almost all of them started in improv. I signed up for improv, and after my first improv class, I was like, “I want to do something like this, this is really fun!” But after that, I ended up working at JP Morgan for another three and a half years.

Are there any ways that the world of Wall Street and the world of comedy overlap?

The way that my job on Wall Street helped me a lot is that, in the corporate world in general, sometimes people are so mean to you for absolutely no reason, and you just can’t take it personally. People used to yell at me all the time, right in my face, and you just learn that it’s not about you. That helps in comedy a lot. Also, there’s the other thing where you just have to get it done. You never say, “I can’t,” or, “I don’t know how.” You just get it done. If I had ever said, “I don’t know how to fix a printer,” they would have said, “I don’t care.” That’s not even something I need to know how to do. But you have to do it. Also, I learned how to wear a suit.

Did you study writing or comedy in college?

Nope. I studied Kinesiology in college, which is exercise science. I worked in a cardiovascular molecular physiology lab, and I wanted to either go to medical school or get a PhD in exercise science. But after school, I studied so much, and I was just sort of burned out, so I took some time off. But my friends that I was living with had all gotten jobs on Wall Street, and then everything else happened.

People used to yell at me all the time, right in my face… That helps in comedy a lot.

Do you ever translate anything you learned in your medical studies into standup?

I tried for a long time to do something with it, but I haven’t been able to yet. Hopefully at some point.

How do you think your comedy has changed since you first started?

Well, I started out doing improv, and now I do mostly standup. I guess that’s the difference, but when I first started doing standup, I was very silly. I mean, I had a ten-minute bit about cats wearing pants. It’s so dumb to say out loud now, but I really went from silly things to, “Okay, what are some things that are fun to me but also fun to other people?” And when I started, I didn’t really have any idea who I was. I went from a major, to a job that had nothing to do with my major, to comedy. Now, in the past couple of years, I feel like I’ve developed a voice in standup, now I have opinions on things. I have a point of view, and it’s okay to have opinions. I think for the longest time, I just agreed with people. So now the jokes I tell are like, “This is how I feel.”

You’ve done improv, standup, and sketch. Do you have a favorite format for comedy?

I mean, I love standup, it’s my favorite thing to do. But I also love sketch, and I love writing for someone else a lot more than I thought I would. I really like writing in Seth’s voice, which I think I’m still trying to learn. But I like writing jokes for someone else; I like seeing my jokes work. It’s been a really good muscle to flex. Topical jokes have also been a lot of fun. And then doing characters is also great.

Do you think you play a character in your regular standup shows, or do you think that it’s more of an honest approach to your life?

It’s just a heightened version of myself. I don’t talk a lot about being single, but I do have a couple jokes about being single, and I don’t really care about that. Like, I play a character on stage that makes it look like I care a little bit more than I do. I think when I talk on stage, I sound a little different—I get a more midwestern accent on stage. I don’t understand how that happens, because I can’t do accents to begin with. I also talk differently when I’m on the phone with my mom, so everything’s weird!

You’ve gained a lot of traction from your hilarious Twitter presence. How did you start using that medium for comedy?

First of all, thank you. It was one of those things where as soon as I started doing it, I was like, “This is a fun muscle to flex.” And then I realized that it helped me come up with the jokes that I did for standup. So there are days when I just sit in front of my computer and tweet until I find something that I can talk about on stage. It also helped me get better at writing topical jokes, which I think helped me get my job. It’s an immediate gratification thing, too, where you tweet something, and you get to see if people love it or hate it, or don’t care about it. It’s the worst if they don’t care about it. If someone gets enraged about something I tweet, that tells me there’s something there for a joke. But if it gets like two favorites, I’m like, “This isn’t funny.” I know a lot of people think Twitter is dumb or irrelevant, but it’s really, really helpful to me. It’s also how I keep up with the news.

You talk about bombing on Twitter, but have you ever bombed on stage? What did you learn from the experience?

