Comedian Ali Wong Talks Jumbotrons, Rom-Coms, and Bun Bo Hue
Baby Cobra, California comedian Ali Wong’s debut comedy special, broke minds when it aired on Netflix in May 2016. Yes, Wong—a writer for ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat—is extremely funny. (“Radical raunch,” as the New Yorker had it.) But much of the hubbub centered on the fact that Wong’s advanced pregnancy—a seven-and-a half-month baby bump on full display—was part of her act. Outlets from LA Weekly to New York Magazine debated the “somewhat taboo” aspect of bearing public witness to what’s pretty much, we’d say, the most basic fact of human biology.
Wong’s daughter Mari has long since arrived; this spring, her mama hits the road again, with all-new material. She passes through the Rose City March 30–31 for four shows at the Newmark. We chatted with Wong in advance of her Portland trip (her first ever!) about Jumbotrons, tax-free shopping, and bun bo hue.
Congratulations on your forthcoming book of essays! What can you tell us about it so far?
If I were to die tomorrow, this book is everything I'd want to say to my daughter. That's why it's structured as letters to her.
I read in a recent article that some of the book’s subject matter is material you’d decided was “unsuitable for comedy.” Can you tell us more about that?
A lot of the stories I want to tell in the book are unsuitable for (specifically the format of) stand-up comedy. I'm excited to stretch out in the book, and not be rushed to a punchline, to talk about embarrassing moments in adolescence, family, and my journey in stand-up. Nobody wants to watch an hour of stand-up about stand-up, but wouldn't you like to read a chapter about it?
Some media critics called Baby Cobra your star-making moment. How do you feel about that?
It was very much my "big break." I used to worry that nobody would come to my shows. Now I have anxiety about scalpers snatching up all the tickets because they know they can charge double on the secondary market. I wish I could jump through the Internet and kick those motherfuckers in the face.
What’s been different for you since then?
The two most unexpected and exciting things that have happened since were New York Fashion Week and Halloween. In September, I walked the runway for "Opening Ceremony" with Rashida Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Natasha Lyonne, Diane Guerrero, models, and all of these other incredible women. And then in October, I was shocked at how many women and men dressed up as me, while I was pregnant and performing Baby Cobra, for Halloween. It really surprised me and I was so touched.
In another interview, you cite the connection between comedy and honesty, and say that women tend to be more honest. But the question is about why there aren’t more women in comedy—in stand-up specifically. Can you elaborate on this point?
In my personal life, the women are hands down funnier than the men. But being good at specifically stand-up is a craft, and you have to work at it constantly. It requires you physically leaving your house every night to perform in shitty, scary venues...for free...for years. I still sometimes drive 40 minutes away from my house, for 10 minutes of stage time. There are not that many women who are willing to put their body out like that, and I don't blame them.
How have your thoughts about your profession evolved recently?
If you look at my tour schedule, it's pretty unconventional. I don't "route." For example, most artists would attach Vancouver and/or Seattle the day before or after a Portland appearance. It's efficient and maxes out the market. The issue for me is that I don't like to perform in venues larger than 1,500. That's why you'll see me do crazy shit like six shows in three nights. Most performing artists who can sell tickets would just do one big show, one night at a 6,000 seater. But for me, I don't think comedy is meant to be performed in venues over 1,500. I hate the Jumbotron. I don't want to look out into the audience, at people's faces, and their eyes looking to the side of me instead of at me, because they get the best view on a giant screen.
The more intimate the setting, the smaller you can be in your performance, as if you were truly having a conversation with a friend. A stand-up act can get cartoonish with the mega-sized venues. I was getting pressured to go into those giant theaters. But I knew that just because I could, didn't mean I should. Because the whole point of success is that you get to do whatever the fuck you want.
You’re a West Coaster—have you performed in Portland before?
I've actually never even been to Portland and am super pumped to finally visit. Someone told me that the Vietnamese food is surprisingly good. I saw on Yelp that there's an entire restaurant dedicated to bun bo hue,* which is pretty impressive. When I go on the road I am always on the hunt for good Asian food. We of course have it in Los Angeles, but you have to drive kinda far to get the real deal. I'm also planning big-ticket items to purchase since Portland has no sales tax. Should I get a new computer or furry loafers? **
* Ali, you’re probably thinking of Teo Bun Bo Hue. (We’d also recommend Ha VL and its soup sister Rose VL.)
** Definitely furry loafers.
So, next steps: your book will come out in 2018. And after that? The Ali Wong Show? Competitive powerlifting? Alpaca farming?
Well, Randall Park and I just finished writing our first feature script for us to star in together. It's a romantic comedy and we're pretty excited about it. We've known each other for 12 years and have collaborated on many projects. But this one, for many reasons, is a much bigger deal. Hopefully you'll hear more announcements about it in the next coming months.
A big reason why I've been touring is to work on my new hour. I plan on taping the next special at the end of the year. It's going to be like the sequel to Baby Cobra.
Other than that, I'm always fighting to get more time with my daughter. I bring her and my husband with me for most of my tour dates since the three of us aren't all together too much on the weekdays. Before, the road used to be this lonely, sad thing that I would dread. But now it's an adventure for our family. Some performance artists like to have Veuve Cliquot or a buffet spread in their dressing room. I'm probably the only stand-up comic who on their rider, requires that there be a crib and two quarts of whole milk in the hotel room.
7 and 9:30 p.m. Thu–Fri, Mar 30–31, Newmark Theatre, $39.75–59.75