Now Playing

The Inner World of Ali Wong

How the San Francisco native grew up, cracked filthy jokes, got pregnant, filmed a Netflix special, and became the next big thing in comedy.

SLIDESHOW

Styling by Diane Lin; hair by Derek Yuen; makeup by Mai Quynh.

(1 of 3)

Ali Wong, left, and friends before a high school prom. The secondhand dress she’s wearing cost $8—the same amount as the H&M dress she wore pregnant in Baby Cobra.

Photo: Courtesy of Caitlin Collentine

(2 of 3)

(3 of 3)

 

Ali Wong got into a fistfight once, but she is, shall we say, fuzzy on the details. “I think I threw up in some kid’s bed?” she theorizes. “Just lifted up the covers and threw up. This is all supposedly. I have no recollection.”

The alleged incident occurred during her junior year at University High School in Pacific Heights, at a party where Wong (probably) drank a couple 40s and “the maniac came out.” She laughs at the hazy memory. “I got super drunk, threw up—I did this all the time—got into a fistfight, and got punched in the face by a guy. Yeaaaah.”

Wong is piecing together this chestnut as she squints into my phone, zooming in on a photo emailed by my wife’s sister, who, back in the day, ran around in the same San Francisco private-school circles. The photo shows a 17-year-old Wong and four other sweet-faced girls grinning before a prom at the Urban School. Wong’s no more than five feet tall, maybe 95 pounds, and adorable in a little black dress that she clearly recalls cost her $8 at Crossroads Trading Co. on Fillmore Street. “Oh. My. God,” she says. “That is so crazy! I thought we looked so old. I thought we looked like adults. We were just kids!”

Now 35 and the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, Wong still can’t believe the shit she got into (and mostly out of ) as a kid growing up in ’80s and ’90s San Francisco. Despite being the child of a Chinese American dad raised in a single-room squat in Chinatown and a Vietnamese immigrant mom, Wong did not have the stereotypical repressed-Asian-kid childhood. To the contrary, her parents “taught me to say yes to everything,” she says, nursing a head cold and sipping a ginger lemonade over lunch at a café in Culver City, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. It’s a philosophy that Wong continues to take to heart—although, now that she’s become one of America’s hottest comedians, one that she’s starting to reconsider.

It’s been just over a year since Wong debuted her smash Netflix special Baby Cobra, an hour’s worth of filthy, razor-sharp jokes about hooking up with Asian guys (“It’s like making love to a dolphin”), contracting HPV (“You don’t have HPV yet, you’re a fucking loser, all right?”), and “trapping” a hot Asian American Harvard MBA and making him her husband. The special—recorded, incredibly, when Wong was seven and a half months pregnant—was the rare work of comedy that not only made its subject famous, but also reset the standard of what stand-up comedy could be. “Nobody else is doing what she’s doing,” comedian W. Kamau Bell, a longtime admirer of Wong’s, tells me. “She’s got this millennial take on the world, and a strong take on feminism and being an Asian woman. And then, her being pregnant, it’s like the cherry on top. It was like watching an athletic event.”

For Wong, it meant a crazy new level of fame that would place her alongside Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock at a series of now-legendary pop-up shows in L.A. It would land her a deal with Random House to write a memoir about “childhood, dating, and failure” (due in 2018). It would help her sell out almost every stop on a yearlong, 23-city North American tour—including seven shows this August at Nob Hill’s 3,300-seat Masonic theater. And, perhaps wildest of all, it would make Wong into a Halloween costume, with liberal interpretations of her Baby Cobra getup—complete with H&M minidress, red glasses, and generous baby bump— blowing up all over Instagram last fall. (“The coolest shit that’s ever happened to any comedian,” says Bell.)

Exciting as all of this was, it was just the latest example of Wong subverting expectations. The last of Adolphus and Tammy Wong’s four kids and the youngest by a decade, Wong has been surprising people virtually from conception. (Her father once told her “he got so pissed at my mom for not taking her birth control and getting pregnant with me.”) But to those who’ve known her the longest, Wong’s star turn has not been unexpected. “From the very first second, Ali was a phenomenon,” says comedian Chris Garcia, who came up with Wong in San Francisco’s talent-rich comedy club scene in the mid-2000s. “No one had ever seen anyone like her. She had these Chun-Li buns like in Street Fighter , and she was like an adorable little Asian girl who talked like a dirty old man. And it was authentic to her.”

