More than halfway into Ali Wong’s stand-up special, Baby Cobra, she says to a silent room: “I don’t know if you guys can tell, but I’m seven-and-a-half-months pregnant.”
Everybody laughs, mostly because the joke is that yes, you can tell. Though Wong starts her set by making a joke about having to pee all the time, this deadpan announcement marks the beginning of the part of her set that is getting the most attention: the pregnancy jokes. She’s already told jokes about “trapping” her Harvard Business School–educated husband into marriage and Sheryl Sandberg (“I don’t wanna lean in, I want to lie down”). But by spending a serious chunk of her special on pregnancy and parenting-related material, Wong has done something unusual: She’s pointed out how funny pregnancy can be, while she is actually pregnant.
It’s important to note from the beginning that, unlike you or I (speak for yourself, I guess), Ali Wong is very funny, and she’s been doing stand-up for a long time. She’s also a writer for ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. None of this would work if it weren’t funny, but it really, really is.
It’s also worth noting that she is fully aware of how radical the act is. “It’s very rare and unusual to see a female comic perform pregnant,” she says. “Because female comics don’t get pregnant. Just try to think of one. I dare you: There’s none of them. Once they do get pregnant, they disappear.” She has a point: Most of the well-known women comedians in recent memory haven’t focused their material on motherhood, and they certainly don’t get up onstage very, very pregnant.
The few notably pregnant performances in history are so rare that they’re nearly iconic. Joan Rivers appeared on The Tonight Show in 1967 when she was seven months pregnant, which was “unheard of” at the time, as she later told the Telegraph. (Of course it would be Joan Rivers, God love her.) A pregnant Amy Poehler rapped with Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, while MIA performed at the 2009 Grammy Awards on her due date. But the visibly pregnant body in the workplace — especially a very public workplace such as a stage — is still a fairly new and uncomfortable phenomenon. Couple that body with anal-sex jokes, and you’ve got something completely new.
Wong knows that male comics don’t pull the same disappearing act when they become fathers. “Once they have a baby, they’ll get up onstage the week after and be like, ‘Guys, I just had this fucking baby,’” she almost screams. It’s a gag, but she sounds angry for real as she continues in character as the male comic: “That baby’s a little piece of shit. It’s so annoying and boring.” And then the lesson: “And their fame just swells because they become this relatable family man.”
What Wong is talking about here is true of pretty much all careers: One parent suffers a lot more than the other for their decision to have a child, and it’s usually not the dad. But the realities of the comic life — performing late at night four or five times a week — make it hard to pull off unless you have the money or resources. Or at least a husband to watch the baby.
Wong’s point goes a little deeper than that, though. In a recent interview with Elle, she spoke about her decision to film the special while pregnant, saying, “Pregnancy for a working woman is generally perceived as a weakness.” In fact, pregnancy at work is legally considered a disability. “I wanted to use my pregnancy as a source of power and turn it into a weapon instead of a weakness,” she said.
And she does. On Wong’s small frame, accentuated by a tight minidress, her big belly is like the ultimate prop. “Empowered” is a tired term, but she does looks powerful up there, making graphic sex jokes and gesticulating around her bump.
The reality is that pregnancy is often treated as a weakness because it is, in some respects, a fragile state. You can’t actually jinx your child-to-be’s health by talking shit, but many otherwise pragmatic women find themselves thinking superstitiously during their pregnancies and in early motherhood. Straight talk about pregnancy is taboo partly because we’re still uncomfortable with women’s bodies (“A lot of women tried to freak me out about childbirth by saying, ‘Ali, did you know you’re gonna poop on the table?” and I was like, “Yeah, I look forward to it’”) and partly because, well, not all pregnancies work out.
Ali Wong deals with that head on: “Last year, I had a miscarriage, which is very common,” she says, to a completely silent audience of people who are probably wondering where the joke is. But there isn’t one for a few minutes, as she explains that her miscarriage, which happened very early, was something she talks about because they are so common, and because many young women don’t know that. Finally, she lets the air out of the room by saying she “used it as leverage” for “like a month,” ultimately wrangling her husband into taking her to see Beyoncé.
Wong has said that although she started doing the miscarriage bit right after it happened, it didn’t work until she was visibly pregnant, a signal to her audience that things turned out okay. That makes sense in the context of Wong’s life, and in the context of this set.
But it also explains, I think, why women might shy away from making jokes about pregnancy and doing jokes while pregnant: Something in us just has to wonder if we’re inviting bad luck. That’s what I thought when I watched her special. I thought, like I have every time I’ve written a little one-liner about wondering if my baby had died of SIDS overnight, “What if?” What if we say this thing, if we tempt fate and talk about our healthy babies before they’re even here and then something bad happens? This is, obviously, a silly way to think, but when your work involves making jokes out of the material from your own life, it’s a recurring fear. But Ali Wong, to her credit, has turned what is often perceived as weakness into her strongest material.
Wong is performing again after the birth of her daughter. “I’m still going out at night,” she recently told Vogue. “My daughter is asleep after 8:00 p.m. We stored a bunch of milk in the freezer. If she gets hungry, my husband can feed her. I don’t plan on disappearing.” Hopefully, she’ll be weaving new bits of her life as a mother into her routine. We sure could use a fresh, filthy take on breast-feeding or sleep training.