Marriage And Motherhood Are A 'Source Of Power,' Says Comic Ali Wong Wong was 7 1/2 months pregnant when she filmed her first comedy special, Baby Cobra. She says that the birth of her daughter changed her career for the better.
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Marriage And Motherhood Are A 'Source Of Power,' Says Comic Ali Wong

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Marriage And Motherhood Are A 'Source Of Power,' Says Comic Ali Wong

Marriage And Motherhood Are A 'Source Of Power,' Says Comic Ali Wong

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest comedian Ali Wong released her first comedy special in May on Netflix. Marc Maron called it, quote, "the most honest, rawest, funniest special I've seen in years," unquote. In Wong's special titled "Baby Cobra," she talks about being Asian-American, stereotypes, interracial dating and prejudice within the Asian-American community. She's also very frank and funny when talking about her sex life, what it was like to have her body transformed by pregnancy and having had a miscarriage.

When she recorded her comedy special, she was seven and a half months pregnant. She's since had her daughter and is trying to make the demands of motherhood and standup comedy compatible. She'll perform as part of the Funny Or Die Oddball Comedy Festival later this summer. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a clip from "Baby Cobra."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY COBRA")

ALI WONG: So I don't know if you guys can tell, but I am seven and a half months pregnant.

(APPLAUSE)

WONG: Yeah. It's very rare and unusual to see a female comic perform pregnant because female comics don't get pregnant.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: Just try to think of one. I dare you. There's none of them. Once they do get pregnant, they generally disappear. That's not the case with male comics. Once they have a baby, they'll get up on stage a week afterwards and they'll be like, guys, I just had this [expletive] baby. That baby's a little piece of [expletive]. It's so annoying and boring. And all these other dads in the audience are like, that's hilarious. I identify. And their fame just swells because they've become this relatable family funny man all of a sudden. Meanwhile, the mom is at home chapping her nipples, feeding the [expletive] baby. She's busy.

(LAUGHTER)

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Baby Cobra." Ali Wong, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WONG: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

BALDONADO: So I find your performance, the physicality of your performance, in this special so empowered. You took this thing, pregnancy, that's usually thought of as making women vulnerable or weak and you turned that idea on its head. It also blows the theory of, you know, are women funny kind of out of the water because, you know, here's a woman being as womanly as she can possibly be. And, you know, this special's so funny. Can you talk about choosing to do the special while seven and a half months pregnant?

WONG: Yeah. I had originally - I've been doing comedy now for, I think, 11 years. And for the past four years, people have come to me and been like, when are you going to do a special? When are you going to do a special? And I wasn't ready yet. I didn't feel like I was ready. And then finally, when I got pregnant the first time around, I was like, OK, I have to do it now because if I don't do it now I'm never going to do it because if I have a kid who knows I'm going to feel with all the hormotions (ph) and everything and I might just stop.

And then I had a miscarriage. And then I was depressed, and I was like, forget it. We're not going to do it. And then I got pregnant again, and I was like, OK, we've got to do it now because I'm never going to do it. And I had that feeling again where I was like - I was panicked and I had all this anxiety about how the baby would change my career. And I wanted, you know, to associate her with changing it for the better, and she absolutely has. So it worked in that sense. But it was more - it was more a personal decision than it was, like, oh, I think this is going to be really funny if people see me pregnant on stage.

BALDONADO: In that clip that we just heard, you sort of bring up the double standard that happens that, you know, male comedians can sort of instantly come back. But for female comedians, it's a different story if you get pregnant or if you have kids. Is that something that you were scared of? Were you scared that it would mean, like in - you say in the clip that you might disappear like other female comedians?

WONG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've seen many female comics that a lot of people haven't heard of who are so funny. And I saw them come up and they were working so hard, and then all of a sudden they had a baby and they just got tied up in motherhood. And eventually, they kind of just stopped doing standup and I thought it was such a shame you know?

