You don’t need to suffer from synesthesia to smell certain comedy specials. Dave Chappelle’s whiffs of designer jackets, John Mulaney’s of fresh laundry and Jim Gaffigan’s the lingering stench of fast food. A great many reek of sweat and B.O. and an excess of leather. Ali Wong’s second Netflix special, Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife, has a pungent scent all its own — a combination of baby head, breast milk, sex fluids and that acrid, vinegary extreme perspiration that either comes from bodily trauma or not sleeping for three days straight. You probably don’t want to get anywhere near it, but you’ll definitely want to hear about everything that happened to produce it.
Premiering on Mother’s Day (May 13), Hard Knock Wife — along with the films Tully and Blockers — makes for some filthily maternal (and wonderfully progressive) counterprogramming. A (re)watch of Wong’s breakout special, 2015’s Baby Cobra, is highly recommended, since Hard Knock Wife serves as a sequel in many ways to the stories the comedian told about her strategic courtship of her Harvard Business School grad husband and her (patently untrue) desire to become a lady of leisure. As in Baby Cobra, Wong is once again many months pregnant. Her skintight, animal-print dress stretched over her bowling-ball baby bump silently explodes the borders between maternal and sexy, feminine and funny, selfless and attention-seeking. She yells, a lot, again, though with meticulous comic timing. You might have to be an Asian woman to fully understand how fucking exhilarating it is to watch a crowd applaud an Asian woman screaming at the top of her lungs.
Bluntly bawdy if a bit familiar, Hard Knock Wife is something like catching up with a gloriously TMI friend you haven’t seen in a while. In the years since Baby Cobra, Wong has become a mother, the breadwinning spouse, and a minor celebrity. The new special mostly riffs on these new developments. Its insights aren’t as original as Baby Cobra’s, but it’s a tighter set that left me howling alone in my apartment and hoping I’ll one day no longer be haunted by Wong’s reinterpretation of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic scene in The Shining as crazed anilingus.
Thanks to shows like Broad City and a slew of R-rated female-led comedies, feminist grotesquerie currently abounds in pop culture. But Wong’s remains distinct in its minute detail and lived experience. Some of her most defiantly gross material is focused on breastfeeding, which the comedian describes as “a savage ritual that reminds you that your body is a cafeteria now.” She echoes common (if important) complaints about the unfair burden shouldered by mothers and the need for universal maternity leave, then illustrates it with a thrillingly repellent story about a friend irrevocably changed, physically and emotionally, by a gnarly C-section and the difficult recovery thereof. Watching that bit, I almost felt bad for male comedians whose routines rely on how disgusting their own bodies are. As if anything about their floppy little slugs was as fantastical as the normal, regular mechanisms in women’s anatomy, or could hold a candle to the medical and caretaking horrors that can take place during delivery and early motherhood. Wong is far from the first to transform the female body into a comedy wonderland, but her simultaneous glee and shock at her own mammalian self — along with her mission to go where few comedians have gone before (like postpartum catheter jokes) — situate her in the movement’s vanguard.
Wong’s illusion-tearing spree is funniest when she gets to dating — the topic in Hard Knock Wife she’s probably spent the most time thinking about. She’s got some playfully unkind words on the subject of women who sleep with men on the first date (“it’s because we don’t respect you”) and men who won’t sleep with women on the same (“small dick”). Her candor regarding the ways her marriage has changed post-baby is startling, as is the revelation that her father-in-law made her sign a prenup. Many of her jokes are responses to stupid questions she’s too often asked, like whether her husband is bothered by the fact that she now makes more money than he does. I could watch her flick away gnat-like stupidity all day.
Pop culture critics like myself, especially those of us outside of the straight white male hegemon, are generally quick to praise this or that trailblazer for reflecting or even revealing ourselves to us. As a loud, racy Asian-American comedienne who defies multiple stereotypes at once, Wong offers a crucial representation. But she may be at her most relatable when she admits her identity categories don’t always line up in her head. In Baby Cobra, she says of her and her husband’s love of New Age trappings like meditation and Buddha-head statues, “This hippie-dippy shit we do makes me feel like we are white people doing an impression of Asian people.” Now, she sees another clash between her newfound fame and wealth and the Asian-immigrant stinginess she grew up with, like when she’s recognized at a fancy restaurant by the waitstaff (“Great, now I have to tip more”) or while haggling over a used bike helmet with a college student. Wong’s stories about who she is and where she comes from are indeed pioneering. But her specials remind us that, often, who we are emerges most fully when we grapple with the tensions within us.