The Strategic Mind of Ali Wong
Posted May 5, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — When Ali Wong’s debut special, “Baby Cobra,” had its premiere on Mother’s Day in 2016, very few people outside of the comedy world knew who Wong was, and there was little reason to think this hour or so of jokes would change that. She had trouble selling out shows, and no one submitted the special for Emmy consideration because what would be the point? And while Netflix had an impressive track record of showcasing stand-up stars, it had never made one — until Ali Wong.
“Baby Cobra” presented something new, a pregnant woman in her third trimester delivering a deliriously filthy and funny hour of comedy woven into a sneakily feminist assault on the double standards of parenting. Pioneers like Joan Rivers, who had also performed pregnant, and Roseanne Barr paved the way with biting jokes about motherhood and domesticity, but Wong made maternal comedy seem more glamorous, sexual and overtly political.
She alternated jokes about the injustice of how little is expected of fathers with lustful tributes to the sex appeal of Asian men. “They got no body hair from the neck down,” she says in the special. “It’s like making love to a dolphin.”
Much of the special involves raw descriptions of the nitty-gritty of having a baby, whether it’s the workaday sex to try to get pregnant or a pregnant wife’s peculiar resentment of her husband. When he asks her to help with household chores, her response is: “I’m busy making an eyeball, OK? Are you making a foot? I didn’t think so.”
This hit a nerve with an untapped market, becoming the first breakthrough hit special about parenting from the perspective of a woman, paving the way for a spate of mom comedians and earning Wong a new fan base.
“I can’t tell you how many selfies I’ve gotten asked for at the gynecologist and pediatrician office,” she said. “I should sell tickets there.”
In “Hard Knock Wife,” her follow-up special, which Netflix will release once again on Mother’s Day, she performs pregnant again, with her second child. “It’s very much like a sequel to ‘Baby Cobra,'” she told me in her toy-strewn house, not long after giving birth. “When Chappelle asked me if I was doing another one, he said that’s so cool” that each baby had a special.
But the expectations are different this time, now that she has become the kind of comic who refers to Dave Chappelle as a friendly colleague. With a romantic comedy co-starring Randall Park in the works and a memoir structured as a series of letters to her daughters being published by Random House next year, Wong is about to join the A-list, a club that few women or Asian-American stand-ups are let into. And she’s being very strategic even as she has to deal with child-care and family issues that male superstars in the club don’t have to deal with. It’s a lot to juggle.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that anxiety about success is also a theme of her new work. This is part of the reason she returned to the stage early this year, five weeks after giving birth, against the advice of her doctor. She’s terrified of becoming unfunny. “I’ve seen it happen to people who got famous and seduced by it,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s work ethic or if they’re delusional because the audience loves them so much.”
Two months after giving birth, she slipped out of the house and drove to the Upright Citizens Brigade here to make an unannounced appearance, walking onstage in sweatpants and a puffy jacket to roaring applause. She told a new joke about #MeToo and got a laugh, though she wasn’t sure she could trust it. UCB crowds are notoriously generous. Only after experimenting with that joke 25 more times, she said, would she know if it works.
While she comes off as cerebral and soft-spoken offstage, her jaunty stand-up alter ego has the strutting charisma of a rock star. When she was growing up, her favorite comic was Eddie Murphy and, like him, she isn’t afraid to swagger, preen or grab her crotch.
Wong, who majored in Asian-American studies at UCLA and considered a career in academia before trying and falling in love with stand-up after college, held off for nearly a decade before producing a special. Now 36, she has done two late-night television sets but considers them a bad form for her brand of comedy, so she won’t return. Hard to pigeonhole, her comedy begins with a strong, dynamic stage presence and arguments that take some time to build.
At the UCB, she alternated between a forceful declarative voice and a croaking whisper that reminded Hilary Swank, who was in the audience that night, of her “Million Dollar Baby” co-star Clint Eastwood. Wong talked about being a mother. But she bristled when describing a fellow comic who said pregnancy was becoming her trademark. “Pregnancy is not rainbow suspenders,” she said, exasperated.
After she finished her set to loud applause, Wong drove home, pumped some milk for her baby, went to sleep and woke up at 7 a.m. to breast-feed, while her husband, Justin Hakuta, took care of their 2 1/2-year-old daughter. In her new special, she raises the question of work-life balance and explains her secret. “I have a nanny,” she said. “That’s it.”
It infuriates her that more celebrities do not acknowledge this. “It’s unfair to the hard-core stay-at-home moms to pretend you’re able to have an amazing body by chasing around your kids,” she told me. “I think one of the hardest things to talk about as a comic is having money because it’s so unrelatable. But this is such a big part of my life.”
