Rising comedienne Ali Wong remembers the time she failed at a live show here

Asian-American comic Ali Wong puts her marriage before material for her show

Comedienne Ali Wong was raised by unconventional parents who did not believe in censorship or assimilation into their family's white neighbourhood.
Comedienne Ali Wong was raised by unconventional parents who did not believe in censorship or assimilation into their family's white neighbourhood. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALI WONG

How do you get away with making jokes about race or your own marriage?

Asian-American comic Ali Wong says you had better check your cultural references are up-to-date on the first topic and get spousal clearance on the second.

She should know, having earned rave reviews for the Netflix stand-up comedy special Baby Cobra, which showcases her incisive and personal take on subjects such as race, sex, marriage and sexism.

Since it debuted last month, the hour-long special has made the 34-year-old something of a rising star in comedy, after plugging away at her craft for 10 years now, at one point performing nine shows a night and not taking a break even on her wedding day or while seven months pregnant, which was when the Netflix special was filmed.

When she meets The Straits Times over coffee in Los Angeles, she is wearing workout clothes and no make-up and has just come off back-to-back nights, performing till the wee hours, followed by early morning starts with baby daughter Mari.

"Last night I did one show and the night before I did three shows. We got Mari on a schedule where she's in bed at 8pm and we have a ton of milk in the freezer in case she gets hungry. I think my husband's so happy to have alone time with her too," says Wong, who is married to entrepreneur Justin Hakuta, 34.

"And the shows are all at night, which is great, although waking up early, that's the hard part. Now that she's six months old, it's starting to catch up with me."

She intends to keep treading the boards as she juggles this with motherhood and her third job as a writer on the popular sitcom Fresh Off The Boat.

"I don't perform every night, but I do it at least four nights a week because if I don't, then I'll lose it. If I go three nights in a row without doing it, I get scared when I go in front of the audience."

Subjecting herself to this high- wire act is the only way to test new material and stay current, she believes.

"Sometimes you'll see stand-up comics who are out of touch with reality or their references are old and it's because they've not been performing regularly.

"To me, a big litmus test is to see if a white or black stand-up comic has, like, really old Asian jokes that rely on stereotypes from the 1980s. If they do, they're done to me, they're scorched earth. As a comic, I'm just disgusted at how out of touch they are."

Regularly performing new material live, on the other hand, enables a comic to "feed off what is now and get the energy and feedback of an audience".

This is why Wong herself waited years before agreeing to do a comedy special for television even though multiple networks approached her about it.

"It was a long road, but it was very much on purpose. I think if you do a special too early, there's no way it's going to be good if you've been doing stand-up for under 10 years, I think.

"In order to be a great stand-up comic, you have to have done it for a long time - it takes a lot of time and work and honing your craft and going through some major lows in life to have that good stand-up juice gushing out of you."

But she freely admits that she still tanks now and then, including once in Singapore about five or six years ago, when she performed in a show with Singapore funnyman Kumar and the audience just did not seem to get her humour.

"It did not go well," she says. "I'm not sure why. But I also think I wasn't as good a comic then. I'm much better now than I was five years ago."

She also chooses to ignore the fact that as an Asian woman, the odds were stacked against her in the male-dominated world of stand-up.

"From an academic perspective, it's interesting to analyse that stuff. But from your own perspective, if you are that person who's a woman of colour or whatever, you should use all that stuff to empower you rather than let it hinder you.

"If you look at it like a constraint, that will become the reality. But if you view it as a factor that contributes to a unique point of view, then you can use all those things."

She credits this outlook to an unusual upbringing in San Francisco, where she and her three siblings were raised by an American-born Chinese father and Vietnameseimmigrant mother, a background she draws on when writing for Fresh Off The Boat, a series about a Taiwanese-American family in Florida.

Of her late father, an anaesthesiologist, she says: "It absolutely came from my dad because my dad was always like that - just being proud of who he was.

"He was like the anti-assimilator in a lot of ways. We grew up in a predominantly rich white neighbourhood and went to a very white private school, but he didn't try and conform and be like everybody else.

"He decked our house out like a crazy Asian household - like, every rug was a super Chinese rug, we had stone carvings and Eight Immortals paintings all over the house and when we went out for food, it was always Chinese food."

Wong's family has always supported her choice of career, she says. "I don't know if my mum knows exactly what's going on or if my dad knew when he was alive, but they were always very proud and very supportive."

They have also embraced her bawdiest material, she says.

"I come from a really unconventional family. To give you an example, my parents took me to see Pulp Fiction when I was in sixth grade," she says, referring to Quentin Tarantino's violent 1994 crime film. "They were really not into censorship. They would make dirty jokes at home all the time too."

Her husband, Mr Hakuta, who is of Japanese and Filipino descent, is a fan of hers as well, despite occasionally being the subject of the joke himself.

"Before we got together, we had met at a wedding and then I invited him to a show. He saw me at that show and he was so into it.

"Since then, we have this system where I will test out a joke that involves him at small shows in Los Angeles and if I think it really has legs and it's almost near completion, I'll go to him and say, 'Here it is. Yay or nay?'

"If he's like, 'I don't want that out there', then it's scratched," she explains, adding that her husband exercises his veto "maybe 25 per cent of the time".

But she happily acquiesces when he does.

"Marriage is a priority over material. I can always make new jokes, but I can't marry another man. I don't want to."

•Ali Wong: Baby Cobra is out on Netflix.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline Rising comedienne Ali Wong remembers the time she failed at a live show here. Subscribe