“I love her so much, but I’m on the verge of putting her in the garbage.”
That’s what a very pregnant Ali Wong tells the audience in her new Netflix special, Hard Knock Wife, speaking of her young daughter, whom Wong was carrying during her 2016 special Baby Cobra. It’s one of many lines that seems to have been dredged up from her id, and the way she delivers each of them — often staring straight ahead into the middle distance and putting … long … pauses between phrases — makes it seem as if she’s in the grip of unseen forces that compel her to tell us the truth.
The Mother’s Day release slot is property of Ali Wong, thanks to Baby Cobra, which came out before Mother’s Day two years ago and made her famous enough to be recognized on the street (she talks about her newfound celebrity in this performance). A big part of the reason Baby Cobra struck a nerve was the frank way she talked about all the parts of motherhood that women are not supposed to acknowledge, for fear that it would depress or horrify others. Hard Knock Wife offers plenty more in that vein. When we last saw her on Netflix, she hadn’t given birth yet. Here, she’s on the verge of going through the experience again — her cheetah-print dress, sparkly gold flats, and lipstick-red eyeglasses frames make her the funkiest obstetrics patient in the room — and she’s here to tell us that she’d really rather not.
Motherhood, she tells us, is “a wack-ass job … You’re in solitary confinement all day long with this human Tamagotchi, so the stakes are extremely high.” You can see proof of her commitment whenever she smells her daughter’s diaper, an act that Wong draws out and pantomimes until she appears to be savoring the bouquet of a Pinot Noir or huffing paint thinner, maybe both. “I told my husband ‘till death do us part,’ and not once have I ever sniffed his ass to see if he shit his pants.”
This is a hilarious special that becomes thrilling whenever Wong tests her own descriptive powers and the audience’s capacity to absorb images of squalor, misery, or pain. It’s bracing, in some ways cathartic, to hear a parent talk this way about their experiences, as Wong does here (and as Pamela Adlon does on Better Things). But the explosive physicality of Wong’s delivery, and the intensely visceral way she describes what she felt physically and emotionally before and after giving birth, is what gives this special most of its power.
She becomes political simply by describing her experiences, whether she’s contemplating the way breastfeeding advocates inadvertently make formula-feeders feel like bad parents and corporate sellouts, to the moral necessity of the government giving American women paid maternity leave, just like other developed nations. “Maternity leave is for women to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies,” she yells, her voice nearly hoarse with outrage. Wong describes breastfeeding as if it were a form of torture: “The nurse promised me I would have a particularly easy time because my nipples look like fingers,” she says, then goes on to describe her milk flow as looking like the Fountains of the Bellagio. She compares the enervated feeling that mothers experience as a result of being constantly available in every way to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a book she says she never really understood until she became a mom. She even defends the stereotypical mom preferences in fashion, including sparkly things: “When you’re a mom, you need sparkle to compensate for the light inside of you that has died.”
In both specials, Wong covers a lot more territory than just pregnancy and motherhood: there’s raw, often hilarious material about sex, dating, and marriage in both, including a period-sex story that ends up feeling curiously inspirational. There are also absurdist bits about race and feminism that seem like ironic hipster “politically incorrect” takes that are at risk of turning sour until you realize Wong is mainly just skewering herself. (She says that ethnic studies amounts to blaming white people for everything, and says she’s so exhausted by “having it all” that when she and her husband are alone, “I request that he call me a simple ho.”)
Her intimate honesty always shines through. She paces the stage, leading with her belly, sometimes holding her arms akimbo and planting her feet far apart in what could be either a dance move or an iconic silhouette of a mother goddess, depending on what sort of mood she’s in. Wong has perfected that basic yet elusive trick that some writers spend their entire lives failing to master: She makes you feel as if it’s just the two of you, and she trusts you enough to tell you how she really feels.