Now that she’s had some experience as a mother, “Hard Knock Wife” digs deeper into the theme of motherhood than “Baby Cobra” did. But if you were expecting a mellow and mature evolution, think again. She makes jokes about farting, urinating and various sexual acts, but her dirtiest material might be about childbirth. “Giving birth is hard core,” she said at home. “Sex is not dirty. A C-section is dirty.”
She once again takes on the stereotypes that undergird traditional gender roles, skewering the idea that there’s anything threatening about a female breadwinner. “I’m always asked how my husband is feeling about my success with a note of concern,” she told me, with a snap in her voice as if the answer was obvious. “He feels great. It’s not hard to feel good about your spouse making money.” As she has moved from clubs to theaters, Wong has said she modeled her career after Chris Rock’s and Chappelle’s. Like the latter, she makes audiences check their cellphones at the door and never announces when she’s playing clubs. Like Rock, she does some sets very quietly to see how jokes play. After watching his latest special, “Tamborine,” she said that no one was on his level. But what’s interesting is that in that hour, Rock presented another vision of the difference between the sexes, saying that while women are loved unconditionally, men are loved only “under the condition they provide something.”
This dichotomy has been the foundation of countless jokes, and in “Hard Knock Wife,” Wong takes a jackhammer to it. When asked if there’s a generational difference between these two perspectives — Rock is 53 — she agreed. “That’s also speaking to who he is — and there’s a lot of people who can identify with that,” she said, adding that among her friends’ relationships, most of the women make more money than the men.
Growing up in the Bay Area with a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese-American father, Wong was not a comedy nerd, but she vividly remembers her family crowding around the television set in 1994 to watch the premiere of Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family. There hadn’t been another until the current ABC series “Fresh Off the Boat,” for which Wong wrote.
There have been signs of a growing Asian-American comedy audience, said the stand-up Sheng Wang, who points to the success of the popular UCB variety show “Asian AF” in both Los Angeles and New York as well as that of Wong. “Her comedy reaches a huge audience and it doesn’t feel like it’s selling out,” Wang said. “That’s meaningful to this audience.”
When asked why there have been so few Asian stand-up stars, Wong hesitated, avoiding the question. At another point she noted that Asians are stereotyped as not funny, even among other Asians. “They have internalized that their own people are not funny,” she said, adding that some have told her they didn’t think she would be good.
When it comes to her comic sensibility, she pointed to her father. “Asians are known for being obsessed with saving face, but when my dad had to pass gas, he didn’t care,” she said. “In the quietest, most inappropriate places, in a church or a library or during someone’s speech, he would rip it up. It was kind of great comedic timing.”
When her father died around a decade ago, she started thinking about family differently. “Before my dad passed away, I would miss a lot of baby showers and weddings, sacrificed a lot of family and friend events for dumb road dates,” she said. “I don’t do that anymore. It’s gone in the other direction. I’m more inclined to put family and friends first.”
In fact, she is determined to bring her family with her on the road. She has already mapped out a tour this year that revolves around school holidays and has taken a particular interest in how star mother entertainers have managed touring with kids.
“I’ve heard about how Mariah sets up a nursery,” she said. “I like to read about Carrie Underwood touring with her kids on a bus. Nelson George told me how Sade toured. I’d love to be like Sade, but it’s hard when you’re not, well, Sade.”
The first time Wong became pregnant, she confessed, she was so worried that her husband would not love their child that she gave the baby a Japanese first name (her husband is half-Japanese, half-Filipino) and his last name. “There’s not a lot of sign of me in her name," she says, “and I think subconsciously I did that to try and ensure he would love her.”
It’s a notable admission, particularly since at the same time Wong was taping “Baby Cobra,” which sharply attacked how our culture has such low expectations for fathers. But she said that when she gave birth, and father and child bonded so easily, she realized she had gone overboard. “No matter how progressive things get, you can’t fight biology,” she said.
In the new special, she pokes fun at her mother for asking if being the breadwinner would threaten her husband, and in person, she underlined the point. But she also allowed for more nuance.
“I make fun of him a lot,” she said, “but the truth is he’s a VP at a multimillion-dollar tech company.”
At one point, her husband interrupted the interview as he came downstairs. He made small talk but did not linger. After he left the house, Wong said, “Obviously, he doesn’t like talking to journalists.” Then she went quiet. “It’s strange,” she said. “It’s been a really strange transition.”
She said that he had become more open to her talking about their family onstage, but that with her growing profile he had asked to hear jokes that include him at the beginning of the process of working them out, not the end, and he had occasionally vetoed a bit.
“He’s an Asian unicorn; there’s nobody like him,” she said, singing his praises after explaining why there are things more important than comedy. “I have to run jokes by him or I lose my marriage. That’s not worth a cool joke.”