The standup behind Baby Cobra found fame with her candid material on sex and pregnancy. Back with a memoir, she talks about her work ethic, the taboo of miscarriage and performing in front of her in-laws
In her memoir, written as letters to her two young daughters, Ali Wong tells them she would be worried if they wanted to become standup comics like her. Wong, who slogged it out on the open-mic circuit, presents a grim account of life on the road: dying onstage, bad food, bad men. She did it for more than a decade before becoming a star seemingly overnight with her first Netflix special, performed while seven-and-a-half months pregnant. Did she ever consider giving up? There were times when I thought to myself: I really dont know if I can do this for the rest of my life, she says on the phone from her home in LA. You know, staying at those motels, getting paid that little amount of money. Im certain I would not have endured. I couldnt. Especially after having kids.
Luckily for Wong, she didnt have to; instead, her career blew up. In 2016, Netflix launched her special, Baby Cobra, and she has since had a second, Hard Knock Wife. She has also co-written and starred in a romantic comedy film, Always Be My Maybe; had her two children; and published Dear Girls, the memoir written for them. Her tours sell out and her peers rave about her (Amy Schumer calls her revolutionary, Chris Rock championed her). Its been an unbelievable three years, she says with some understatement.
Offstage, she seems softer and more laid-back than her fierce and foul-mouthed standup persona. In the book, she recalls starting out: I was very dirty back then. Even now, Ill look back on those days and think: God, you were disgusting. Which is very funny if you have seen any of Wongs comedy, because you will know how filthy she is now. In Baby Cobra, there are gags about anal sex and vaginal secretions; in Hard Knock Wife, there are jokes about the things she would like to do to their nanny if he was 25, male and not ugly.
When Wong first performed comedy, she was repeatedly told it was all too much. All of these people in the industry kept on telling me: Youre likable and youre cute, or whatever, but the jokes are really dirty and youd get booked a lot more, and youd be a lot more appealing if they were clean, she says. Maybe people were half-laughing, half-cringing at my jokes. But if youre successful, people should be too busy laughing to cringe. Her jokes may not have got cleaner, but they did get better.
Even now, she says people (men) told her that her material on childbirth and breastfeeding, which made it into her second special, wasnt interesting enough. There was one guy who said: It was so much better when you were talking about dating because people cant relate to breastfeeding, she says. But its all I wanted to talk about. Thats kind of the whole point for me with standup, that this is not a network TV sitcom where I have to appeal to everyone. She pauses for a split second: I ignored that advice.
Wong is not the first female comic to tell dirty jokes, or talk about sex, but what does feel unusual is her insistence on busting the idea that at the raw, biological level, women arent every bit as revolting as men. Why is it still so taboo for women to talk about bodily functions and all the fluids and secretions that ooze out of us? I was raised to be very open about my body, she says. Her father was a doctor, and she says her parents were always very straight with her about everything, from sex to the nonexistence of Santa Claus. She thinks for a moment about the question of taboo. Maybe its because women feel they want to maintain some mystery that theyre not gross, to be more attractive or something. For me its all part of intimacy. Thats how I define intimacy living closer and being more honest, closer to what your real desires are and its exciting.
Her parents have been to her shows. Worse, so have her in-laws. (She is married to Justin Hakuta, who worked for a tech company but gave it up to support her career.) That was nerve-racking. I was much less polished then and I think I talked about Japanese porn and how they blur out the genitals, and I did an imitation of a Japanese porn star screaming. That was pretty wild. But they were really supportive.
I wonder if she is unembarrassable (there are jokes about defecating at work and her promiscuity during her 20s). No. For sure, no. Ill give you an example. She says that the other day, she and Randall Park, her friend and co-star in Always Be My Maybe, were guest judges on the TV show Top Chef. I saw his face sort of scrunch up and I was like: Oh my God, Im so sorry, I think I accidentally farted. He moved his chair away from me and he was laughing hysterically, too. It smelled so bad and I was so embarrassed. She laughs: Im definitely embarrassable.
When she had a miscarriage, which she talked about in her first Netflix show, one of her emotions was embarrassment. I felt a lot of things. I felt sad, but then when I had to tell everybody the news it was something She pauses. Embarrassment is when you wish you didnt have to tell somebody something, and it wasnt something I really wanted to share with everybody but I had to because I had bragged that I was pregnant. There was a huge reaction to Wong talking about her miscarriage at the time. It was very taboo for women to talk about miscarriage and it still kind of is. Still to this day, people walk up to me on the street, thanking me for making them feel less embarrassed, less ashamed and less sad about having a miscarriage.