But, I mean, even now when I go out, people are like, what are you doing here? Didn't you just have a baby? But people never ask, like, a male comic when he's out a week later, like, oh, my God, you are so irresponsible. What are you doing out? Who's taking care of the baby? She's six months old now, but when I first started going out, people couldn't believe that I was out and about already.

The other thing with standup is that it's kind of like keeping in shape, you know, like lifting weights. Like, if you skip a week, you really revert. You get worse. It's an art form where you have to really go up every single night. And it's not very forgiving if you take a break.

So in giving birth, I mean, I knew that I would have to take a break after I had a baby. I just didn't know that it would be, like, six weeks long. And taking a six-week break was a very big deal for me. I have never taken that long of a break from standup other than my honeymoon, which was 14 days long.

BALDONADO: Did you really have - you mentioned this in the special - did you really have friends who told you to not have a kid because it might ruin your career?

WONG: I did, yeah. I did have some female standup friends who - they didn't tell me to not have a kid, but they were asking questions about why and, you know, to think about really what would happen to me as a standup if I had a kid. But I have to say that, you know, what was really encouraging was, you know, I had a talk with Chris Rock about getting married and having kids. And I expressed to him that I was really anxious about it, and I was really worried about how it would affect my career.

And he said to me, you know what Ali? I think that if you do get married and have kids that you will actually have a real shot at being truly famous. And I'm talking about the kind of famous, well, your mother knows who you are, not my own mother, but, like, a mother, you know, like a household name. And he said because most of America is married and has kids. And that really changed my perspective, you know, because then it was kind of the beginning of me thinking about how to use my marriage and my pregnancy as not a source of downfall and weakness but instead as a source of power and relatability.

BALDONADO: Have you found already that your comedy has changed since having a baby?

WONG: Yeah. I mean, I'm much more excited about the material, the stuff I've been doing since the special since the baby was born. I'm so much more excited about that also because, I mean, I'm so sick of all the material that I did in "Baby Cobra." I was so done with it. But, yeah, I mean, it's so crazy to connect to this whole population now of parents and talk about breastfeeding and mommy groups and preschool searches. And, you know, having a take on that I think is - it's been really wonderful.

BALDONADO: Can you give us an example of something you're working on right now that's kind of new in the last six months?

WONG: I could go on and on about breastfeeding.

WONG: I mean, I (laughter), like, it just - I thought it was supposed to be, like, this beautiful bonding ceremony where I would feel like I was sitting on a lily pad in a meadow and bunnies would gather at my feet while the fat-Hawaiian-man version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" would play. But really it's like this savage ritual that just reminds you that all of us, we're nothing but mammals.

We ain't special, you know? I mean, when she gets hungry, my baby girl, she yanks my nipple back and forth like that bear F-ing up Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant." It's frightening. I mean, and just, like, the lactation consultant - all of these things surrounding it. I mean, when you become a mother, it's, like, you just seek aid from so many white hippy witches - doulas, lactation consultants, you know, all these placenta encapsulation people, all these white hippie witches who you pay, like, $500, white hippie lady, $500 Mrs. Sorcerer.

Yeah, I mean, I could go on and on about it, some of it funny, some of it extremely tragic and not so funny. Pumping's a whole thing. You have to get naked at work - all that stuff, you know, so...

BALDONADO: Well, I think - and it relates to your other comedy because your other comedy is kind of talking about, like, sex and your body in a way that a lot of people can relate to but people don't talk about that much in public.

WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: So all this breastfeeding stuff, I think, a lot of people who don't have kids yet don't know any of this stuff. And then it's kind of like trial by fire. Like, all of a sudden, you need to know all these things.

WONG: Yeah, and it's raw and it's dirty too. You know, like, one of my managers was, like, not that excited about me talking about motherhood. And he's like, I don't know, Ali, you know, it's not as hardcore as the stuff you used to do. And I was like, well, I think having a baby sliced out of you is pretty hardcore.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: I'm wondering if being pregnant and giving birth has changed your feelings about your body and sex at all. I mean, you talk about - in this special, you talk a lot about it. But it was sort of before you had the baby. Has your thinking about those things changed since having the baby?

