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Ali Wong's Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Part standup review, part lamentation of suffering from Greatness.
Without knowing I was doing so in a timely fashion, just a couple of weeks after the release of DON WONG — an hour of comedy shrewdly titled like a hip-hop album — I recently found myself watching all three Netflix standup specials by meteoric comedy ascendant, actor/writer/Fulbright scholar Ali Wong. I also watched them in the “wrong” order: first I hopped along for the ride as my partner put on Wong’s second hour, the perfectly named HARD KNOCK WIFE (2018); then we watched her new release, Don Wong; and then, finally, crucially — immediately afterward — we tore into Wong’s first outing, her appropriately titled standup debut, BABY COBRA (2016).
As the Vulture review “Ali Wong Embraces Unrelatability” notes:
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 […] there’s a conspicuous overall development.
The first thing I have to say about this is that while it’s true that standup specials usually aren’t viewed as forming a narrative, that’s ridiculous. There’s no legitimate reason why comedy shouldn’t be considered in that way. If anything, many of the qualities for which standup is most notorious include how personal, intimate, plaintive, and rooted in pain it can be compared to other avenues of artistic expression. An idea sometimes expressed by comedians is that its next closest kin among art forms is that of the solo singer-songwriter — not coincidentally, a format often integrated into solo comedy performances — wherein an individual who writes their own material gets up on stage completely alone, usually with little to no backup, baring their soul.
Why, then, shouldn’t we look at a given comedian’s output as forming a narrative about that individual — whether or not they intended it to do so? For one example, there’s a clear, much discussed throughline tying the ultra-high-effort specials of Bo Burnham together: a story about the intersections between his work, his fame, and his mental health, explicitly culminating in the unequivocal quarantine smash hit Inside, an auteurist masterwork rich with callbacks and intertextual connective tissue.
There’s a throughline just as clear, if not clearer, binding the unintentional, too-true-to-be-planned trilogy that is Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife, and Don Wong. It’s right there in the text, charting the history of Wong’s marriage and comedy career — and it’s also subtextually loaded with the onscreen transformation of a hungry comedy everywoman into a thirsty celebrity superwoman.
Culturally, we seem comfortable drawing these narrative connections between the works of a comedian like Burnham, whose Whole Thing is juggling a thousand things that look incredibly hard; so it strikes me as unjust that a comedic voice like Ali Wong should be deprived of such an analysis for the crime of making comedy look easy.
A running theme of Baby Cobra — a special in which Wong appears like someone you dormed with in college and over seven months pregnant — is the amusingly blunt assertion that Wong got pregnant to “trap” her husband, tech executive and Harvard Business product Justin Hakuta, in the hopes of becoming a stay-at-home trophy wife. In one of the biggest laugh lines of the hour, with expressive body language and a nonchalantly staccato delivery, Wong takes a deeply relatable jab at the Lean In™ hustle culture for women:
Well, I don't wanna lean - in - okay? I wanna lie - down.
A running theme of Hard Knock Wife — a special in which Wong appears like someone you tried to hook up with at a slightly bougie bar in 2009 and again over seven months pregnant — is also about the economic propositions inextricable from marriage and family planning, but this time…the calculus has started to shift:
I don’t suck dick no more. When you give birth to a baby, they hand you a diploma that says, “Congratulations, you’ve earned the right to not suck dick out of obligation anymore.” If my husband were to demand that I suck his dick, I would laugh in his face. And then I would go to sleep, and guess what? In the morning, he’s still there, ain’t no consequence. We’re handcuffed together by a baby and a mortgage. Checkmate, bitch. It’s over. You ain’t got nowhere to run. I don’t gotta suck your dick anymore, you owe me money.
A running theme of Don Wong — a special in which Wong appears flawless, skin simply glowing, impeccably styled, decidedly not pregnant, and visibly fucking famous — is “money, power, and respect.”
Oh, and also — now that she has those three things — how much she wants to cheat on the aforementioned husband, a topic she sinks her teeth into over and over and over again with both gleeful abandon and sincere consternation:
For women, no matter how much money, power, or respect you earn, you are never allowed to behave badly and get away with it. But that’s all I want to do.
In an extremely memorable bit early on, setting the tone and even a sort of thesis statement for the show, she veers hard back into the economics of dicksucking:
You should feel so lucky, so flattered, so blessed and highly favored, if you ever had the opportunity to get your dick sucked by a woman that makes a lot more money than you. Because out of all the things this important woman could be doing with her valuable time, all of her responsibilities, all the interesting opportunities and deals knocking on her door — but nooo!
Another standout moment from the special, serving as something of a climax (ayo) is this searing, beautifully unchained bit of explicit celeb-on-celeb sexual fantasy — and pretty much her highkey, barely oblique elevator pitch to one of the hottest men alive:
People don’t like it when women cheat, you know, and they’ll really turn on you because they feel betrayed, especially if you’re a mom. It’s too contrary to your wholesome, loving image. And that’s why I’m trying to let all of you know now — that I’m a real piece of shit, okay? I want you to really listen to me and understand this and believe me, so that you’re not shocked or surprised, so that you don’t abandon me when you see the TMZ video of my face getting firehosed by Michael B. Jordan while I chant “Wakanda Forever!”
