Baby Cobra: The year of the snake

By Jessica Goldstein

Ali Wong has been lauded as the next big thing in comedy, says Jessica Goldstein.
US comedian Ali Wong.
US comedian Ali Wong.

Her stand-up special, Baby Cobra, has been on Netflix for only a few months, but it's already clear 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 months pregnant. 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 that 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 a recent night 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 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 mums-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, Okay? That store Urban Outfitters makes things very confusing.")

"A lot of women seem to connect with it," Wong says of Baby Cobra. Women level with each other about their sexual and personal lives, she says, "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 says, "I talk about [being a mum] 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 mums are discovering too, that when you become a mum you don't have to change into this frumpy, wholesome role model who is perfect and loses all of your identity. You can still have the same personality you've always had."

Wong 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 says. "No one can tell me what to do or not to do." Improv groups, with their email chains and logistical difficulties, did not appeal.

"There 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. I hate when people are like, 'Support female comedy'. That's not a real genre of comedy." She identifies this behaviour 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, as usual, won't release viewership numbers on 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 says, "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 per cent good?"

Wong is also a writer on ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, the first US sitcom to star an Asian family since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl had its single-season run in the mid-90s. 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'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 says. 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 says. "Anything where my act is growing." One of the best, and probably most polarising, 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 mums. That bit, she says, 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 says. "But I think most working women can also identify with the desire not to work any longer and the resentment of having to work."

Still, Baby Cobra, she says, "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."

Watch Baby Cobra, with Ali Wong, on Netflix now.

- Weekend magazine

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 28 Apr 2017 02:24:31 Processing Time: 509ms