Her act—“dirty and crass and opinionated” from day one, according to Garcia, who was also Wong’s boyfriend for a few years—perfectly mirrored her personality. What you saw onstage was, more or less, what you got off it. “I remember when Ali first got her period,” says her sister Mimi Wong, who was in her 20s at the time. “She was so excited, and she said she was going to go call her friend, who was a guy.” A guy! Mimi chalked this up to some possible generational shift that might have occurred between her teen years and Ali’s. But then she realized that their age gap couldn’t fully explain her baby sister’s innate brazenness, or her desire to disclose an experience that, in other girls her age, could be a source of deep embarrassment. Maybe, Mimi ultimately realized, it wasn’t an age thing. Maybe it was just an Ali Wong thing.


It used to be
rare for a comic to become a household name virtually overnight, without the slow drip of late-night talk show spots, sketch show appearances, network sitcom gigs, and feature slots on Comedy Central. Rock, Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K.—all were road comics for years before getting mini-breaks that led to bigger breaks that led, eventually, to stardom. Wong, however, went from middle-tier club act to marquee headliner almost instantly.

Such is the virality of Netflix, which debuted Baby Cobra over Mother’s Day weekend in May 2016, immediately capturing the attention of a galaxy of tweeting comedians and celebrities including Schumer, Jim Gaffigan, Taylor Momsen, Randall Park, John Mulaney, Moshe Kasher, Jay Duplass, and Questlove. The special clicked with women who were exhausted by the Lean In crowd’s having-it-all expectations, with Asian Americans who were tired of being exoticized by white people, and with working moms who were just plain tired. Soon Wong was being profiled by the New Yorker, Vogue, and the Washington Post, appearing on Marc Maron’s podcast—where she exposed the host to the intimacies of a mechanized breast pump—walking in a fall fashion show in New York, and chopping it up with new pals and mentors Rock and Judd Apatow.

Eleven years into her stand-up career, Wong’s first TV special—raunchy, unflinching, taboo-probing, progesterone-enhanced, and hysterical as shit—had landed her at the very top of the comedy game. (According to promoter Live Nation, she is now among the top 10 grossing comics in the country.) Still, it wasn’t clear to Wong if all the media attention she’d attracted would translate into packed shows once she hit the road again. That changed when she booked her first series of headline gigs over last Christmas at Cobb’s Comedy Club in North Beach. “They were the first three shows I’d put on my website since the special, and they sold out in a minute. And I couldn’t believe it,” Wong says. “We added two more because I was like, ‘I’ll stay until the Monday after Christmas.’ And those sold out in a minute. And people were paying $300 to $500 on StubHub. Which was a total rip-off ! It gave me a heart attack.”

The full reach of her new fame was confirmed when she started adding shows at grand theater venues around the country—six in L.A., six in New York, four in Washington, D.C., two in Chicago, two in Austin, six in Vancouver—that rapidly sold out as well. All of a sudden, Wong wasn’t likely to benefit from the whiplash effect that she’d had on audiences her whole career. Now she was a known quantity: that hilarious pregnant Asian lady who likes to administer surprise prostate exams to men in bed and whose body is not actually a secret garden but a public park—one that has hosted many reggaefests and has let two homeless people inside. (“I thought they were hipsters!”)

Now that her audiences came primed for her voice (and might have paid several hundred bucks to hear it), the pressure was of a different caliber. “I got scared that it would make me lazy, because I didn’t have to earn their respect and excitement like I used to,” Wong says. The solution was both obvious and natural: She’d work like a crazy woman. Wong is famous in stand-up circles for her tenacity, working new material at multiple small clubs several times a week when she’s at home in L.A. While she’s on the road, says comedian Kevin Camia, who has known Wong since her start in San Francisco and is currently opening for her on tour, she’ll do two hour-long sets in a night, between which she’ll listen to a recording of the first one and make notes, performing the second with those improvements in mind. “She’ll always continue to tweak,” he says. “The pacing is different, word choices, punch lines, tags. I mean, she’s always working on her stand-up.”

That approach seems to be paying off. Camia says that her new live act, which he and Wong both describe as a direct sequel to Baby Cobra—now with real baby!—is even funnier than the riotous hour of comedy that preceded it. “I see it every night that we’re on this tour, and it’s incredible,” he says. “I would say that it lands even harder." 


Wong’s family
has different theories about where Ali’s brand of funny comes from. Her mother, Tammy, says that Vietnamese people have a natural taste for irony that stems from surviving war and other hardships: “We find a sense of humor in everything,” she says. “Good or bad, we make a joke out of it.” But Ali and her sister Mimi both surmise that their father may have unwittingly provided the model for the comic Ali would eventually become.

