comedy review

Ali Wong Embraces Unrelatability

Ali Wong in Don Wong. Photo: Clifton Prescod/Netflix

It is fascinating to watch what happens when comedians become very famous. There is no single version of how that transformation goes, but there is an underlying theme that starts to pop up. Their lives, the experiences that become stand-up material, no longer operate in the same world as their audience. Some topics still work; parenting is one of the great go-to themes for a shared human experience, as is sex, marriage, and the fact that there is a global pandemic. But the details start to drift into a distinctly separate space, like, for instance, building a brick pizza oven in your home because you were so impressed by the pizza when you went over to Jerry Seinfeld’s house for dinner. It’s not a shift that makes comedy impossible by any means, but once a comedian moves into that level of fame, it’s a challenging divide to bridge. The best moments in Ali Wong’s new Netflix special Don Wong are the ones where she embraces that problem and puts it front and center. The weakest sections are the ones where she pivots back toward the comfortable, familiar, or unsurprising.

Stand-up specials aren’t typically conceived of as related works within a larger arc, but when you add Don Wong to the trajectory of Wong’s previous Netflix specials (Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife), there’s a conspicuous overall development. In Baby Cobra, Wong talks about longing to be a trophy wife. She makes her husband’s lunch every morning so that he’ll become dependent on her, she says — the goal is to stop working, to retire, to lock down her husband and never have to worry about money again. In Hard Knock Wife, she has begun to feel the promise but also the pressure of fame, something she says she doesn’t want. “It’s a burden!” she says. “Occasionally I’ll be eating at a fancy restaurant and will get recognized by both the waitstaff and the chef, and think to myself, Oh great, now I have to tip more.”

It’s a little uncomfortable, that joke, but many of Wong’s jokes bend that way. She tends to end up somewhere unpleasant, even alienating, but there’s a bracing expression of honesty in her assessment. Maybe it would be annoying to have to tip more. But at the same time, the underlying reality of that joke is the awareness that she now has plenty of money to tip if she wants. Her annoyance is ungenerous, but it’s appealingly transparent. Much of Wong’s material is about being conscious of money — her two guideposts are money and sex, and she’s particularly happy when she can loop them together. In her first two specials, she often connects them by talking about sex as a guarantor of financial security, or money as a regrettable reason why some sexual relationship is a bad idea. Sex is something she enjoys, but it’s also about bolstering her marriage. And marriage is an inescapably financial relationship, even if it’s also about love and family.

So it’s fitting that one of the early jokes in Wong’s third special is a consideration of how lucky men should feel if they can get their dicks sucked by women who earn more money. “You should feel so lucky, so flattered, so blessed and highly favored” if you’re a man who gets that opportunity, Wong says. “All the things this important woman could be doing with her valuable time, all her responsibilities, all of the interesting opportunities and deals knocking at her door. But no, she chose to get on her knees and stick your $40,000-a-year dick in her mouth.” Clearly the tables have turned. Where Wong once described carefully cultivating her husband’s dependence on her, she is now fully in command. The explicit language of that joke is general, referring to any woman who might find herself giving head to a guy who earns less than her, but the subtext is hard not to miss. Wong is the busy one. It is from Wong’s perspective that we see this life is full of “interesting opportunities and deals,” and it’s from Wong’s perspective that we register that blowjob as an inconvenient time suck.

The special continues from there: She was so busy while making her 2019 movie Always Be My Maybe that she actually forgot to shit during its entire production, leading to an extremely unpleasant-sounding colon situation. Once painstakingly careful of her husband’s feelings, she now spends a significant chunk of the special fantasizing about cheating on him, and she’s frustrated that the options available to her in her DMs are so much less appealing than they are for famous men. And, of course, there’s the obvious setup that Always Be My Maybe is a movie where Wong writes herself romantic scenes with several very attractive leading guys — maybe she’s going to cheat with one of them? We’re very far from the ostensible relatability of wanting to marry into money when the premise is that maybe she wrote this film so she could cheat with Keanu Reeves, who she cast as her character’s love interest. She punctures that idea quickly, but then lands somewhere just as improbable. Instead, she fantasized about cheating with the film’s food consultant.

Wong’s work has always been about this complicated and prickly relationship between self, sex, and financial independence, and where she ends up now — this unmistakeable move into the world of the famous — means that she’s more capable of navigating that leap than many comedians. She is honest about how it has changed her marriage, her sex life, and her understanding of herself. But it has also shifted her relationship with her fans, and even though that element is a pervasive undercurrent in this special, it’s one that she ducks away from discussing with the same clarity as her approach to sex or money. Wong is best when she’s specific, unapologetic, and pointed, and the strongest, most exciting parts of the special are the ones that lean into the details of that world without worrying about how it’ll all play for an audience that may not be able to relate. The material about money and power plays off the narratives from her earlier work, but it’s also thorny and direct about what she wants and where her life is now. She’s met the entire cast of The Avengers. She’s not going to divorce her husband because he may have “bought low” when he married her, but at this point he’d be “selling high.”

But some of the moves in Don Wong soften all those hard edges in disappointing ways. The specific strange, often risqué desires within Wong’s own sex life eventually get smoothed out into a generalized call for women to stop faking orgasms (yawn). The particular challenges of her work-life scenario eventually peter out into the platitude that she’d be so much more productive if she only had a wife, which is the kind of observation that was once remarkable and has now become rote. That gesture-toward-the-audience perspective shift into a universal experience was never the best part of an Ali Wong special, and now it’s even less harder to parse. Does an audience actually need the parts where she gestures at imagined, universal life experiences? Does she need to be relatable to be popular? This special betrays an anxiety that perhaps she does, and that tension is never resolved.

Don Wong ends with some reassurance that, in fact, Wong does love her husband, and that he’s a great, supportive guy. After the hour that’s preceded it, it’s a likability relief valve. The audience wants to stay on her side, and that’s not as easy to do when she points out not just that she’s met the Avengers, but that she has envisioned getting Michael B. Jordan’s cum on her face. (She’s also a movie star now! That vision isn’t impossible!) And yet the most striking and novel parts of this special are the ones where she ignores what the audience might be feeling and accepts the weird, famous twist her life has taken. It’s disappointing when she softens that blow because that material takes her sharpest ideas and then negates them; it hastens to reassure her audience that they could still be friends. Her success is what got her here, but it’s also what makes this less true. Wong’s strength as a comedian is in saying the obvious, true things, but perhaps the truth of her fame is something she’s still trying to accept.

Ali Wong Embraces Unrelatability