WONG: Yeah, I mean, when you give birth to a baby, your body, like, disintegrates. It continues to disintegrate. That's why women need maternity leave. It's not to bond with the baby. You need to, like, heal your body. (Laughter) I mean - so for example, when I was breastfeeding and I got a clogged duct, that's, you know, when you get, like, a kidney stone. That's when you get, like, a traffic jam on the 405 in your breast.

And you have to call a white hippie witch, a lactation consultant to come over to your house. A lactation consultant is a white hippie witch that you pay, like, $200 to behave like the Wolf from "Pulp Fiction." He tells you to gather, like, a bowl of hot water and a towel and, you know, a fresh diaper - telling you to gather all this stuff.

And she had me on my hands and knees dipping my boob in and out of a bowl of hot water and then punching my breast with a fist. And I was like, this is ridiculous. I mean, I can't be doing this at work, you know? And then my body, like, how is my husband supposed to see me as a sexual being anymore when, you know, he sees all this going on?

So, yes, in other words, my perspective has changed about my body and sex a lot. It can't help but change 'cause your body has gone through the most drastic transformation in the world.

BALDONADO: Did that work? (Laughter) Did the dipping in the water and then the punching work?

WONG: Oh, yeah, it worked. Yeah, I mean, I'm, like, an expert now on how to unclog a duct. Now I'm the Wolf from "Pulp Fiction." And now my friends will call me (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. They'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix.

BALDONADO: Now, you're married to an Asian-American man. And you talk about dating and the interracial and interethnic politics of who Asian-American women date. You talk about that in your special and in your comedy. I'm going to play a clip from this special. Here you are talking about it, about being married to someone else who is also Asian-American.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY COBRA")

WONG: But I think that for marriage, it can be nice to be with somebody of your own race. The advantage is that you get to go home and be racist together.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: You get to say whatever you like. You don't have to explain [expletive]. My husband, half Filipino, half Japanese. I'm half Chinese and half Vietnamese. And we spend 100 percent of our time [expletive] on Korean people. It's amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

BALDONADO: That's a clip from "Baby Cobra." I will say, though, first and foremost, your special is just incredibly funny. But, you know, you kind of touch on these larger issues here that aren't always talked about. You know, like, this kind of issue of racism in the Asian-American community. And it's, like, that's the kind of stuff that maybe gets talked about in the community.

But they aren't talked about much in public. It's, like, dirty laundry airing. Do you think about that before putting it into your standup?

WONG: I mean, at the end of the day, I'm not really trying to make a statement with any of my standup. My goal is really to just make people laugh with integrity, like, with something that I still find funny. So, you know, with that joke, I was surprised that it worked so well because I didn't think that - I just didn't know if other people who weren't Asian-American could maybe identify with.

WONG: So, you know, with that joke, I was surprised that it worked so well because I didn't think that - I just didn't know if other people who weren't Asian-American could maybe identify with. But, like, you know, I mean, Latino people can certainly identify because, you know, Asian-American is this crazy, like, umbrella term that encapsulates, like, so many different cultures, you know, that are so different.

And same thing with Latino - like, that's - everybody in, like, Central America, South America, the Dominican Republic. It's like very - it's extremely diverse. So of course there's going to be, like, interracial, like, racism and stuff. And it's funny, you know? So I wasn't trying to, like, (laughter) bring inter-Asian racism to...

BALDONADO: To the forefront.

WONG: ...Light - to the mainstream. That was not my agenda. It was just like, oh, this is funny. This works.

BALDONADO: Well, soon after this clip that we played - so you say that you're a half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese. And your husband's half-Japanese and half-Filipino. And then can you - do you - could you just say what - your next joke about that, which I think...