Given all of these running themes, I have little doubt that the narrative throughline I described above as right-there-in-the-text should come through for any attentive viewer who’s seen these specials in the order they were released. The subtextual journey, however, was made much starker for me by exactly the “wrong” order I saw them in — the specific order of Part 2, then Part 3, then Part 1 — which provided me the impression of a story that starts off in media res…then reaches a zenith where the heroine is at the height of her powers, conquering all…then goes back to her humble origins with a shocking prequel where it turns out that, as commanding and powerful as she is now, once upon a time she was just like us.
It's a different type of rules that we obey.
By Wong’s centering of her newfound status and all the outlandish frustrations and temptations that come with it, I could hardly disagree more with Esquire’s critique, “In Trying To Speak For Everyone, Ali Wong Loses Herself,” and similar reviews I’ve seen. While there’s room for reasonable criticism of areas in which Wong goes off-key — mostly when it comes to too-familiar, cisheteronormative Girl Power clichés in the vein of “no more faking orgasms, ladies!” or “get used to being bossed around, fellas!” or “I’d be so much more successful with a wife!” — I find it inconceivable to read Don Wong as anything but Wong’s most personal, most uniquely “Ali Wong” work.
Where Baby Cobra tapped into anxieties that were widely relatable, most especially to women, and Hard Knock Wife was sort of about occupying a difficult in-between space in the formation of a family and the life of a creative spirit, Don Wong is about something far fewer of us have direct experience of: the challenges of knowing you’re at the top of your game, at an absolute peak in your life and career, overwhelmed with sheer possibility — and the way that turns every single decisive choice you make into, quite possibly, the very real sacrifice of something better that might have been.
Hidden inside that deeply specific experience that only an Ali Wong is having right now, there’s a kernel of the universal — because, in grim fact, this is secretly true of us all: every significant choice we make really could be costing us something else that we then, as a result of our choice, might never even know had been available to us.
Were this narrative being related to us by the wrong person, it would be insufferable, perhaps even morally indefensible. We don’t want or need to hear sermons about the tragedy of opportunity cost from yet another annoying billionaire or tech executive who thinks wealth equals wisdom. We don’t want or need standup on the trials of success from someone too big and protected from their own gaffes and missteps, like a Jerry Seinfeld; or from someone who got there by way of nepotism and rich parents, like, frankly, most celebrity actors and comedians; or from any comedian who is white.
This narrative — this potentially alienating, aggravating, even disempowering narrative of empowerment — works coming from Ali Wong because we know where she’s been and how she got where she is. We believe her struggles because we were there for them. We know her arc has been what she says it’s been because she’s been telling us about it all along. We root for her success because we watched her earn it.
It’s for all of these reasons that the callback hits so hard — in a joke premise as niche as “it sucks to be supporting the husband I thought would get rich” — when she says:
I’m leaning - in, and he’s lying - down.
All of that is to say: Don Wong works so well precisely because of the narrative first established in Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. In other words, it works because standup specials do tell a story, and this one is the completion of a character arc.
This particular character arc is not unfamiliar to us — though indirectly, with presumably (and hopefully) different outcomes via unchecked male privilege. As Wong herself points out in this very special, our culture is accepting of men behaving badly in ways it absolutely does not tolerate from women (and many other non-men).
Is there any other artist you can think of — a man, perhaps even one who’s been in the public eye recently, steeped in controversy — who’s explicitly made the text of his work a document of what it’s like to know you’re at the top of your game, leading the pack, refusing to deny your own greatness or the rewards you feel you’ve earned?
Another artist who’s always been vocal and upfront about craving the freedom to behave badly?
Another artist whose brand has been built on being the one who’ll go ahead and say the things most of us are afraid to — including some things we really shouldn’t?
Another artist who — unlike Wong — has gotten to screw up in the public eye, over and over, without facing many lasting career consequences to speak of?
An artist who debuted with a trilogy that was very intentional, too planned to be true — right down to choosing three perfect titles in advance?
Anyway, here are some lyrics to a song I love by an artist I continue to struggle with:
People say "Don't say this, don't say that”
Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels
Weigh all the options, nothing's off the table
Today I thought about killing you, premeditated murder
I think about killing myself
And I, I love myself way more than I love you
The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.
SINISTRA BLACK is an LA-based writer-director, Transgender Anarchist killjoy, and broke-ass bitch at the top of her game.
She is available for hire or Michael B. Jordan, but he’s gonna need a safe word.
For more analysis of one person talking, check out DEAD EYES: On Hating the Nicest Guy in the World. If you didn’t think Jessica Jones was racist, try Jessica Jones Season 1 Is Way More Racist Than You Remember. If neither, whatever idc tbh
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Images referenced under Fair Use.