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On ‘Hard Knock Wife,’ Ali Wong Inverts Typical Takes on Motherhood

On ‘Hard Knock Wife,’ Ali Wong Inverts Typical Takes on Motherhood
14 May
4:36

“I tried being a stay-at-home mom for eight weeks,” Ali Wong recounts in the opening minutes of Hard Knock Wife, her second hour-long Netflix special. “I liked the stay-at-home part.” The joke is funny on its own, but it’s also a callback to Baby Cobra, Wong’s remarkably cohesive debut. In Baby Cobra, Wong’s stage persona unabashedly sold herself as an aspiring housewife—sample line: “I don’t want to LEAN IN. I want to LIE DOWN”—who, after a debaucherous young adulthood, had successfully “trapped” a Harvard alum, thereby guaranteeing a comfortable life of leisure. That Wong was expressing this wish for kept womanhood via a polished stand-up comedy set well into a pregnancy already hinted at her sincerity, or lack thereof. But then, Wong closed with the perfect stinger: It turned out that her husband was saddled with student debt she was able to pay with money from a TV writing job—so really, “He trapped me.” Stand-up comedy specials are typically a loose grab bag of jokes strung together by some half-hearted transitions. Baby Cobra told a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Hard Knock Wife has something in common with Baby Cobra: At the time of the taping, Wong was very, very pregnant. Hard Knock Wife also has a crucial difference from Baby Cobra: Wong never mentions her pregnancy in the hour itself. Instead, Hard Knock Wife is largely concerned with the aftermath of that first pregnancy—the gnarly, nasty, draining experience of new motherhood, played for laughs. Hard Knock Wife, released Sunday, is a spiritual sequel to Baby Cobra, the specials bound together as dispatches from two transitional stages in Wong’s life: the latter marriage and maturity, the former starting a family. That these life events are at once broadly universal and rarely discussed in stand-up comedy, least of all from a woman’s point of view, helps explain Wong’s status as one of the medium’s most undeniable rising stars.

Hard Knock Wife doesn’t have the advantage of surprise that boosted Baby Cobra, which came out at a time, i.e., just two years ago, when Wong had to resort to Groupon to fill seats at her shows. Wong is now Netflix’s first genuinely homegrown comedic superstar—not poached for millions of dollars like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, but propelled into a new echelon of fame. Baby Cobra became the kind of phenomenon that inspires Halloween costumes, momentum Netflix has since harnessed and accelerated by casting Wong in productions like a romantic comedy opposite Randall Park and an animated series alongside Tiffany Haddish.

Wong is acutely conscious of how graduating to the major leagues has affected her life, an awareness she expresses both on and off the stage. “I’ve seen it happen to people who got famous and seduced by it,” she told The New York Times regarding the terrifying prospect of losing her edge. “I don’t know if it’s work ethic or if they’re delusional because the audience loves them so much.” Hard Knock Wife features a lengthy section where Wong riffs on success, downplaying her desire for it and folding it into her slacker-at-heart reputation: “I have no interest in being famous. All I ever wanted was more money for less effort … play a piece of tofu in a Pixar movie or something.”

But if the main worry of prosperity is that it deprives comics of experiences to pull from—relatable ones, anyway—Wong has the benefit of a rich, wretched, and most importantly, under-discussed fount of material on her hands. “Pregnancy isn’t rainbow suspenders,” Wong remarked to the Times of the superficial resemblance between her two hours. It’s not a gimmick, or a professional decision. The reason Wong filmed Hard Knock Wife with child isn’t because she wanted to replicate the circumstances of her breakout. It’s because she’s good at her job, takes pride in it, and wanted to keep doing it regardless of her personal life. Two years ago I saw Wong do a short set in Los Angeles with an infant at home, where she tested out an early version of the bit that opens Hard Knock Wife: “It’s so sexist when people ask me, ‘Well if you’re here, then who’s taking care of the baby?’ Who the fuck do you think is taking care of the baby? The TV is taking care of the baby!” After giving birth for a second time late last year, Wong started performing again within weeks.

Wong doesn’t want being a mom to define her. Still, parenthood has proved fertile ground for her comedy. The great insight at the heart of Wong’s work is that birth and its aftermath can sound just as filthy and raw as any drunken hookup, because they are. Our cultural stereotype of a mom may be prudish and proper, but what women endure while becoming one is essentially the polar opposite. “Breastfeeding is the savage ritual that reminds you that your body is a cafeteria now,” Wong observes; at various points, she compares the process to the Bellagio fountain, the bear mauling scene in The Revenant, and “if you shit juicy hamburgers.” Wong gets gleefully graphic about the physical impact of childbirth, describing a visit with a friend whose genitalia now look like “two hanging dicks”; when Wong made her laugh, “She had to pinch the dicks together to make sure the carne asada wouldn’t come out of the taco and become nachos on the floor.” Queefing makes an appearance, too: fart jokes, updated for the past-puberty set. The ladies in the crowd can relate, while the child in us all can’t help but giggle.

Nor are these dirty jokes mutually exclusive with a more conventional kind of raunch. Wong talks about sex as freely as any single comedienne still in her Tinder days: period sex, oral sex, anal sex, flatulent sex, hypothetical sex with a male nanny. She never makes a mission statement of it, but Wong loves to explode our notion of the uptight mom, then leverage that discrepancy into shock-fueled laughs. (A pregnant lady! Talking about getting her pussy eaten!) Gender roles, too, are toyed with and upended. Where Baby Cobra saw Wong feign longing for a more traditional kind of femininity, in Hard Knock Wife she addresses the financial realities of her marriage head-on: “I make a lot more money than my husband. By like, a long shot.” That money allows Wong to lord her prenup over her in-laws and hire a nanny for when she’s on the road, exactly the kind of rich-person luxuries Wong was worried about getting in the way of her comedy. In the context of the special, though, they come across as both candid and triumphant. This is a woman enjoying some of her hard-earned autonomy, inviting us to share in the gratitude—and let ourselves feel just the slightest bit smug.

Baby Cobra was one of a kind, but it wasn’t a fluke. Wong has a distinctive style, honed over more than a decade in the industry before she broke through to the stratosphere: exaggerated, enunciatory delivery; rigid, faux-severe facial expressions; the way she says OH-MAH-GAHD as one word, like a rhyming triple note. In the vagaries of a struggle precious few other stand-ups can testify to firsthand, that style has found its ideal substance. Understandably resistant as Wong may be to letting mom humor become her signature, it’s hard not to be excited by how much ground there’s still left to cover. We’ve never had a stand-up of Wong’s caliber talk about hoarding adult diapers from the hospital. What happens when Wong’s kids get old enough for her to join the PTA?

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