WONG: Oh, right. So we're both half-fancy Asian and half-jungle Asian.

BALDONADO: Which to me, as a Filipino-American woman with, you know, a little bit of other stuff in there, too...

WONG: You're party Asian.

BALDONADO: (Laughter).

WONG: Yeah, you're DJ Asian.

BALDONADO: (Laughter). I'm sing and dance Asian.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: But I just laughed and laughed because I hadn't really ever heard of it - heard it put that way.

WONG: Yeah, 'cause there's, like, a real divide. I mean, like, you look at - my husband and I went to Japan for a honeymoon. And you look at, like, the presentation of the food. And it's ridiculous. You know, it looks like a Mondrian painting or something. Like, this - everything looks like a bunch of little Hello Kitty erasers.

When you eat, like, a little bento box in Japan, it's so precise and beautiful and processed and neat. And then, you know, like some of my Japanese-American friends will see me going to town on a bowl of pig's feet. And they'll be like, oh, my God, you jungle Asian (laughter). And it's just, like, we're the same.

Like, I'm not supposed to feel bad about what I'm eating in front of you guys. But I do because it's different, you know? But, like, with my husband, I do really appreciate the fact that even though we're, like, different kinds of Asian, we - there is, like, a cultural shorthand between us. And I don't have to explain anything. You know, I've dated guys before who weren't Asian-American.

And it frustrated me when I would have to defend why beans belong in a dessert. You know, like, they thought it was so weird. Or, like, when I take them out to a meal - like a dim sum or something - and they'd be like, what is that? What is that? Why is that not a sandwich? And I was like, just eat the food. I did not drive, like, an hour to Monterey Park to become a dim sum teacher (laughter).

BALDONADO: Now, another aspect of your special that's getting a lot of coverage is the fact that you tell this joke about having a miscarriage. I think you've said that you try the joke out a bunch of times before figuring out whether or not to include it in the special. Did you have to get to a certain point before joking about it? Did you have to process at first? Or was that something you kind of did right away?

WONG: Before deciding to do it?

BALDONADO: Yeah.

WONG: I started talking about my miscarriage right away. Like, I think the day after it happened, I think I got up on stage and started talking about it. And it was not going very well. And it did not go well for a while.

And Laurie Kilmartin, who is also a very funny standup comic, who's a mom, as well - and she writes for Conan - had told me, I think that people need to know that you're OK in order for that joke to work - 'cause she was like, those jokes are really funny. But people, I think, need to just feel like you're OK.

And whether it was, like, my attitude that changed, where maybe I became more at peace and OK with it, or if it was the fact that people could see that I was pregnant, and maybe that's how they defined being OK - pregnant again. But after a while, it did just start to work. But I really kept persisting with it because I did feel, like, really passionate about talking about it.

BALDONADO: Yeah, the thing about miscarriages is they're very common. But you wouldn't know that because people don't often talk about it. I personally - I had a miscarriage. And I felt - you didn't - I didn't know how many people had them until I told people. Then you sort of...

WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: ...People start talking about it. And maybe it's 'cause there's a little bit of guilt involved, even though you don't really do anything to get a miscarriage. But it's - you sort of kind of blame your body for not doing it.

WONG: You feel that.

BALDONADO: Yeah.

WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: Is that - did you experience that yourself?

WONG: Of course. You know, I thought to myself, is it because I did slip and I did eat that piece of raw cucumber? Is it because I did a twist in yoga during the first trimester when I didn't know that I was pregnant? Is it because, you know, I walked by these people who were smoking?

There was all sorts of things. Is it because, you know, of karma? Is it because I was mean to this person in first grade and pushed them when I shouldn't have? I mean, yeah, there's all sorts of blame that I think women put on themselves. It's very easy to do that. But, you know, even now, just hearing you - someone who I'm talking to - had a miscarriage, you know, I feel for you.

