When Ali Wong is testing new jokes in front of an audience, she does something strange.
“I talk very quietly in a monotone voice where there’s almost zero performance in there, to see if the material holds up,” she said.
Purposefully boring an audience might sound like career suicide for a stand-up, but Wong insists there’s a method to it: If the crowd laughs despite her dull delivery, then she knows the joke is really good.
“It’s all about word choice,” Wong said. “Sometimes I have a joke I know is funny, but I haven’t found the right word, and when I do find it, it’s so satisfying.”
Wong’s conviction that language, even more than performance, is a comedian’s greatest weapon also guided her when she was writing her first book, ‘Dear Girls’, a collection of essays about her rebellious youth, her struggle to break into comedy, her romantic and sexual exploits, and what it was like to grow up in what she calls a “very atypical Asian-American family.”
Even though Wong seems wildly uninhibited onstage (one of her early signature moves was pulling down her pants to moon the audience), she’s nervous about the reception to her book, which comes out October 15 and is even more personal than some of her stand-up.
“I don’t know how people are going to react and it’s scary,” she said. “I hope my siblings don’t get pissed at me.”
In an interview, Wong spoke about recent controversies in the comedy world, her writing process and the question she hates getting asked. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
In the preface, you describe how you panicked while writing the book. Did you really almost quit and return your advance?
I almost gave the money back! I love Zadie Smith and I love Ta-Nehisi Coates, and ‘Homegoing’ [by Yaa Gyasi] is one of my favourite books. I feel like I have great taste in books, and I started writing and I was like: “How come I don’t sound like them? This is terrible. This is embarrassing.” Then I had this discussion with Sarah Dunn, the creator of ‘American Housewife’, who said the trick to writing is accepting that you’re not a genius. And then it got easier.
One of the recurring jokes in ‘Dear Girls’ is that the book is formatted as letters to your daughters, who are 1 and 3, but then you tell them extremely inappropriate and scandalous stuff. At what age will you let them read it?
It’s funny when people ask me that because, are we trying to pretend like I’m going to have any control over them? I lost my virginity when I was 15, you know what I mean? I would be flattered frankly if they’re interested in anything I do, first of all. But I would feel comfortable with them reading it when they’re 15. They can watch the special when they’re 12.
I do think the book is a lot more scandalous than my act. I’m revealing how naughty I was at a young age, and I don’t really do that in my stand-up.
Your husband, Justin Hakuta, writes an afterword to the book, and he’s also the subject of some of your stand-up, which he says sometimes makes him “uncomfortable.” Why did you want him to address readers directly?
I wanted to see what he wanted to say, because he has a lot to say too. And frankly, I was tired of writing so many words and I needed to meet a word count.
You describe a humiliating experience early in your career, when the host at a comedy club introduced you as someone who “does your nails” and “does your laundry” and people booed during your act, and you almost quit comedy after that. How did you work up the nerve to try again?
Of course I thought about quitting at times, but I just kept going because I liked the process so much. Your attitude after bombing distinguishes the comics who are the real deal from the comics who aren’t the real deal. Like, people would be so devastated after a set, so many grown-ass men kick chairs and cry after a bad set at a place where the stakes could not be lower, you know what I mean? It just motivated me to go up again and fix whatever I did wrong.
In the book you bring up a question that you hate getting, so of course I feel compelled to ask it, which is what it’s like to be an Asian-American woman in comedy. What bothers you about the premise and how do you answer when it comes up, like now?
That question comes so much from Asian-American women. They clearly want to be in comedy, but is this how you see yourself? Is this how you’re reducing yourself? And it upsets me when they ask that, because it makes me think that’s how they see themselves: as an Asian-American woman. And also it’s just not a very good question. If their goal is to pick my brain and get some insight on how to succeed, a much better question is, how do you cope with failure, or how do you write a great joke? Not what is it like to be an Asian-American woman in comedy. Underlying that question is this assumption that being an Asian-American woman is a weakness. If you see it as a weakness, it will be a weakness.
Similarly, you talk about how annoying it is when white male comics tell you that you’re lucky to have a “niche” because you’re an Asian-American woman.
When they say that to me, it’s a reflection of how they’re not seeing a precedent, with the exception being Margaret Cho, of someone looking like me succeeding. I’ve never felt entitled to a career in comedy, whereas these guys, they’re like, “Hey, I’m good looking, I can make an audience laugh for 10 minutes, where’s my movie career, where’s my TV show?” But I never felt entitled to any of this. This has all been a delightful, lovely surprise. To me, saying I want to be a stand-up comedian felt like saying I want to be president. Those guys are not successful, and it’s because they’re not giving enough credit and weight and importance to the skill of writing, and they’re not giving me credit for writing.
There’s been a recent controversy in the comedy world that I wanted to ask you about, since it’s opened up a debate about using racial stereotypes in comedy.
Oh my God, I’m so out of it right now. I know what you’re going to ask about and I haven’t read enough about it to make an informed comment. I’ve been really out of it. My husband was on a trip with his friends from business school and it’s been just me and the kids so I haven’t been on my phone reading everything. I know what you’re going to ask about.
Right, I wanted to ask you about the controversy over Shane Gillis’ use of racial slurs and stereotypes about Asians on his podcast, and also ask you about a different episode of the podcast that people also found offensive, which references you.
Gillis and his co-host rank comedians by race and gender, and Gillis says, “Ali Wong is making it so Asian chicks are funnier than white chicks.”
He said Ali Wong is making it so that Asian chicks are funnier than white chicks?
Yeah, and I was going to ask you what your response was when you heard about it, but it sounds like you hadn’t heard about it before.
No. And you know, for these things I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it if I don’t know the full context. You gave me some context, but before I give any official comment I should really read and watch those clips and stuff. Because, I don’t know, I heard he had said some slurs and people were really disturbed by it and that “SNL” had rescinded its offer. I was just really excited about Bowen [Yang] because I know Bowen. I just want to make sure to take the time to celebrate Bowen and not focus on this too much because it’s a bigass deal that Bowen is going to be in the main cast. He’s a smart guy who’s hilarious and is such a fresh voice in comedy and on top of that he’s this Asian-American man. I love it. I’m sorry I can’t give you more.
One thing the Shane Gillis controversy highlights is this ongoing debate in the comedy world about sensitivity and what lines shouldn’t be crossed. In your comedy you talk about racial stereotypes, sometimes invoking a stereotype to disarm it or other times pointing out truth in a cliché. What’s your view, should some material be avoided because it’s insensitive and offensive?
People can get away with doing really offensive things as long as it’s funny. Because if it’s funny, then the laughter wins over the feelings of hurt and then you’re doing something right. It comes down to writing and instinct. Also, when you know different people from all different walks of life and you’re a compassionate person, then you’re probably more capable of writing something that’s really offensive that’s funny, because there’s truth in it and it’s something that you haven’t heard before. Come up with something that’s fresh and true and unexpected.