If you want laughs, there are two vociferously different but still connected comedy specials you can enjoy this weekend. Both are blisteringly funny and both are strange journeys into vulgarity. One is from Michelle Wolf, who is 34 years old. The other is from Mel Brooks, who is 93.
Michelle Wolf: Joke Show (streaming on Netflix) is, in format, a straightforward stand-up special. It’s called Joke Show because Wolf has decided to leave the politics of the Trump period behind. She can hardly be blamed.
Her scathing White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech last year made her a target. After she joked that she loved Sarah Huckabee Sanders as the character Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, and then sarcastically commended Sanders for her makeup, “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye,” Wolf was both castigated and praised.
It was a classic Trump-era incident, with Wolf the defiant casualty in a culture-wars skirmish. The incident became mystifying as commentators who loathe the Trump administration attacked Wolf for going too far, and praised Sanders for being dignified.
As she says in this special, she was never a political comedian. She was hired for that gig because she was funny and vulgar. If anyone expected her to be tame, they were delusional. Now she never talks about Trump, she sticks to coarse, scatological material. And she’s very, very good at it.
“Women are gross,” Wolf declares early on. She starts with a story about a fan of hers being upset about something to do with otters. Her points out that smart people are sensitive to the point of being dumb. She wants to throw propriety out the window, and does. She launches into a long, breathtaking segment about having her period, vaginal discharge and abortion. She’s determined to be as “icky” (her word) as possible and is open about it. “Don’t you start groaning already,” she yells at the audience. It’s not that she rambles. Her jokes and stories are precise and cutting. She’s aiming to be defiant and achieves it. At one point her lacerating mockery of Millennial do-good philosophy simply stuns the audience. It’s take-no-prisoners comedy and, if you watch, be prepared to have your nerves shredded as you laugh.
Mel Brooks Unwrapped (on-demand on HBO/Crave from Friday 9 p.m.) is a very different production but also rooted in defiance. It’s not a stand-up special. In fact it’s a tricky faux-documentary with the conceit that Alan Yentob of the BBC has been trying to make a program about Brooks for years, but it always goes awry. Thus we see Brooks from 20 or 40 years ago, talking to Yentob and things going sideways. In one bit from years ago he races to his office in L.A. shouting at people to get out of the way, “I have big meetings with important gentiles!”
At the same time there is a lot of Brooks today and an exquisitely funny but poignant visit with Carl Reiner, who is 97. Neither Reiner nor Brooks can resist tomfoolery and things get hilariously surreal as Reiner tells yarns about his youth that might, or might not, be true. Brooks is very funny about the reception he got for The Producers and we are reminded of how Springtime for Hitler took tasteless humour in a new direction.
Brooks in old age is, of course, naturally defiant. He’s still there, sharp and willing to goad Yentob with pitch-black, wickedly funny jokes that seem to come from some parallel world, and then burst out laughing at the reaction.
With Michelle Wolf you can be left in equal parts awed and appalled. With Brooks you are awed by his stamina and the vigour of his humour. No wonder the BBC keeps coming back to him.
Also airing this weekend
The Search: Manufacturing Belief (Sunday, Documentary Channel, 9 p.m.) is Vancouver director Patrick Payne’s vivid and very illuminating drill into questions about spirituality, belief, religion and psychology. Mainly he’s interested in the idea of transcendental awe that can achieved through faith. How is that induced? And is it really about religion and faith? Catholics and former Catholics talk about their acquaintance with that transcendence and scientists and bible scholars seek to explain or rebut.