Netflix have spent a lot of money on their original content strategy, with particular attention paid to the field of stand-up exclusives. Big names like Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle received multi-million dollar cheques for show that failed to live up to lofty expectations. Meanwhile, it is figures like Ali Wong who are reminding audiences why paying their monthly subscription fee is worth it.
In 2016, Wong’s stand-up special debut, Baby Cobra, received massive amounts of acclaim and audience attention. The former writer for ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat offered a laugh-filled hour of visceral gags on everything from marriage to miscarriage to the dream of being a trophy wife. In a display of what New Yorker writer Ariel Levy called ‘radical raunch’, Wong offered a warts and all reveal that shocked in the best possible ways. That she did it while seven and a half months pregnant was simply another display of her impressive appeal.
In her sophomore effort, Hard Knock Wife, Wong is heavily pregnant again. Yet it is never discussed or joked about in the special. Rather, it’s another reminder that hey, pregnant women can do everything that anyone else can do. Much of Hard Knock Wife is about the crushing realities of having created a small human who now relies on you for food, comfort, and basic survival. Your body betrays you in appalling ways while the world insists the experience must be serene and stress-free. Jokes about the agony of breastfeeding and C-sections make for some of Wong’s best material, as her semi-shriek delivery hammers home the indignity of adult nappies, clogged milk ducts, and having a baby latch onto your nipples like the bear attacking Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
Motherhood jokes aren’t new, nor are ones about one’s slutty 20-somethings and the difficulties of marriage. Wong knows this, and manages to breathe fresh life into the familiar with a razor-sharp mix of crudeness, no-holds-barred honesty, and sheer anger at the system. An inspired rant in favour of maternity leave highlights the ways in which new mothers are forced to manage the impossible while dealing with the grossest aspects of their changing bodies.
The crux of Baby Cobra was Wong’s professed desire to become a housewife whose rich Harvard Business School-educated husband would ensure her a future of pleasant brunches and no responsibilities. Now, she shares what actually happened: Her fame has made her the breadwinner, and several weeks alone at home with a small child has left her running for the door. There’s no glowing harmony in new motherhood, and while Wong is obviously not the harpy she embodies on stage, there’s brutal honesty in her examination of how shitty the expectations are on new mothers. The double-standards for new mothers and fathers provides some of the show’s heartiest laughs. When confessing her irritation with the age-old question of ‘how do you balance family and career’, she responds ‘Men never get asked that question. Because they don’t.’
Plenty of male comedians have made jokes about their kids and how much they suck, as Wong pointed out in her last stand-up special, but it’s Wong whose jokes feel most vibrant and relevant because she details the work of parenthood, or rather, the work of motherhood. She must do every mundane, exhausting, and demoralizing aspect of the job - unpaid because Americans don’t get maternity leave - with no thanks, while her husband can occasionally change a nappy and be declared the world’s greatest dad. All these jokes are great, and Wong’s specific niche is one that only she could pull off with such aplomb. She’ll take a joke down a familiar route - still very funny all the way - then subvert it at the last minute for maximum effect, like when she talks about how she’s queried on who’s looking after the baby while she works. Yet it also reminds us of how unusual her mere status as a heavily pregnant woman on-stage doing-comedy is. Why should she have to disappear, just because she’s got a bump and constantly needs to pee? Besides, being a mother has provided Wong with some amazing comedy material.
Baby Cobra brought Wong a new level of fame she had never anticipated, including inspiring Halloween costumes, but the prospect of celebrity brings her no joy. It impedes her ability to haggle down the prices of Craigslist items, and now people expect her to work harder. Her riffs on career success tie perfectly into the sardonic heart of Baby Cobra, where she talked of her work-free fantasies and trapping a husband to provide for her. She’s still a trophy wife at heart, even if she has no desire to be a trophy (‘All I ever wanted was more money for less effort’).
Wong is arguably the first stand-up star of the Netflix age, in that she was the first major comedian to have been ‘discovered’ by audiences through the streaming service. That gave Hard Knock Wife a lot to live up to, but Wong proves with ease that she’s one of the best comedians working today. Understandably, Wong is hesitant to let mother jokes define her career, but when the work is this good, why stop now? The painful hilarity of motherhood is, as they say, neverending.
(Image courtesy of Netflix)