Despite a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of feminism early in her first hourlong special, Baby Cobra, which came out on Netflix this past weekend, Ali Wong goes on to tell one of the most powerful jokes I've seen in a long time. After 38 minutes of stand-up that is notably raw, particularly for television, Wong takes a sip of water, as comedians do to reset. And then: "I don't know if you guys can tell but I'm seven and half months pregnant."
Of course, the audience could tell — Wong is making no effort to hide it with her tight dress — and that was the point. She continues with the first half of the joke:
"It's very rare and unusual to see a female comic perform pregnant, because ... female comics don't get pregnant. Just try to think of one. I dare you. There's none of them. Once they do get pregnant they generally disappear."
That last point is what Wong is fighting against here. Television shows generally don't know how to handle pregnant women, most often shutting the production down until the actress can once again be camera ready or, if delaying the show won't do, making her character constantly carry boxes, large notepads, and houseplants.
With her special, Wong plays with normalizing the sight of a pregnant woman on TV. She then takes that a step further by telling some of the filthiest material you'll see anywhere, full stop. There's a chunk about how she likes to put her thumb up men's butts because she's attracted to the fear men have that if they like it it means they're gay. She pantomimes getting choked during sex until she's red in the face. She has four very thorough minutes about shitting at work.
Released on Mother's Day weekend, Baby Cobra is an all-out assault on the greeting-card perception of the perfect, somehow virginal mother. By being visibly pregnant while saying that women aren't afraid of anal sex because it might hurt but rather because there might be "doo-doo on the dick," Wong forces the audience to humanize motherhood.
It's undeniably powerful, which was Wong's exact goal. "I wanted to use my pregnancy as a source of power and turn it into a weapon instead of a weakness," she told Elle about her special. "When you're pregnant, you're hungry, tired, and fat, so you have this 'I don't give a fuck' attitude that lends itself really well to performance. You let go of all dignity and shame, and it's beautiful."
That attitude is even more apparent in the second half of the joke, when she discusses what happens after the baby is born:
"That's not the case with male comics. 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!"
Is she talking about Louis C.K. specifically? It's hard to say, but she very well could be. Before he was lauded for Louie, C.K. was celebrated for his frank way he discussed parenting. Take, for example, his famous bit about changing diapers from his 2008 HBO special, Chewed Up (named for the state of older women's nipples):
"When you have kids, as a guy, your relationship with the vagina just changes completely. It was always this mysterious, beautiful, little pouty thing that I only caught in glimpses in the dark, maybe three times in 40 years. And now I've got to clean shit out of two of them daily. I literally scrape shit out of my daughter's little red vagina a few times a day. Every time she takes a shit, it goes straight up her cunt."
Not to diminish C.K.'s value in raising his kids, and fathers in general, but there is an obvious privilege in being able to leave that baby for all hours of the night to talk about changing her to strangers. You hear stand-ups say that if they don't perform for a week, they feel rusty; there is no mandatory leave.
The result is that comedy about the time right before, and after, the birth of a child has been male dominated. And that's dumb. If comedy is truth telling, then better comedy will result the closer you get to the truth. This sort of honest perspective from women on pregnancy and childbirth is already happening in plenty of non-performative places online, but it's a notable step to see it in comedy, and especially in comedy on TV. Because if "wearing a frozen diaper because her pussy needs to heal" is on TV that means it has been working in front of live audiences for months. That is a shift in consciousness.
In 1967, Joan Rivers performed on TV seven months pregnant. Her career was hitting its stride and Rivers wasn't going to slow down for anything. But it “was unheard of,” she told the Telegraph years later. “Every reviewer said I should not be onstage.” She also didn't give a fuck. Five months after give birth to her daughter, Melissa, Rivers was onstage recording her second album, The Next to Last Joan Rivers Album, doing material about the inane way in which people talk about pregnant women. That was almost 50 years ago.
Wong was on WTF With Marc Maron this past week, using a breast pump while being interviewed, and revealing that she has been able to go onstage already. She'll be at The Comedy Store tomorrow night. She will not disappear, and hopefully others will follow her lead.