In a sea of new standup specials, Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra (debuting tomorrow on Netflix) rises above the crowded surface, due in part to her sharp, fearless writing, and also because she recorded the set while seven months pregnant. Is America ready to see a pregnant comedian twerk? They had better be. Wong, a comedian of 11 years and current writer for Fresh Off the Boat, has been steadily honing her chops, choosing her steps wisely, waiting for the perfect opportunity to make a bold move. “I wanted to save everything for an hour. I’m a hoarder. I don’t like to do a late-night set every year. I’m not as prolific as other comedians. I have to save all that I can.” That patient, humble hoarding has led to a one hour long accumulation of material that covers a full range of subjects most people are too scared to talk about, let alone with any comedic merit. I talked to Wong about Baby Cobra, finding the funny in miscarriage, and why every joke deserves 20 tries.
I just watched the special. It was fire.
You’re like the second person who has watched it. I did this interview with Marc Maron. He’s kind of a hater, but he was really into it too. I was like, “Oh, okay great.” I’m so glad that people like it. It means a lot.
Have you watched the special?
We filmed it in September and the editing all happened really quick because I knew I was having my baby in November. So I don’t think I’ve seen it since November.
A lot of comics that I talk to don’t watch their own specials. How do you feel about watching yourself perform?
It is pretty painful to watch your own special because for me, a bit is never done and it can always be improved. I look at it and I’m like, “I could have done this,” and, “I could have added this tag.” But you have to watch your special to edit it. I don’t understand how you could completely ignore it.
I think a lot of comics leave it in the hands of other people. For instance, if you are shooting a Comedy Central Half Hour you might do 30-35 minutes of standup and then it’s up to the network to decide what stays and what goes as they edit it down to 22 minutes. But it sounds like you were really hands-on with yours.
Yeah, I went in. I drove to Burbank from Culver City. That’s dedication. I know some comics who have gone into editing four times. I only went in once, but I think it made a big difference.
I went back and watched some of your older clips and saw one where you had just turned 30. In that particular bit you said that now that you had turned thirty you wanted to get pregnant immediately because you felt that if you waited too much much longer you would end up with some sickly Millennial kid with a lot of weird allergies. A couple of years later, almost prophetically, you’re doing your one-hour special while seven months pregnant. If it’s not too personal, had you been actively trying to get pregnant?
I talk about miscarriage in the special. I had a miscarriage about two years ago. I’ve been trying since I was about 31. It’s not as easy as you think. You spend so much of your life as a woman trying not to get pregnant and then all of the sudden, once you decide and you have a partner who agrees to do it with you, suddenly it’s not as easy as you thought it was going to be.
I’ve heard quite a few miscarriage jokes but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a truly good one until your special.
Obviously it was a horrible thing to have happen and it’s very dark. I tried doing the joke shortly after having the miscarriage and it didn’t go that well because I think people needed to know that I was okay. It works better when I was obviously very pregnant because people were like, “Oh good, she got pregnant again. We can laugh at this.” I started talking about it almost immediately after it happened. From that I got a lot of support and people telling me that they too had a miscarriage, but they just didn’t talk about it. It’s this weird thing – I think because it’s a woman’s body, it happens in her body – that somehow a lot of women blame themselves where they feel responsible or other people make them feel responsible. Part of my intention in talking about it was that I don’t want to feel that way and I don’t want other women to feel that way.
There was a real beauty to seeing you so very pregnant and speaking openly about something that is considered to be a very sensitive subject. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman seven months pregnant on a comedy special before.
I’m pretty sure no one has ever done it for a special. It wasn’t easy. I filmed my special in Seattle because I couldn’t go anywhere that was longer than a three hour flight. To prepare for the special I went to San Diego San and Francisco, but I couldn’t really go on the road pregnant to prepare in the same way that other comics prepare for their specials. They’ll do back-to-back shows all over the Midwest. They’ll fly anywhere to prepare their hour and get it really good. Traveling for me wasn’t super easy.
You have a really funny bit about feminism in the special and you mention that you had some women get really upset at the jokes. When you’re writing jokes on gender, sexuality, race, and class, how do you walk that line of being able to tackle sensitive issues in a smart, edgy way without alienating the very people who could benefit most from those jokes?
With that bit I think the majority of people can see that I’m joking because obviously I’m a working woman in a very male-dominated field. But in terms of jokes about race and sex I start with myself and I ask, “Does this make me laugh?” Then I go out and test the joke. I’ll give it 20 shots. If it makes me laugh it’s worth 20 attempts at The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, or on the road at a shitty alt show that’s that run by 22-year-old boys out of a house in Silverlake. If it works in a wide, diverse range of places, I’m keeping it. It must say something. People must relate to it. But that’s the thing about standup and why you have to get up a lot. Your audience is a focus group. If people aren’t laughing you have to dump it no matter how much it makes you laugh.
What can we look for from you after the special airs?
Between writing for Fresh Off the Boat and doing standup, I’m pretty busy. I’m just trying to spend time with my kid. So you can look forward to me becoming a better mom.