And at the same time, I am so grateful that you told me that. And it makes me feel so comforted to know that you had one, too, you know? I mean, it's one thing to hear the statistic and to hear that it's very common. And it's another to put a face and a voice to another person who has had a miscarriage, as well, you know?

BALDONADO: Right.

WONG: So again, like I said, I don't like to make statements in comedy. That's not what I'm here to do. I'm here to make people laugh. But for that, you know, one, I - yeah. I mean, to - so she had heard, you know, about all the women who had had it growing up. And she has, like, that very healthy attitude of, like - it's very common. And it's not your fault.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. They'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special, "Baby Cobra," is on Netflix.

BALDONADO: I want to play another clip from the special. You talk about hoarding and about helping your mom clean out her house.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY COBRA")

WONG: I have a hoarding problem, which I'm hoping is the center of all of my other problems. I'm hoping if the hoarding goes away, the HPV will also disappear.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: I have a hoarding problem because my mom is from a Third World country. And she taught me that you can never throw away anything because you never know when a dictator is going to overtake the country and snatch all of your wealth. So you better hold on to that retainer from the third grade because it might come in handy as a shovel when you're busy stuffing gold up your [expletive] and running away from the communists.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: That's a clip from "Baby Cobra." Was that something that you actually had to do? Did you have to go through stuff in your mom's house?

WONG: Yeah. I mean, I think it's tough with immigrant parents because they're from a different time. You know, they were - they were from, like, a time where things were built to last. And, you know, her worst nightmare is having to buy something again or needing something and then having had it and thrown it away and it going to waste.

BALDONADO: Yeah, I read that your dad sort of came from very modest beginnings and sort of had to work his way...

WONG: Yeah, my dad grew up with straight up no running water. He slept in a twin bed with his two sisters and his mom like "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" style, like feet at the head, feet at the head alternating. And then I think his dad slept on, like, a bed of newspapers on a floor in their apartment. All the investment was in him. My aunts, his two sisters, didn't get to go to college 'cause my grandparents could only afford for one kid to go to college, and that was my dad.

And I'm so amazed still at how he had all that pressure on him and just took it in stride and just, like, killed it, you know? He became a doctor, and I'm so proud of him still for doing that. It's really hard for people to understand, like, what a quirky person my dad was. And also he could have cared less about what other people thought about him. I mean, if he had to fart, he would do it at the library, at the opera, like the quieter the better (laughter).

And it used to embarrass me so much, but it also made me laugh really hard every single time he did it. And so at the same time, he was also, like, very smart. You know, he was, like, really into poetry, and he was an extremely good painter. And so he kind of had, like, this highbrow, lowbrow thing going on that, you know, really influenced me.

BALDONADO: So are you still performing as much standup as you did before having the baby?

WONG: I don't do it as much. Maybe I just do it, like, I would say a fifth less than when she was inside of me (laughter) because it's pretty painful at night sometimes to not put my daughter to bed...

BALDONADO: Right.

WONG: ...You know, because it's really sweet when they go to bed and you read them the book and they're cooing and they might laugh or something. And it's kind of a bummer to miss them when they're going to bed. But I try to book shows after she falls asleep. What's nice is that because of the special now, because bookers and people who put on shows in LA have known me for a while, I can ask them and I can request to go up later and have that request granted. But I think for people who are starting out, it's much harder to make motherhood and comedy work because those requests might not get granted.

BALDONADO: Well, Ali Wong, thank you so much.

WONG: Thank you so much.

WONG: Ali Wong's standup comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. She's performing standup over the summer and in the fall will be part of Funny Or Die's Oddball Comedy Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jeffrey Toobin who wrote the definitive book about the O.J. Simpson trial. He has a new book about Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress who in 1974 was kidnapped by the incoherent armed radical group the SLA, the Symbionese Liberation Army. We'll talk about her kidnapping and trial and where it fit in the culture, politics and media of the '70s. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

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