I think the worst bomb I ever had was when I was doing a one-woman show. The show had been going well, but there were twelve people there and they were all from a tourist group, and they sat there with their arms crossed the whole time. And because it was sketch, I couldn’t break character. If it were standup, I would have acknowledged it or talked to them, but because it was sketch, I just had to get through it. Afterwards, I was upset for a couple minutes, but I was like, “I’m not dead. Things could be way worse.” Sometimes I try new stuff and I bomb, and then that’s also helpful. Once you start bombing, you hit a bottom where you’re like, “It can’t get any worse than this. I might say this terrible thing I’ve never said before!” And that turns out to be a really funny thing.

Do you find creating content for a nightly show to be a stressful job?

Maybe when I first started, I felt more pressure. I think now it’s like, I’ve gotten into such a routine with it that it feels like a day-to-day kind of thing. I’ve also learned I need to take a day off every once and a while to let my mind rest. It’s really good to have to go somewhere and write when you don’t want to write—that’s an important thing to learn and be able to do. When I first started, it took me a while to figure out how to write for myself, as well as for someone else. There were a couple of months where I wasn’t coming up with any new jokes, and then all of a sudden I was able to. I was actually a little scared at first, but then I got better at balancing. Sometimes on a Saturday, I won’t do anything.

In a typical week, do you have a very rigid schedule, or is it more what you’re feeling in the moment?

We have a very set schedule at the show; we have a couple deadlines throughout the day. We have a sketch meeting in the morning. We have a couple of monologue deadlines, a monologue meeting, a monologue rehearsal. My schedule is set, but at the same time, if there’s something we didn’t plan on doing that day, it could all be thrown off, which happens often. And I like both of those things. I like that there’s a set schedule, but I also like the spontaneity.

Do you think you thrive under pressure?

I think I don’t like down time. I’m not good with downtime. When I was in school, I would wait until the night before to write a twenty-page paper, which isn’t the best way to necessarily do everything, but I was just always better at it that way. Whenever I have thirty minutes to write jokes, instead of four hours, I usually write better jokes. I think pressure is my friend.

I think I’m an angry person, so I think a lot of my humor comes from more of a frustrated standpoint than a depressed standpoint.

What does your family think of your comedy? Are there any jokes of yours that you can’t say in front of them?

Only my mom has seen me do standup. I didn’t edit anything for her, but I also don’t have anything that’s particularly salacious. I don’t talk about sex a lot in my set, which is probably the only thing I wouldn’t want my mom to hear. If it was a good joke, I would tell it. They’re all very supportive. I think they’re happy that I have a job now. My mom, before she got married, was a musical theatre performer, so she gets it.

Were you into comedy in general growing up? Were you a class clown?

Growing up, it was mostly SNL I was interested in. And then like, comedy movies. I used to stay up as long as I could on Saturdays to watch SNL, and then normally I fell asleep during Weekend Update because I was too dumb to know that those jokes were funny. A lot of references that a ten-year-old might not know. That was really my only comedy frame of reference. Oh, I guess I watched All That too.

A lot of people say that comedians are depressed people, or that comedy comes from a place of sadness. Is that true for you?

I don’t know. I like being fun and silly and making people laugh. I feel like everyone is a certain amount of depressed, but there are people who live in it. I spend a ton of time alone, so I have a ton of time to be aware of when I feel depressed. I think it does allow me to see things from a different perspective. I don’t like to operate on a basis of sadness, but I think being on stage makes me both happy and unhappy sometimes. Sometimes that’s when I think of a really good joke, and then it’s good because that makes me happy again. I think I’m an angry person, so I think a lot of my humor comes from more of a frustrated standpoint than a depressed standpoint.

How has comedy affected your mental health in general?

I think it’s really helped. I didn’t really know who I was before I started comedy, and now I’ve figured it out, and am still figuring it out, but I’m much better at it. I know that it’s okay to have opinions, and it’s good for me to express my opinions and my thoughts. It also makes me feel good that now I have something; I’m working in standup, and I have a writing job, and it’s like, “I wish I hadn’t needed that to feel validated, but now I feel validated.” It’s not just like some silly dream I’m going after.