“Oh, cool, I picked the wrong color,” says Ali Wong, wriggling her toes in black flip-flops. “They look like little penises.” It’s her first pedicure in more than six months, and Wong has chosen the Beverly Hills outpost of Bellacures, a chain nail salon with a chandelier and low-slung faux-suede salmon armchairs. “They autoclave,” she tells me of the franchise’s sterilization techniques, which is good news. Even if the end result — a tawny hue that almost exactly matches Wong’s half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese foot — is not so great.
But as pressing concerns go, a bungled pedi color doesn’t even chart. It’s mid-afternoon, and afterward Wong’s rushing home to breast-feed. She wants to spend as much time with her 6-month-old as possible before starting work on the third season of Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC show for which she writes.
“I’m going to go back part-time,” she says. “Before, I was doing stand-up at night and working. It was manageable, but now with my daughter in the equation …”
In Wong’s breakout Netflix special, Baby Cobra, which debuted in May, her daughter was very much part of the equation, if only visually. The 60-minute special, shot last fall in Seattle, shows the five-foot-even, seven-months-pregnant bespectacled San Francisco native in a formfitting, striped $8 H&M dress. But the 34-year-old’s pregnancy only comes up explicitly about two-thirds of the way through.
Other topics, however, surface almost immediately. Venereal disease, vaginal discharge, accidentally sleeping with a homeless person not once but twice, ayahuasca trips, miscarriage, and prostate stimulation are all fair game for Wong’s shrewd takes. And even if you’ve never heard of her, her style — a steady, rhythmic wringing — is the relentlessly workshopped product of a comedy veteran. The special’s arrival on Netflix is the sort of star-making moment that unites the tastes of the unlikeliest fans. W. Kamau Bell tweeted his appreciation. So did Taylor Momsen.
Wong’s distinctive comedic voice combines a blue streak of ribald barbs and a canny navigation of human sexuality (“I broke up with my last boyfriend because he refused to put it in the back”), cultural identity (“We have these Chinese scrolls up on the wall, and neither of us know what the fuck they mean”), and what it’s like to be the rare upwardly mobile, visible Asian-American woman who is actually married to an Asian guy. (“Asian men are the sexiest. They got no body hair from the neck down.”)
Accolades have poured in from the arbiters of popular culture — Questlove, Marc Maron, Amy Schumer — and from those who perhaps don’t get as much shine but should. “The Asian-male Illuminati loved it,” she says. The Asian guy from The Walking Dead (Steven Yeun), the Asian guy from the Wolverine movie (Will Yun Lee), the Asian guy in Glee (Harry Shum Jr.), and the Asian guy in Kimmy Schmidt (Ki Hong Lee) have all reached out. “No George Takei, but that’s next,” she says of the patron saint of Asian advocacy in Hollywood. “I hope he gives me an Oh, my.”
Randall Park, the Asian guy from Fresh Off the Boat, is Wong’s friend from UCLA. They joined the same improv group — Stage Ninjas. Wong was the only girl.
“Randall was like, ‘I think we’re so stoked ’cause, yes, you’re really funny, but you also declared that you’re with an Asian-American man and that you’re so into it. You never hear that, let alone from Asian-American women.’ ” Wong’s husband, who works in the start-up world, is Filipino and Japanese, and, as she says repeatedly in her special, went to Harvard Business School; the idea that she “trapped” him is a large part of her act. “I think Asian men are beautiful,” she says. “If I wasn’t with my husband I’d have been like, Yo, Steve Yeun, I’ma be a zombie and eat that butt.”
With her emerald-cut baguette-diamond ring winking under the overhead lights, Wong contemplates her next move. Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped about performance metrics, and for Wong, who’s used to the immediacy of laughter or bowel-twisting silence, the mystery is maddening. Until she headlines a three-night engagement in Washington, D.C., in mid-June and can count ticket sales, she won’t know how much has changed.
Though she does detect a qualitative shift locally, in the ways she’s received at Upright Citizens Brigade, the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, and the poky little venues no one’s heard of where she’d been toiling as a stand-up in relative obscurity for more than a decade before the special came out. “Before, no one in the audience knew who I was, so I would have to earn their respect,” she says. “It makes you really good. But now people seem to expect that it will be really good. It’s quite a different energy, and it’s only a portion of the audience, but I can feel it.”
Pre-motherhood, Wong performed five nights a week, mostly because, like Chris Rock and Maron, she writes while she’s onstage. “I need new humans,” she says of gauging the success of her bits. “I’d go up there with a Dictaphone. I’m working on a joke about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so I’ll sandwich that bit between two bits that I know work really well.”
Wong is not one of those comedy wonks who exclusively talk about the mechanics of humor, but she’s methodical about her work. When you say something funny, she nods, smiles, and says, “Hilarious,” as if her heads-up display had just dismantled the sentence, inspected each part, and dubbed the whole thing sound. And so, despite the well-trod territory of some of her motifs, the jokes never devolve into hacky gross-out cracks or generalist, lazy parody.
“People now will do a special after only doing stand-up for like six years,” she says. “For me, it’s been at least talked about for four years. And I was like, ‘I’m not ready.’ But because I got pregnant, I was like, If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.”
Even now, after ten years of producing and sequencing to perfect an hour of jokes and the body language that accompanies them, she insists there are missed opportunities. “I can’t watch it,” she says of Baby Cobra. “I think, Oh God, I could have said it this way, For example, the joke about the fingers up the butt. After ‘I like that fear, it turns me on,’ I could have added: ‘I’m a grown-ass woman who’s been around the block, so doggy style, spanking, it’s not freaky enough for me anymore. I have to wage psychological warfare on a man and make him doubt everything he’s ever known to be true about himself for me to even get wet.’ ”
There is an expected trajectory for comedians: Stand-up is followed by the special, then a scripted show. But Wong maintains she’s not ready to helm one yet. “I don’t have a clear idea what I want to do that I could be proud of,” she says. “I would want to do something that was honest and different than everything you’ve seen. It will be Asian by default because I’m Asian, but I would hope that my show gets another qualifier.”
There seems to be plenty of new grist for stand-up in Wong’s post-baby life. She mentions the way her elongated nipples have begun to resemble Raisinets, the wristbands she’s wearing to combat the carpal tunnel she developed from clutching her baby’s head to prevent it from slamming into her breast in sudden search of milk. She also had to get adult braces as a result of her daughter. “Breast-feeding was so stressful for me,” she tells me through Invisaligned teeth. “I kept on clenching and pushing my tongue against the bottom teeth, so they started to move toward an underbite. It’s all clenching.” Even her erotic concerns have gotten more practical. “Props are so expensive,” she says, eyeing her toes.” A good-quality dildo will run you at least $150. BPA-free.”
*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.