Adolphus Wong, the child of a Chinatown sweatshop worker and a cook who went on to study at UC Berkeley and become an anesthesiologist at a Kaiser hospital in San Francisco, was a lifelong button pusher. When nature called and he couldn’t find a bathroom, he used to pull out a jar that he kept in his backpack and, to his children’s mortification, pee into it in public. “In one sense, he was very clinical about it,” Mimi says. “Like, ‘Pee is sterile, it’s not that dirty.’ But he knew how it made everybody feel.”

“My dad was a very unconventional Asian American man,” Ali says. “He was very much not quiet, not shy, not passive. If he had to fart, he’d do it in the library. He did not care. He was like, ‘I don’t know these people. I’m uncomfortable and I need to let it go.’ That tension”—the feeling of being embarrassed and yet thrilled by watching her father do something forbidden and gross—“it really stuck with me.”

Ultimately, the need to communicate things that were both objectively true and societally wrong would become the life force of her comedy: “It’s what I’m drawn to,” Wong says. Before he died of cancer in 2011, Wong’s father also bequeathed to her a love of exploration, taking her to concerts and art museums and exposing her to Asian foods and San Francisco’s Chinese culture. As a child, Adolphus had spent his summers at Cameron House, the Christian community center on Sacramento Street in Chinatown, and each of the four Wong kids logged countless summer hours there as well. “For some reason my siblings weren’t into it,” Ali says, “but I loved it.”

Because she was enrolled in the private Katherine Delmar Burke School, where the student body was predominantly wealthy and white, Wong adored being thrown in every summer with the working-class kids of Chinatown, whose “parents were cops, teachers, electricians, plumbers.” Despite her privileged status as a doctor’s daughter, Wong gained acceptance the way her father more or less had taught her: by practicing random acts of inappropriateness.

“This kid was going to the bathroom in the port-a-potty,” she recalls, chuckling, “and it was obvious he was taking a poo. And you know how on a port-a-potty there’s the sign that says ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’? I learned that that’s basically the lock, so if you press on that circle and shift the sign”—she starts to laugh uncontrollably at the memory—“you can unlock the door. And I shifted it and opened the door and, in front of the whole day camp, let everyone see this kid going poo. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world.” (Wong bumped into that kid recently; he’s still emotionally scarred, she says.)

After graduating from University High as the student body president, Wong went to UCLA, where she majored in Asian American studies and performed in a theater troupe helmed by her friend Park, now the star of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. (Wong wrote for the show’s first two seasons.) In 2005, she returned home to San Francisco to try her hand at comedy. By day she worked as a receptionist at the California Wellness Foundation, “a bourgie nonprofit, where you feel like you’re doing good without being a martyr.” She remembers the job being as easy as it was gratifying: “Just answer a couple of phone calls, transfer, and write jokes all day long.”

She started directing and headlining in comedy shows at small black-box theaters in the Mission, and almost immediately, says her ex-boyfriend Garcia, she “turned heads.” “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is Oprah. This is a little half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese Oprah that I’m meeting here!’” he says. She was, however, always filthier than Oprah. “If you think my stuff is dirty now…” Wong says, before detailing an old bit from her sexually prolific 20s. “Someone recently reminded me about a joke I used to do that I forgot about,” she says, “about how, like, when men finish inside of you and you have to have your hand between your legs and waddle to the toilet and just sit on the toilet and drain yourself out for five minutes. And now I’m just like, that’s so disgusting! I can’t believe I used to talk about that!”

For a few years, Wong resisted breaking the news to her parents that she aspired to be a professional comedian. Tammy, a retired social worker, recalls being dismayed when she finally learned the truth: “I remember seeing [Ali] downstairs saying goodbye to her friends, and she says, ‘I’ll see you at the club.’ And I go downstairs and I say, ‘What club? What are you doing? Are you doing something evil?’ And she just said, ‘Calm down, calm down, Mom.’”

Once she got over the initial shock, Tammy blessed her daughter’s career decision: “I said, ‘Go ahead and do anything you want to do, as long as it’s not illegal.’” As for the substance of her daughter’s act, very little offends Tammy: “Remember, I’m a social worker,” she says. “I’m exposed to quite a lot of situations.”

