Ali Wong had been a working comedian for years before the 2016 release of her first special, Baby Cobra, which she performed while seven months pregnant with her first child, catapulted her to stardom. Her 2018 follow-up, Hard-Knock Wife (filmed while she was pregnant with her second), was an equally raunchy exploration of married life and motherhood. Now, she’s starring in two Netflix projects — an animated series called Tuca & Bertie and a romantic comedy, Always Be My Maybe, which she wrote with her co-star, Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park — and has a book coming out this fall. But stand-up is still her lifeblood. Wong called just after arriving home in L.A. from a four-day, seven-gig stint in San Diego with her children in tow. “It was hectic,” she says. “Most comics masturbate and watch Netflix during the day and try to save their voices by not talking. I can’t afford to do that because I’ve got to take my kids to the zoo.”
Your character in Always Be My Maybe, Sasha, starts out in a relationship with a terrible guy. Have you had bad boyfriends that you modeled him on?
Actually, no. Before my husband, I dated guys who were kind of stuck. Great guys who were creative but only wanted to be big fish in a little pond and not move beyond that. The through-line is that they were all really into hallucinogens. What does that say about me, I wonder?
Keanu Reeves, playing a douchey version of himself, shows up as Sasha’s rebound boyfriend after her engagement fizzles. How did that come about?
In my Instagram and my specials, there’s a lot of expression of love and affection toward Asian American men. I knew I wanted to carry that into this movie, for all of my love interests to be Asian. We were like, “Who’s a dude that would be Marcus’ worst nightmare for Sasha to start dating once he realizes he’s been in love with her his entire life? Like, an iconic Asian man. Keanu Reeves.” [Reeves is part Chinese and Hawaiian.]
But we thought there was no way we’d get him, because the list of actors who are willing to play themselves and make fun of themselves, and then on top of that are funny and can act, is really small. It’s like, “Is Ice Cube available?” That’s what it comes down to, basically. And Keanu really is kind of elusive. But we sent him the script and heard back that he’d seen Baby Cobra and was a big fan. So he asked to meet me and Nahnatchka Khan, the director of the movie, at the Chateau Marmont.
How was the meeting?
He had just come from stunt training for John Wick, so he was beat up a little from that. I think he was, like, hanging from a rope in a warehouse, kicking and punching stuff. But he was hilarious and warm, and I was shocked at how detail-oriented he was about the script. He was like, “I have a question about page 80.” I was like, “I don’t even know what’s on page 80.”
Did he play the character as written or did he improvise?
He did improvise! At the Chateau Marmont he pitched a couple of things that made it in. Like wearing glasses that had no lens. And the part in the game night scene where he lists all of these Chinese dignitaries, that was all his idea. And when he says, “I don’t have a problem, Sasha. What’s your problem?” and starts air-fighting. It’s hard to describe just how shockingly funny he is.
Were there romantic comedies that you kept in mind while writing yours?
Boomerang was a big inspiration. I love the tone, because it has big moments and big characters but they’re not cartoonish. And for me it was so revolutionary because it was all these women being funny in a way you had never seen women be funny before. Like Eartha Kitt showing all this sexual prowess, Grace Jones as Strangé, Tisha Campbell. They were so unafraid to express what they wanted. On top of being grounded and hilarious, it’s sexy. And it had the confidence to go with the premise of a black advertising agency with all black employees. I found it very empowering. They didn’t explain it and certainly didn’t apologize for it. It just was what it was.
Your other new project, the animated series Tuca & Bertie, about two bird-women who are best friends, is silly and funny, but it’s also hits on some serious topics around the #MeToo movement and sexual assault. Was that a surprise to you?
Yeah, I was shocked when it started to go deep and dark. We got scripts as the recording process was going on. I would say a line sometimes in the booth and be like, “Damn, this shit is getting real.” That’s all Lisa Hanawalt, the creator of the show. She’s a freaking gem. She has a very unique point of view and is, like, a fantastic artist. Not only did she write those stories, she straight-up drew those birds, too. She and the writers had some things they wanted to say, and they said them. And Tiffany [Haddish, her co-star] and I were happy to go along for the ride.
Who were your comedy inspirations growing up?
I had a couple seasons of Pee-wee’s Playhouse on VHS and I’d watch that over and over. I loved Eddie Murphy and my brother was obsessed with him too, and he’d recorded a bunch of his iconic SNL skits, like when he imitated Stevie Wonder and James Brown, that hot-tub sketch and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood…And he had a cassette of Delirious that I’d listen to over and over. I also really loved Carol Burnett. Annie was one of my favorite movies, and she’s so funny in it, how she hates the orphanage and is always drunk. And she’d hit on that laundromat man, Mr. Bundles, and on Daddy Warbucks. I always find sexual women who are getting rejected really funny.
You get graphic about your relationship with your husband in your comedy. Does he vet your act?
If I have a joke that mentions him, I’ll test it out in small clubs, and once I feel like I want to bring it on my tour, that’s when I’ll go to him. He’s vetoed some stuff, mainly anything about his family. But he’s surprisingly open. He kind of has to be. He knew who he married.
Did he go watch you as a struggling comic?
No. Before we got married he saw me onstage maybe three to five times. He’s never been to a shitty show. I see these male comics bringing a girl they’re dating to these shitty shows, and the women seem so charmed and excited to be there even if they’ve heard that dude’s jokes a bunch of times. And I’m like, “Damn, that is not a good move. That’s, like, bad strategy.”
How is your life different now with two children?
I’m so glad I did it because now that my first kid is three and my second is one they entertain each other. Takes a lot of pressure off me. The other thing is that I give them the same haircut where they look like Asian Amélie. It’s really cute.
What’s it like touring with your family?
There’s a lot of activity. Leaving our Airbnb this morning, it was a whole rush. We had to strip the beds and take out the garbage and shit, because I didn’t want to get a bad review! And then we got a late start on the road because my mom wanted to go to this really yummy Vietnamese enclave in San Diego, so we went and picked up all these egg rolls. She literally bought 100. She had called beforehand to ask if they were going to have enough for her. Our whole minivan smelled like wonderful grease and pork. So, yeah, there’s a lot happening.
You’ve said that you don’t really enjoy being famous. What’s the worst part?
You know how Bruce Lee said there would always be men trying to fight him all the time? There’s this thing where people, men especially, try to prove they’re super-funny. Like someone’s cousin at a wedding who just starts to behave hella extra. That energy is a little strange. But the weirdest thing is when I come out of a bathroom stall at a restaurant now, someone will be waiting with a camera, standing there with their phone, smiling, and I haven’t washed my hands yet. And they’ll want to shake, hug me, whatever, when I’ve obviously just been expelling excrement out of my body. They don’t give a fuck.