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Opinion | Ali Wong transforms pain to power

  • Stand-up comic Ali Wong’s radical, performances are about universal truths about sex, love, dating and motherhood
  • Wong has starred in two Netflix stand-up specials, as well as a Netflix movie, Always Be My Maybe

Ali Wong performs her stand-up comedy special ‘Hard Knock Wife’.
Ali Wong performs her stand-up comedy special ‘Hard Knock Wife’. (Photo: Courtesy Netflix)

When I first saw Ali Wong rearing her hood to share universal truths about sex, love, dating, pregnancy and motherhood in Baby Cobra, her 2016 Netflix stand-up special (and also the title of her favourite yoga pose), I fell instantly in love. Nobody describes it better than Justin Hakuta (who, in an afterword in Wong’s new book, shares his first experience of watching her on stage): “…I felt like I had been hit with a bulldozer of raunchy joy." Wong invited him to watch her on stage shortly after they first met because “I liked to get the message that I was an untameable spirit out right away".

They were married by the time Wong performed Baby Cobra, seven months pregnant and clad in a form-fitting, $8 (around 570) black and white H&M dress that showed off her baby bump, as she moved stealthily across the stage in red ballet flats, quietly tracking the audience before leaning forward and spitting her jokes on target. She even spilled about the miscarriage she had suffered three months before this pregnancy.

In her shows, Wong helpfully provides visceral details of her encounters with bodily fluids/discharges and pleasuring a certain orifice common to both men and women. She drenches her jokes in afterbirth, breast milk, diarrhoea and profanities—at times co-opting her body to graphically demonstrate what she is saying. Critics, predictably, often use the word “filthy" to describe her work.

Now, after a second Netflix show, Hard Knock Wife, and a Netflix movie, Always Be My Maybe, her memoir, Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice For Living Your Best Life, written ostensibly for her daughters Mari and Nikki, is out. “Your body is a well-stocked arsenal of goos and liquids—don’t be afraid to use it," she advises them at one point.

In his afterword, Hakuta explains how it feels to be Wong’s muse, i.e. the favourite subject of her jokes. Mostly good, he says, except for the one time he watched her perform sandwiched between his parents. I understand that because I once tried—and failed miserably—to make my mother-in-law share my love for Wong.

But Hakuta, better than anyone else, gets the importance of Wong’s “radical raunch", as The New Yorker once described it. “Asian cultures often teach us to be silent about our sexuality and filled with shame. Your mother breaks that up and transmutes pain and shame into power, like a mystical priestess." He compares the way Wong “viciously dissects" everything to “supercharged pressure water" that instantly clears a lifetime of grime off our most tightly held assumptions. In her book, Wong, in turn, offers enough evidence that “Mr Wong", as he is often mistakenly addressed, is a “true feminist husband".

Wong’s stage is a feminist locker room where you are freed from the shackles of politeness and restraint, a place where no woman has to “vomit softly", as she was once instructed to at the hospital. “That’s like telling someone to shit perfume," she says in her book.

The book may have been written as something for her daughters to remember her by, but it holds enough lessons for anyone struggling to make sense of life, love and work. Wong says she got over her writer’s block once she embraced her preference for words such as “doo-doo", “caca" and “punani" over fancy words such as “facetious" or “effusive".

She met Hakuta at a wedding where he was the only other Asian person in a sea of Jewish invitees and where the fresh fruit cocktails “tasted like decorative pillows from Anthropologie". They skipped the fancy wedding and got married in court. They hit peak intimacy when he saw her spleen, intestines and “all the other guts down there" during the delivery of her first daughter.

Wong’s advice on how to have the perfect wedding is something every starry-eyed girl needs to read. Some tips: Go the registered route, never have a destination wedding, chill out, invite only close family and one best friend each and make everyone offer a toast.

Another chapter on why she went back to work is required reading too. If you are uncomfortable with profanity, you will need to skip straight to her take on how to tell if a restaurant serves authentic Asian food.

Wong’s brutally honest take on universal truths resonates with all, but her sensibility is fiercely Asian. If you have tracked her work, you know she thinks Asian men are underrated. “Asian men have no body odour. They just smell like responsibility. That’s where the umami flavour comes from," she says in Baby Cobra. In her book and shows, she lists other advantages: their lack of body hair; their cheekbones; the fact that you can be racist together; and you don’t have to “act like a smiling tour guide for Asian American culture or deal with dietary differences".

She has lots to say on her Asian upbringing and parents too. “Sometimes I feel like a lot of my motivation comes from a need to prove to my parents that they should be gladder they had me," she says. Wong wants her daughters to move away from their family as soon as they possibly can because only then will they be the persons they were meant to be.

Some of the most poignant parts of the book are her struggles to make it on the stand-up circuit. The most difficult part is not getting on stage in front of strangers and then bombing (once with her hero Eddie Murphy in the audience), she says. “It’s everything else surrounding it that’s so difficult. The road. Traveling. Spending hours on the Internet to book the cheapest flights possible… Fending off creepy-ass men. Steering clear of your idols and funny colleagues who you’ve learned tend to sexually harass women." Safety is the main reason there aren’t more female stand-up comics, she believes.

“Females are just as funny, if not funnier, and definitely quirkier, than men, especially in everyday life," she says, adding elsewhere that “convincing an audience that a person who looks like me could be funny, and proving to them that I belonged onstage, was a steep uphill battle." Nobody can challenge that now.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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