Ali Wong started performing stand-up in San Francisco slightly over a decade ago. In that time she’s taken two noteworthy breaks: the first, for two weeks during her honeymoon five years ago; the latter, for six weeks after giving birth to her daughter this past November. She passed a number of other milestones in those ten years, moving to Los Angeles, nailing roles on NBC’s Are You There, Chelsea? and ABC’s Black Box, and landing her current gig as a writer for Fresh Off the Boat. She got married, was named one of Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch,” and in September recorded her first special—while seven months pregnant. Now she’s back to performing at least four nights a week, down from her usual five. Baby Cobra, which Netflix released today, is more than the product of a carefully honed craft. It is an unusual portrait of transition: from young adulthood to adulthood, single life to marriage, marriage into motherhood. It is also the first network special to feature a deeply pregnant comedian, which is not a gimmick but a very practical undertaking. Wong refuses to slow down for the simple reason that slowing down, especially for a woman and mother in Hollywood, is the first step in a long fade to obscurity.
And yet obscurity is not without its appeal. Baby Cobra’s funniest moments—and there are many to choose from—find Wong dissecting the glittering allure of domestic life. In the five years she and her husband have been married, she jokes, she’s packed his lunch every day. “I did that so he’d become dependent on me,” she says. “‘Cause he graduated from Harvard Business School, and I don’t want to work anymore.” This is a rather un-feminist position, though probably not an unpopular one, and she expresses it with characteristic bluntness: “I don’t want to lean in, okay? I want to lie down. I want to lie the fuck down. I think feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women—our job used to be no job. We had it so good!”
Wong’s talent is in distilling such unpalatable tensions into tightly wound, crystalline jokes. Clearly she does want to work—she’s standing onstage in her third trimester after performing virtually every night for ten years. But her yearning for a life outside the grind of stand-up comedy is palpable and resonant. The question she asks without asking is why: do we work so hard so we can keep working, or so we can stop? Many of her anecdotes deal with how bittersweet getting what you want can be—pursuing her husband for his earning potential, only to find herself paying off his $70,000 in debt; trying desperately to conceive, then miscarrying twins. This is sad and existential material, but the magic of Wong’s performance is that it never feels heady or depressing; she has a controlled energy that moves breezily between the serious and the silly, often within a single story. “Don’t feel bad,” she says in that bit about her miscarriage. “They were the size of poppy seeds. I’ve picked boogers larger than the twins that I lost.”
The darkness in Baby Cobra is softened by the looming optimism of her pregnancy, but even this is a complicated subject. In one of the hour’s more fascinating segments, Wong says that many of her friends in comedy—women whom she describes as more successful and famous than her—discouraged her from having a kid. Their concern, she told me in a recent interview, was that motherhood would mean the end of her career. “It’s very rare that stand-up comics have kids,” she said, “because once they do, they stop doing stand-up. Because it’s so tiring to take care of the kid that at night you don’t want to do a shitty set in front of ten people, where they pay you in a sandwich or a cookie or an alcoholic beverage… but the thing is, you have to do those shitty shows to keep growing your material. And I think when stand-up comics take a break, you’ll get stale. And then you’re just kind of out of the game.” This disproportionately affects mothers over fathers, as she explains in Baby Cobra:
Once they have a baby, they’ll get up onstage a week after and be like, ‘Guys, I just had a fucking baby, that baby’s a little piece of shit, it’s so annoying and boring!’ And all these other shitty dads in the audience are like ‘That’s hilarious! I identify!’ And their fame just swells, because they’ve become this relatable family funnyman all of a sudden. Meanwhile the mom is at home chapping her nipples, feeding the fucking baby and wearing a frozen diaper because her pussy needs to heal from the baby’s head shredding it up. She’s busy!
As much as she might long for the idealized life of a high-powered housewife (“I want to be like a Wendy Murdoch or a Georgina Chapman,” she clarified), Wong wants to be a great comedian. Hence the relatively brief maternity leave, which would have been shorter if that were physically possible. “I just couldn’t be away from her. Emotionally, yes, I could, but physically—because I chose to breastfeed—I couldn’t be away from her. And I had a C-section, so I couldn’t drive. Or laugh, for a while.”
Now that the baby has a regular bedtime—eight o’clock—and Wong can resume the demanding life of a stand-up, she’s found that motherhood has already affected her comedy. “I’m probably a lot more excited about the jokes that I’m doing,” she said. “I feel like I have the same point of view—it’s still me. But I used to do a lot of jokes about dating and sucking dick. And I don’t do jokes about that anymore because I don’t date, I don’t suck dick. All of that rawness and honesty is now more applied to the reality of what it’s like to be a new mom.”
We’ll have to wait until her next special to hear more about that reality. Until then, Baby Cobra is the most and best Ali Wong you’ll find in one place—bold, bawdy, deceptively wise, and seven freakin’ months pregnant. How about that.
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.