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A Semi-Objective Data Analysis of Michelle Wolf’s Speech

The comedian’s speech wasn’t only targeted at Trump’s administration

John Knox
John Knox
May 1, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix

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Like Michelle Wolf, I will skip the pleasantries. There are widely varying opinions about how her remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) went over, how appropriate they were, how funny they were, and even what they were — since basing opinions on direct experience is so not what we do in the 21st century.

I am a scientist by day and a data nerd pretty much all the time. I am even a once-published sabermetrician (that stuff Nate Silver did before politics), in addition to having published over 50 peer-reviewed articles in my discipline of the atmospheric sciences.

So when I saw social media explode over Michelle Wolf, my response was: can we quantify what just happened at that dinner and at least partly resolve the vast differences of opinion about Wolf’s speech?

To this end, I watched the video of Wolf’s speech that C-SPAN uploaded to YouTube several times and created an Excel spreadsheet of her jokes. This is partly subjective, because where does one joke end and another begin? I eventually came up with a list of 52 jokes that she made, from “Let’s get this over with” to her a-joke-but-don’t-laugh Flint water comment that ended her speech some 18 minutes and 50 seconds later. (All times listed below are from the complete YouTube video, indexed from the beginning of the video, not the beginning of her speech.)

Without further ado, here are the results of my analysis:

Jokes By Subject Matter (some were two-fers; top 10 only)

  1. Trump(s): 38.5%
  2. (Three-way tie): Trump associates; mainstream media; and #MeToo/gender equity, all three at 28.8%
  3. Wolf herself: 13.5%
  4. Right-wing media: 11.5%
  5. (Two-way tie): Other GOP leaders; and race/immigration: 9.6%
  6. Democrats: 7.7%
  7. Corporations: 5.8%

To the extent that I have binned and counted accurately, this analysis rebuts some of the claims or insinuations that Wolf targeted only the Trump administration. While the President and his family led the way, that’s not unexpected for a speech at this dinner. The mainstream media received almost as many barbs, and the media in toto took more hits than the Trumps. The data indirectly support the notion that part of the negative reaction to Wolf’s speech was in fact the focus her words put on the complicity of the mainstream media.

Audience Reaction to Wolf’s Speech

I liked a lot of Wolf’s speech (see below). My wife Pam, who has much less tolerance for that kind of humor, didn’t so much. So I had both of us listen to the C-SPAN recording (not watch, but listen) and rate the WHCD audience’s reaction to Wolf’s jokes, one by one. We negotiated a bit, because frankly it’s hard to separate one’s own reaction to a joke from the audience’s reaction. This isn’t an exact science, but it’s a starting point for semi-objective data. The results:

  • Fall-down laughing reaction: 0.0% of jokes
  • Solid laughter: 50.0%
  • Shock, not really positive or negative: 19.2%
  • Negative response: 19.2%

Some jokes got a double count — laughter and shock — and some jokes got nothing because the reaction was so muted. (We avoided the whole Likert scale problem of the neutral response by omitting that category.) This count is probably weighted a little toward the negative end, because Pam and I gave half-credit to some laughter that was weak, but we gave full credit to negative responses. The theory here: a few boos in what you’d like to think is a polite setting go a long way. The default for an after-dinner speech should be polite laughter.

Even so, our imperfect assessment of the C-SPAN audio track was that Wolf got solid laughter about half the time. She was not received by the audience as “unfunny,” which is a claim I have seen made on social media… by people who did not watch the C-SPAN video! She didn’t exactly hit it out of the park, either, with a fairly consistent string of what we counted as negative audience reactions from the 10:30 mark (the Starbucks joke) to the 14:50 mark (the last Sarah Huckabee Sanders joke).

A small part of what hurt the audience reaction to Wolf was her delivery. This is very difficult to admit, but Donald Trump actually correctly identified a problem with her speech in one of his tweets. At 10:38 pm on April 29, the President tweeted that “the filthy ‘comedian’ [sic]… couldn’t even deliver her lines…” I kept a count of the number of times Wolf laughed through her joke or stumbled on wording. It was a surprisingly high 48.1% (with three two-fers included). The speech might have generated a little more positive response with more dead-pan delivery. Then again, only those who have given a WHCD speech that eviscerated the President of the United States and his staff, some of them to their faces, should cast the first stone.

My Own Reaction

The angry reader may think, because I’m a white male who somehow just agreed with Trump, that I hated Michelle Wolf’s speech. I loved it, on the whole. My own politics are best described as “Wisconsin Progressive,” in the tradition from the La Follettes to Russ Feingold. I financially supported Feingold in every one of his Senatorial campaigns from 1992 to 2016. But as a scientist and data nerd, I try to call ’em as I sees ’em.

I tabulated my own reaction to each of Wolf’s 52 (or so) jokes. Here are those results, for what it’s worth:

  • Hilarious (something to repeat to friends or on social media): 28.8%
  • Funny (solid ha ha, but not dying to share): 48.1%
  • Not Funny (didn’t work for me, or was factual and not also funny): 19.2%
  • Edgy (hilarious, funny or not, it’s close to the line of acceptability for me but good-to-go): 42.3%
  • Over the Line (hilarious, funny or not, it’s something I just wouldn’t say): 13.5%

Your results will vary widely, and that’s A-OK — this is America! For me and me only, the speech hit its roughest patch (from 10:41 to 12:42) not with the Huckabee jokes but before that, with the McConnell-to-Kellyanne jokes. But it soared near the end with one hilarious-to-me zinger after another, from the CNN joke immediately following “Aunt Coulter” all the way to the oft-shared-on-social-media “obsession” joke highlighting the complicity of the mainstream news media with the ascension of Trump. On my scorecard, Wolf closed strong — but that’s not how industry leaders in the news business probably saw it!

De gustibus non est disputandum, of course. But to the extent that Wolf tried to refocus (what has been) a cozy little gathering of lapdogs and Presidents on the dispossessed — from abused women to the residents of Flint — it is personally troubling to me to see the corporate news media’s reaction. They were called out for comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, if only by ‘forgetting’ to report on anything other than “three topics… Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel of four people that remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving.” As the brother, son, grandson, nephew, and cousin of journalists, I would hope for more self-reflection from the Fourth Estate.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s potentially more useful is the more objective data gathered above. Opinions aside, Wolf’s speech was not solely aimed at Trump, nor was it received without laughter. It was indisputably an edgy speech that generated audience discomfort. If you don’t agree with my data, do your own analysis. Our results are likely to converge toward agreement, even if we don’t.

One final thought: why should this speech be a problem in a robust democracy? “That, detective, is the right question.”

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