Ali Wong's Comedy Makes Me Feel Personally Attacked—and I Like It
You don't know how good comedy can make you feel until you see someone who looks like you onstage.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Last year, when my roommate went to see Ali Wong in San Francisco, this was the comedian’s opening line: “Wow, thank you to all the Asian American women of the Bay Area who brought their white boyfriends tonight.” Bits like that are why I love Wong. Her jokes make me, a half-Taiwanese woman with a white boyfriend, feel personally attacked. And I love the feeling.
If you are an Asian American you probably remember the first time comedy made you feel personally attacked, and by this I mean the first time you ever related to comedy. I didn’t think I liked stand-up until a few years ago, when I realized the problem was the lack of comedians who look like me and tell jokes that I “get.” Asian Americans, like most marginalized people, have spent years consuming media that racially profiles or ignores us. We have endured the crusty rhetoric that diverse movies can’t be made because people won’t enjoy media that isn’t centered around them—a rhetoric that assumes the default viewership to be white.
Wong’s biggest onscreen credit is probably as the main character’s friend on the ABC sitcom American Housewife, but she’s amassed an impressive following since her 2016 Netflix special Baby Cobra. She was the first artist to sell out eight shows at San Francisco’s Masonic Theatre, she’s set to star in a Netflix romcom this summer, has a forthcoming book of essays for Random House, and will co-star with Tiffany Haddish and executive produce the upcoming animated show Tuca and Bertie. She’s been profiled everywhere from the New Yorker to the Guardian. In the two years since her first special, she’s gone from a relative unknown to one of the most famous female Asian American comedians in the country—which speaks to how few Asian American women have reached the A-list. (Quick, name one who’s not Margaret Cho or Mindy Kaling.)
But Wong’s greatest triumph extends beyond her personal fame. As the media has made space for her, she has created space for other women of color. She has also made space for female comedians who want to joke about motherhood the same way so many men, perhaps most famously Louis CK, joke about fatherhood. Baby Cobra helped usher in a trend of what we might as well call “momedy,” which has led to other motherhood-centric comedy specials, like Christina Pazsitzky’s Mother Inferior.
In Hard Knock Wife, Wong's new Netflix special—like Baby Cobra, filmed when she was very obviously pregnant—Wong unpacks the double standards of motherhood by leaning into the objectification of the female form in ways the patriarchy never intended, which is to say in ways that are utterly unsexual. She likens the challenges of breastfeeding to parallel parking despite the nurse assuring her she’d have “a particular easy time since [her] nipples look like fingers.” Since giving birth, she tells the crowd, her body has “turned into a cafeteria.” (She calls it “the Giving Tree.”) It’s a reclamation of vulgarity—she slings pussy jokes with a portentousness that is usually reserved for male comics talking about their penises.
Wong also uses this brazenness to unpack the double standards of childcare and gender writ large, opening a bit with, ““I love my baby girl so much, but I’m on the verge of putting her in the garbage.” The riff ends with Wong screaming, “YOU’RE IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT ALL DAY LONG WITH THIS HUMAN TAMAGOTCHI!” The women in the audience are roaring.
At another point, Wong observes that people ask her, “How on earth do you balance family and career?” Her shouted response: “Men never get asked that question because they don’t!”
I love Wong, but I wasn’t enamored with her entire set. She makes some offensive and tired racial jokes, linking an excellent bit about affording a nanny to a joke about Hispanic communities having built-in childcare due to the size of their families. She riffs about the toxic idea that women try to trap men into marriage by delaying sex, but then turns the joke around by sharing the time a man delayed sex “to trap” her because “he had a small dick.” The kicker? “He was black,” a punchline that relies on an obviously gross bit of racial stereotyping.
Wong’s strongest stuff is when she critiques racism she’s suffered as an Asian American woman. A standout bit is about being asked , “What do your parents think?”—shorthand for, Don’t your oppressive Asian parent(s) think poorly of your financially unstable career? This is the part of the set where I start crying, because I get asked this question about my career every time someone learns I’m half-Taiwanese. Then there are the small touches: Wong describes post-birth mesh underwear as the “same material that they package those fancy Korean pears in”—a bit that anyone who has shopped at an Asian grocery store will instantly understand. There is power in this resonance, in hearing a joke made for people who look like us.
Wong’s upcoming TV and Netflix projects—and a stand-up tour set for 2019— disprove the fallacy that a market does not exist for creatives of color. The rocket launch of her success is proof that the problem isn’t that consumers aren’t interested in diversity—it’s that financial gatekeepers aren’t willing to support representation. The entertainment industry needs to wake up to that.
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