Ali Wong is jealous. And bitter. Her male comedian peers are scoring models and “fan pussy”, while she and her fellow female comics are dating magicians and swatting away frightening “fan dicks”. Even though time is up and we supposedly live in the most progressive era in modern history, it seems everything men do these days is not only exonerated but celebrated—whereas everything savvy, successful women do is wrapped in a suffocating corset of double standards. But, hell. At least those double standards make for fine comedy.
In Ali Wong: Don Wong, Wong’s first Netflix special in four years, something’s different about her since her appearance in Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (2018). No, it’s not just that for the first time in a major outing she is not exceedingly pregnant. It’s a deeper, more practiced sense of assuredness that underlies her stage presence and punchlines, brought on by her ballooning stand-up career and a starring turn in Nahnatchka Khan’s 2019 smash rom-com Always Be My Maybe. There’s a glimmer in her eyes (or it’s just the spotlight reflected off her signature red-rimmed glasses) and a smug, flat smile spread across her lips after each spectacular takedown of men’s orgasm faces or HGTV’s House Hunters. That delicious pompousness, often reserved for men in the stand-up game, has been sharpened over the course of her career, but here it’s never felt more earned.
However, with more monetary earnings and worldwide name recognition comes less relatability. Before the release of her first special, 2016’s Baby Cobra, Wong worked to “trap” her Harvard-educated boyfriend into marriage (and therefore financial security) with the prospects of a baby, partly because she “didn’t want to work anymore” and partly because she was “twenty pounds heavier, had bad acne, and no money.” Now, she’s met the entire cast of the Avengers—cue the applause. To circumnavigate the rift between launching to notoriety and staying grounded with her fans, Wong mostly sticks to the topics that beckoned 1,500 of them to see her at New Jersey’s Count Basie Center for the Arts in the first place, namely those around romantic power dynamics and grotesque bodily disfunction.
The latter continues to be a staple of her oeuvre, and the laughs and groans come in equal, reliable measures. Raunchiness (“blue humor”, as it’s deemed in the comedy world) can be a female comic’s hidden gem—our pearl-clutching puritan roots still make us squirm in our place when a comedienne viscerally describes sperm on her face (sorry). But blue humor no longer completely belongs to the realm of men, and its radical nature has declined as open dialogue around women’s sexuality has increased, thanks in part to trailblazers like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, and, yes, Wong herself.
When Wong describes in detail how she needs a dude to “put her in a headlock and say racist shit to [her]” in order to orgasm, the shock appeal has dwindled. But her jokes in this vein still largely work due to her uncompromising delivery and uncanny ability to use language to build visceral, idiosyncratic images. When outlining the logistics of cheating on her husband (she’d need enough of a heads up to stock up on new panties), she admits, “I’ve been with the same man for ten years, so all my underwear looks like it’s been snacked on by rats.”
Cheating, it turns out, is on Wong’s mind. As opposed to Chris Rock’s gut-curdling musings on adultery in Tamborine (2018), Wong’s confession is not on past transgressions but rather her exhaustive yearning to escape the confines of monogamy. It’s a clever—and dare I say relatable—distinction. As always, Wong’s forté is her ability to weave frank libidinous and autonomous desires both around and against the expectations of womanhood made possible by second- and third-wave feminism, slamming herself and womenkind in the process. “All women,” she affirms, “Are very good at being extremely unpleasant and holding your happiness and self-esteem hostage until we get what we deserve.”
Naturally, not all material lands. Some excessive pantomiming of sexual acts skews passé, and Wong occasionally treads too familiar of waters of previous specials (Asian women’s lifespans, women’s orgasm gap) without offering particularly fresh insights. For her contributions, director Nahnatcha Khan, admirably takes a no-fuss approach to her camerawork. She zeroes in on Wong primarily in medium close-ups, firmly solitary on stage, with cuts to the audience only when additive, like when she captures a viewer’s sideways glance to her partner right after a punchline about men’s inordinate amount of time spent in the bathroom in the morning.
Wong possesses a singular comedic voice, and when she abandons well-trodden generalizations of societal norms and instead focuses on how – even as a ludicrously successful comedian – she still butts up against inane sexual politics and contradictions, she soars. “Ali, you are full of shit,” Wong’s OBGYN tells her, deadly serious, after a CT scan of her intestinal tract. It turns out even her clogged colon is the result of internalized pressure to excel as a wife, a mom, a performer, and a goddamn modern woman. She may be full of shit, but one woman’s shit is another’s treasure.