Of miscarriages and motherhood: Comedian Ali Wong's Netflix special 'Baby Cobra'
In her new Netflix special, "Baby Cobra," Wong tackles sex, bodily functions, miscarriage and the "woes" of feminism.
No topic is off limits for stand-up comedian Ali Wong.
In her new Netflix special, "Baby Cobra," Wong tackles everything from bodily functions to specific sex acts to the woes of feminism. As if her brash style weren’t enough to set her apart from other comics, Wong, who's also a writer on the ABC series "Fresh Off The Boat," decided to tape her special when she was more than seven months pregnant.
Since shooting the special, Wong gave birth to her first child, a daughter. When she stopped by The Frame, she chatted about how she’s balancing her stand-up career with her new gig as a mom:
Getting back into sets at night in L.A. locally wasn't super hard. But going on the road is damn near impossible for the first year because I chose to breastfeed. I've pumped on a plane and it was... not joyous. Pumping sucks. Especially on a plane, mid-air, when you're seated between two huge dudes who look like they farted for a living. It's terrible! If I go on the road, I don't want to have to pump every three hours and finding places to pump. It sucks. So I'll have to probably stay home for the most part for the first year. Which is fine and I'm happy to be with her, but that part is really challenging.
I want to ask a little about the special itself and how important a special on any channel like Netflix is to a comedian. Is this something you've been thinking about and wanting to do from the very beginning of doing comedy?
Yeah, I always wanted to do a special. A lot of comics will say that the thing about specials now is that they're not special anymore. Because there are so many of them and they come and go and they're not really talked about. They just kind of come and go. There's an oversaturated market and people do them really fast! Some people do specials like when they've only been doing comedy for three years or something. Which is fine! But I'm kind of old fashioned and I knew that I didn't want to do one too early. I didn't want to do one unless I had been doing it for ten years at least because all the comics that I like the most have been doing it for at least ten years plus. They've just really honed the craft more.
So there are jokes that you find funny and there are jokes that your audience finds funny. How much do they overlap?
I find that there's a match probably three percent of the time. So that's why I go out a lot and keep testing stuff. I mean, I will to this day do pretty much any show that anybody asks me to do. And I'm surprised that I haven't gotten abducted or kidnapped. People will be like ,"Hey, I have this show..." They're so sketchy! Or like these email are like, "Hey, Ali. I have this show in my living room and we get a good crowd of like 35 people and we have free pizza..." I'm like what the hell? I'm a 34-year-old, grown-ass woman and I write on a network TV show. I'm performing for pizza but I'm not performing for pizza. That stage time is so valuable for me and that anonymity in the audience too where I can just be free to say whatever I want, be judged as a bad comic. I don't care if those 35 people leave and are like she is so bad. It doesn't matter.
A large part of your act is focused on your own body and sex. When did that become a big part of your act and how did it become a big part?
It became a big part right away. I think I went through puberty really late in life or something. I always looked like a little, sad, Thai boy up until I was 26. I was so boisterous in high-school I don't think a lot of boys liked me that much 'cause they were like, "Oh, she's so loud and so crazy." But then this thing happens in your late twenties and guys begin to take note of women's personalities more or something. All the sudden I was dating and going out with all these guys and so horny and so excited and my chest grew a little bit more. Then I just wanted to talk about it all the time. That's just what happened [laughing]. And I started talking about it on stage and people seemed to like it and then I just kept wanting to talk about it more and more.
Something that you talk about in your act that's really not talked about at all is having a miscarriage. Tell us about that.
Last year I had a miscarriage. It's super common and I wish more women would talk about it so they wouldn't feel so bad when they go through it. When I told my mom (she's from a third-world country) She was like, uh yeah. Where I'm from that's like losing a pair of shoes.
The audience probably doesn't know how to react to this. Can you talk about the evolution of that bit and testing it out and how that joke came about?
Yeah. I started joking about my miscarriage immediately after having it. I think the day after. Publicly. It was not working and Laurie Kilmartin who's a great comic and also a mom told me, I think people need to know that you're OK in order for the joke to work. What I took from that was either I have to be pregnant, like pretty far along, or had my kid already in order to talk about it. Otherwise, people feel too sad and that it's too dark if I just had a miscarriage and hadn't bounced back from it.
I just kept on doing it though and eventually it started to work. You know, it's such a small part of the special. The special has only aired on Friday and there's been an outpouring of women who've come out to me and been like, I had a miscarriage too. Thank you so much! I hate suffering in silence. I guess when you tell people you had a miscarriage you feel like you're burdening them with the information and you don't want to. I think a lot of women have to live with that by themselves in silence and it sucks because they know or they worry that people might jump to the conclusion that it's their fault. It's a part of the journey that I had with getting pregnant which is all what this special was about so it was important for me to include it in there.
Was it just happenstance that you ended up making the special while you were seven and a half months pregnant. Were you trying to line it up?
I lined it up on purpose, yeah. You know, I think a lot of times when a woman gets pregnant, it's seen as a liability. It's seen as a career killer. I had a lot of anxiety about that because I loved stand-up so much and I didn't want to associate my daughter with a career killer. So instead I said, if I plan on doing this special when I'm pregnant then I will always have this memory of her and I being on stage together doing something that was hopefully a new beginning in my career.
Do audiences get the fact that the character that you're playing on stage isn't really yourself? That your performance includes the lines that how feminism is the worst thing that happened to women, I wanna marry for money, I don't want to have to work, etc. Does the audience get that?
I have an experience maybe a couple times where a woman walked out because she was so offended. She wore some crazy public radio glasses, had a mustache and her NPR tote and was not having any of it. I was like, lady, just wait till the end! She didn't get it. There was another lady like that who walked out and was very offended, but I think for the most part, feminists are smart and they are ultimately all about empowering women and so they ultimately get it.
Do you remember your first open mic night or going on stage in front of an audience and what that meant to you and why you decided you wanted to do it more?
This might have been the first open mic I did, it might not: There's this place in San Francisco called the Brainwash Cafe and it's south of Market. It was so skeezy back in the day. I don't know what it's like now 'cause San Francisco has turned into one big Apple computer. So many boulangeries and pilates places and juiceries. But there's this place, the Brainwash Cafe, that was a laundromat cafe and you would get there at like 4 p.m. to sign up on the list and you'd get three minutes. If it was your first time you'd tell the host it was your first time and they would clap and everybody would give you a lot more encouragement. I knew I wanted to do it for a long time and it was just that day that I finally had the guts to go and finally do it. Since then besides my honeymoon and recovering from the C-section, I've been performing pretty much every day, every other day, since. I rarely take breaks longer than three days since I started, 11 years ago.