In her daytime job, Ali Wong writes for the popular ABC family show Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American family sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. Wong is also a stand-up comedian who just debuted her Netflix original special, Baby Cobra, this month. Wong has honed her craft as a writer for more than a decade, and has also acted on network shows like Are You There, Chelsea? and Blackbox.
Her Netflix stand-up special — filmed while she was pregnant — is refreshingly raunchy, raw and honest, spanning from topics like her miscarriage to the sexiness of Asian American men (dolphins!) and more.
I chatted with Wong, who is Chinese and Vietnamese American, about her Netflix special, diversity in the writers room, and on being a woman comic.
Below are snippets from our conversation. Catch Baby Cobra on Netflix now, and the Season Finale of Fresh Off the Boat Tuesday night on ABC.
On reactions to her Netflix special, Baby Cobra, and Steve Yeun’s surprising tweet
It’s really interesting. Netflix is new territory. I’ve been on network shows, on an NBC sitcom and an ABC drama, and the next day you know what the ratings are. With Netflix, it’s an ongoing marathon. It’s not like other things where it premieres, or like box office sales. It’s been interesting because I couldn’t sleep because I thought no one would watch it. Then the day it came out in the morning, I already started getting some traction on my Twitter. And I was like, who are these people watching the special in the morning? Like, don’t people have jobs? And then it was like really exciting at 3 o’clock in L.A. when I saw the tweet from Steven Yeun telling his followers to watch it. And I was like, what?! That was probably the most exciting and unexpected thing, because I’m such a fan of him. I think his character on The Walking Dead has been one of the most progressive milestones in Asian American presence in media. So that was really exciting.
On the value of a diverse writers room
I think you’ll make a better show the more diverse your writers room is in general. You’ll just have more people who are in touch with different populations and have as many voices as possible. I think it’s very important to have a diverse writer’s room in general.
On how TV has changed for Asian Americans
Now I do feel like there’s been this shift, where before there was a lot of pressure to seek diversity in casting, in writers rooms. I think the networks felt pressure to diversify for diversity’s sake and for political correctness and was for ethical [reasons], rather than for business. When Empire, Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish were all the shows to get renewed and get all the buzz, then I think there was a big change. These are the shows with a unique voice that’s unheard of and getting press and also viewers. I think that’s what’s really going to affect change, when it’s a good business decision to have people of color in front of the camera, and behind the camera.
On the idea of “supporting” women comics
One of the things I get frustrated with is the word “support.” You know, “support female comedy.” I think that’s a disservice to females in comedy. Especially when it’s entertainment. If you’re a politician, yes, by all means, support then, if you’re a charity, they need support. But comedy is not a charity. Do you think people say, “support Louis C. K.,” “support Kevin Hart?” No, you go because they’re funny. But they have to earn that. To me, I just don’t think the word support should have any place in entertainment. The word support suggests that you’re donating your time and money rather than paying for something that you want that you’re dying to see or hear.
And also take out the category of “female comedy.” “Female comedy” is not an actual genre of comedy. What defines a comic is their point of view, their voice, their writing and their style of performance.
When she first realized she was funny
I was in this youth group growing up, in Chinatown. I would just do some sketches. It was really fun and people laughed, a lot. I had the opportunity to talk a lot in front of peers. I think it was really through that youth group (Cameron House in San Francisco Chinatown) that ignited my desire to perform. It kind of manifested itself in high school—I was the president of my school and I would lead the all-school meeting. It manifested itself in college, when I joined an Asian American theater group [LCC, or Lapu, the Cayote that Cares, Theatre Company]. That’s where I met Randall Park [who currently stars in Fresh Off the Boat]. Randall actually founded it, and that’s how I met him.
What about a Baby Cobra sequel?
If people do watch the special, and I hope they do, please give it five stars and leave a detailed comment on the page for Baby Cobra. It will increase the chances of getting another Netflix original special. I have been performing since the baby was born, and I have been talking a lot about my experience with motherhood. So if people want to see the Sequel to Baby Cobra, please rate it and write comments!
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) May 14, 2016
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The post is made possible by Comcast.