What’s clear after talking to Wong’s mother for a while is how much her daughter’s legendary work ethic is actually matrilineal in origin. One of 11 children, Tammy immigrated to Omaha, Nebraska, at a time—the late ’50s—when few of her midwestern neighbors had even heard of Vietnam. “Everywhere I go, they look at me from top to bottom, like I’m from another planet,” she says. She earned her social work degree at St. Louis University and worked for a foster care agency in Pontiac, Michigan, before moving to San Francisco in 1967. Later, after she met Adolphus (they married one month after meeting) and started to have children, she insisted on working. “I told my husband that I know your job is busy and everything, but I myself want to work too,” she says. “In my family, the women are all always working. They are all very capable.”

She tells me about one of her sisters, who, under Communist rule in Vietnam, raised five children on her own after her husband died at age 40, before escaping the country for America. “I think, gee, I didn’t even do half of what she did,” Tammy says. But she did do plenty. For 35 years, until her husband passed away, Tammy, now 77, worked part-time, providing services to foster care kids, refugees, and the elderly. Now, when she talks about the professional drive of her youngest daughter—whom she calls Alexandra—she sounds as if she’s also talking about herself. “Alexandra is not doing this because she has to,” Tammy says. “She wants to do it to improve herself. She loves her career, and that’s what is important.” 


For fans of
Baby Cobra, all this talk of hard work and self-improvement may raise some eyebrows. After all, doesn’t Wong repeatedly claim that she’d rather not work at all? Doesn’t she decry feminism as “the worst thing that ever happened to women,” for putting an end to the days when “our job used to be no job”? As it turns out, Wong isn’t so much a self-hating feminist as she is a self-correcting workaholic. Though she is admittedly busy with somewhere in the range of five vocations right now—raising her daughter; acting in an ABC sitcom, American Housewife; writing a movie script with pal Park; collecting ideas for her upcoming memoir; and performing sold-out stand-up shows up and down the continent—she insists that she is not trying to become the Asian American Amy Schumer.

“I don’t want to be that famous,” Wong says. “Every comic is taught that you’re supposed to have a great seven-minute set and then get a sitcom. And I don’t want to get the sitcom. Amy’s amazing and I adore her and love her, but I don’t want to work that hard. Amy works her ass off. However much you think she’s working, she’s working 20 times as hard.”

“I like being able to walk around and look like shit,” she continues. “Fresh Off the Boat was getting this honorary day at city hall in L.A., and I thought it was just going to be the cast and the mayor, and there were all of these people there, and I looked like this communist peasant in this nightgowny kind of dress. I was wearing no makeup, and I was on the verge of getting sick, and all of these people wanted to take pictures and talk to me. And I was like, ‘I look like shit, and I don’t want to take a picture!’”

“The desire to just, like, chill is real,” she finishes. That being said, she was thrilled to become a Halloween costume: “That was amazing. I couldn’t believe that. All of these white men were even doing it. And supposedly there was this gang of gay black men in New York who were dressed up as me too.” She was also flabbergasted to be offered the chance to throw out the first pitch at the August 8 Giants game. All of this was, and still is, hugely flattering. But it’s not what drives her. “I want to see my kid, and I want to be good at stand-up,” she says. “A lot of people get into stand-up as a back door into acting or something. But I really like writing jokes and telling jokes. And that’s really all I ever wanted to do.”

Her biggest fear? “To think that maybe I’d peaked and that Baby Cobra became this albatross that I’d have to overcome. That’d be the worst thing. I don’t want to get bad at stand-up because I was too distracted by all of these other things.” To ensure that this fear doesn’t come true, Wong will keep doing exactly what it is that got her here: going out every night, hitting the clubs, chasing “the biggest rush in stand-up”—the new joke.

“I just thought of this idea last night,” she says as we finish up lunch. “I hesitate to talk about it now because I haven’t even talked about it onstage.” She proceeds to walk me through an idea that is, well, indisputably offensive. I am nodding supportively as she describes it, but I’m also a little bit appalled. Later, through her publicist, Wong will ask me not to write about the joke in this article because “it isn’t fully developed and [she] doesn’t want it out there without context.” Good call.

“It isn’t funny yet,” Wong admits after rehearsing the new idea to me. “But there’s something I know instinctively is wrong and funny about it. And it instinctively feels like something I want to talk about. I’m too sick to go onstage tonight to work on it. But tomorrow night I’m gonna go out and I’ll try. And then…we’ll see.”

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Email Jon Steinberg at jsteinberg@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Jon Steinberg on Twitter @JonSteinberg31