WASHINGTON – Comedian Ali Wong walks onstage in a gray crew-neck sweatshirt and matching gray sweatpants. The outfit says: Dress for the job you want. I think: She looks more comfortable than I have ever been in my life.
Her stand-up special, “Baby Cobra,” has been on Netflix only for a few months, but it’s already clear that she has a hit on her hands. Within days of its May 6 release, tweets from the likes of Amy Schumer, Marc Maron and Questlove were alerting their millions of followers not to miss these 60 minutes of sharp, vulgar hilarity from a very petite and very pregnant woman.
While shooting the special, Wong was 7 1/2 months along. She squeezed into an $8 H&M minidress and proceeded to rip into people “who don’t have HPV yet” for being “losers.” She went after 18-year-old girls for their “beautiful inner thigh clearance,” which “the light of potential is just radiating through.” She didn’t even acknowledge her baby bump – more of a baby ball at this point – until three-quarters of the way through the show. She was not, as women often can be, made subordinate to her pregnancy; she was sexually explicit and profane and insightful and, by the way, expecting.
On this night in mid-June in front of a sold-out crowd in Washington, with her husband and daughter home in Los Angeles, Wong describes how motherhood is treating her by talking about her infant daughter.
“I’m on the verge of putting her in the garbage,” she tells the audience. Then, in a louder voice, like someone trying to stay calm in an emergency: “I need to get AWAY from her to MISS her, so I don’t go to JAIL.”
The next day, over bite-size chocolates at a Georgetown wine bar, Wong, 34, says she didn’t plan to do her special while pregnant. It was not designed to be this feminist statement about who belongs on stage, or how rare it is for female comics to perform pregnant or that moms-to-be can still talk about having sex. Having sex with white dudes. (“I just feel like I’m absorbing all of that privilege and all of that entitlement.”) Having sex with Asian dudes. (“They’re hairless from the neck down. It’s like having sex with a dolphin.”) Even having sex with homeless dudes. (“I thought they were hipsters, OK? That store Urban Outfitters has made things very confusing for my generation.”)
“A lot of women seem to connect with it,” Wong said of “Baby Cobra.” Women level with each other about their sexual and personal lives, she said, “but it’s kind of in this, ‘Let me grab your wrist and get close to you and look at you and tell you how it really is.’ … I just wanted to bring that energy up onstage.”
Since her daughter was born last November, Wong said, “I talk about [being a mom] a lot now because I feel like I’ve joined this whole new tribe of women that makes up a lot of America. … I’m discovering, and I think other moms are discovering too, that when you become a mom you don’t have to change into this frumpy, wholesome role model that’s perfect and loses all of your identity. You can still have the same personality you’ve always had.”
Wong said she had put off shooting a special for a long time. “I’ve been doing comedy for 11 years, and I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not ready yet.’
“But once I got pregnant, I was like: ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it,’ ” she said. “Also, because I had so much anxiety about having a baby ending my career, I thought, ‘What better way to turn that on its head and associate her with the beginning of a break in my career, maybe, instead of killing it? Instead of the end?’ “
Wong has taken only two breaks from stand-up since she did her first open mic more than a decade ago – for her honeymoon and for her C-section. She never wanted to do any other form of comedy.
“Stand-up is no bureaucracy,” she said. “No one can tell me what to do or not to do.” Improv groups, with their email chains and logistical difficulties, did not appeal. “It was too much standing in between me and comedy.”
With that in mind, maybe it’s not surprising that Wong’s pet peeve with the current state of comedy is that it’s “too nice.”
“The word ‘supportive’ has no place in stand-up comedy,” she said. “I hate when people are like, ‘Support female comedy.’ That’s not a real genre of comedy!” She identifies this behavior as condescension masquerading as camaraderie: “I think if you have true respect for women as three-dimensional creators who are innovative, you wouldn’t group them together like that.”
Netflix, per usual, won’t release viewership numbers of “Baby Cobra.” But if buzz is the only metric you can go by, it seems to be a success. Wong’s live performances that were announced after the special premiered were almost-instant sellouts, which was a first for her.
Before “Baby Cobra,” she said, “I used to go up (onstage) and people would have no expectations. Which was really great in a way, because I had to prove myself, and I think that’s what made it good. Now … I have to decipher, after the show has ended, were they laughing because they were excited to see me or is the joke really 100 percent good?”
Wong is also a writer on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first American sitcom to star an Asian family since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” had its single-season run in the mid-1990s. For Wong’s stand-up, though, she works all her material out onstage.
“I tend to talk in a soft voice … to see if the writing is really good,” she said. She’ll talk about whatever topic intrigues her, “and if there are laughs, then I use a Dictaphone and I listen to everything that was said. If I catch any nuggets, I’ll begin to write those down, and it will begin to take form night after night. It’s like a sculpture you chip away at.”
Running through rough drafts in public has given Wong an unusual barometer for success. “I eat it half the time that I go up. I bomb a lot,” she said. But nailing it for the sake of nailing it – telling the joke she knows will kill because it’s killed a thousand times before – is “not a productive show, to me.”
“The show that goes well for me is when I tested out something new and there’s part of it that works,” Wong said. “Anything where my act is growing.” For this stop in Washington, for instance, Wong isn’t using any of her jokes from “Baby Cobra.” Those bits are, to borrow a term of art she uses to describe stay-at-home moms, retired.
One of the best, and probably most polarizing, jokes in “Baby Cobra” is a riff on women and work.
“I think feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women,” Wong cries. “Our job used to be no job. We had it so good!”
Feminism, she goes on, forced ladies out of a husband-sponsored existence of chilling on the couch watching “Ellen.” And for what? To have to sit at a cubicle and go to the bathroom at an office, where you wipe with that one-ply, disintegrates-in-your-hand toilet paper? “When I hear the phrase ‘dual-income household,’ ” she says, “it makes me want to throw up.”
Both of Wong’s sisters are stay-at-home moms. The bit, she said, came about “because I work really hard … and I’ll call one of my sisters and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ And she’ll say, ‘I’m watching YouTube videos’ or whatever. And I’m so jealous.
“Most people know that I’m joking” about the whole feminism-is-the-worst line, Wong said. “But I think most working women can also identify with the desire to not work anymore and the resentment of having to work.”
Still, “Baby Cobra,” she said, “is a comedy special. It’s not a Ted talk. I’m trying to make people laugh while saying things that I find funny and interesting. That’s it.”
Wong grew up in “a super unconventional family” – Vietnamese mom, Chinese dad, two sisters and a brother who are all 10-plus years her senior – and attended an all-girls school through eighth grade.
“I think it’s a big part of who I am,” she said. “Not having to worry about what boys thought, (that) was a huge burden that we didn’t know about that had been lifted from us, and it was really liberating.”
Classmates “openly joked about our periods” and “would moon each other in PE class”; it fostered the kind of openness that infuses Wong’s stand-up, in which women’s bodies, sexual appetites and insecurities aren’t avoided but get held up to the light for a closer examination.
“We’d have plays where we’d play other genders,” Wong went on. “I was Captain Hook in the sixth grade. And maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in a single-sex school, and maybe that’s (where it) started: You don’t have to be a man to do certain things like play Captain Hook.”
Wong wants to keep doing stand-up until she has an idea for her own TV show and to spend some time with her daughter, to be there for the bedtime routine. And for now, there is living in the surreal fact that “Baby Cobra” has taken off, and what that could mean for what’s next.
“It’s crazy, because people talk about their big break,” Wong said. “It’s so interesting to experience it.”