Screen Test

TV reviews: Asian American comic Ali Wong's Netflix show gets major buzz

Ali Wong takes on subjects such as her Asian-American identity, infertility struggles and thoughts on feminism in Ali Wong: Baby Cobra.
Ali Wong takes on subjects such as her Asian-American identity, infertility struggles and thoughts on feminism in Ali Wong: Baby Cobra.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Move over, Amy Schumer and Margaret Cho, here comes comedienne Ali Wong giving them a run for their money

If you haven't heard the name Ali Wong, make a mental note of it because the Asian-American comic is about to take off like a rocket.

The 34-year-old has been doing stand-up for years and also writes for the sitcom Fresh Off The Boat. But it is Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, her incisively funny Netflix comedy special that is now introducing her to a wider audience and getting major word-of-mouth buzz in the United States.

She flits easily from weightier subjects such as her Asian-American identity, infertility struggles and thoughts on feminism, to more base jokes about her sexual proclivities and toilet habits.

When it comes to female comics who can translate their edginess into mainstream appeal, Amy Schumer has become the standard-bearer. But Wong pulls off the same trick with aplomb, delivering well-crafted and quietly subversive material that will have you giggling to yourself for days.

Her first act of subversion is apparent as soon as she steps on stage and reveals a massive baby bump.

As she points out, it is basically unheard of for comediennes to perform while pregnant, much less seven months in. And once they do get pregnant, they tend to vanish.

  • VIEW IT / ALI WONG: BABY COBRA

  • Netflix

    4/5 stars

    GIRLFRIENDS' GUIDE TO DIVORCE S2

    Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316 and StarHub TV Channel 510) Monday to Thursday, 9.45pm

    2.5/5 stars

Not so with male comics, of course.

"When they have a baby, they'll get up on stage and are like, 'Guys, I just had a f****** baby, that baby's a piece of s***, it's so annoying and boring!' And all these other s****y 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."

It is hilarious, of course, but if being a white heterosexual male is the lowest difficulty setting in comedy, imagine being female, an ethnic minority and knocked up to boot. Wong's accomplishments suddenly seem that much more impressive.

Her second radical act is to thoroughly demolish the notion that an Asian woman must be shy and submissive, as vast swathes of the world still seem to believe.

Her unapologetically frank admissions about her sexual history also make for an interesting contrast with Schumer, who often incorporates an exaggerated "slutty" persona into her routine.

Whereas Schumer's is very obviously put-on and hammed up, Wong wears hers lightly. This is wonderfully refreshing, even when she is nonchalantly pantomiming a sex act on stage.

There are obvious parallels with Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho in her act and they are often valid ones, especially in Wong's matter-of-fact ribaldry and the urban, "home girl" cadence she sometimes slips into.

Wong is more mainstream, however - if for no other reason than her more straightforward sexuality compared to the openly bisexual Cho.

But she takes her cisgender status and runs with it, spinning a cracking line of jokes about the benefits of dating a fellow Asian (you can be openly racist together, for the one thing - which in the case of the Chinese-Vietnamese Wong and her Japanese-Filipino husband apparently means open season on Koreans).

This incorporates an ode to dating Asian men that co-opts, then defuses, some of the stupidest negative stereotypes about this group.

Less successful is her rant about feminism being "the worst thing that ever happened to women - our job used to be no job, we had it so good".

Her wisecracks about not wanting to "lean in", but rather "lie the f*** down" - and how she trapped her husband into getting married and having a baby because "he graduated from Harvard Business School and I don't want to work any more" - are clearly meant to be semi-ironic, but it does not entirely work and is some of the weakest material in the set.

It is doubtful that appropriating this particular stereotype about gold-digging women will enlighten or help anyone, but she saves it partially by adding a nice twist to the ending of her bagging-a-rich- husband tale.

There is heaps more good stuff in her podcasts too, so this funny woman is definitely one to watch.

Also making a valiant attempt to undermine certain female stereotypes are the women of Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce, a comedy-drama about a self-help author, Abby (Lisa Edelstein), whose own life is in shambles.

As she and gal pals Phoebe (Beau Garrett) and Jo (Alanna Ubach) juggle their careers, exes and friendships with one another, the show seems to be positioning itself as an heir to Sex And The City (1998 to 2004), right down to the romantic-comedy cliche of having a writer/journalist as the main character.

Instead of four singles in New York, here you get a bunch of married and divorced female friends leading impossibly glamorous lives in Los Angeles.

But the similarities stop there. This lacks the flashes of wit and insight that leavened the early seasons of that show, and often commits many of the same sins by being glib, superficial and blindingly white and bourgeois, aside from a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-them romantic interests.

Abby is frequently annoying as well, but that is not necessarily a bad thing - some of the series' best moments come from exposing the hollowness of the mask she puts on for the world, which in this season involves pretending to be a divorce guru while secretly trying to reconcile with her husband.

And like Sex And The City, the series sporadically hints at the complexities and contradictions of female friendships - something that most dramas ignore, oversimplify or exaggerate.

HBO's Girls and the British series Doll & Em are among the notable exceptions, but Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce seems too busy admiring its own reflection in a shallow pool to do the work required to join them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Funny, Asian and pregnant'. Print Edition | Subscribe