Our writers certainly haven’t held back with this one! Prepare yourself for a review with a whole lot of bite.
Ali Wong’s 2016 comedy special, Baby Cobra caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. Her stand up delves into sex and pregnancy and even dares to explain why feminism is terrible. As Wong’s latest comedy show hits Netflix this month, we thought it was prime time we rewound the clock and let our writers loose on the show that started it all.
We all like a bit of comedy sometimes: whether you’re partial to a stand-up comedy night in the local pub, a binger of the latest BBC Three sitcom, or the person in the friendship group who relies on humour to cope with the current state of the world. It’s all welcome comic relief in an at times not altogether welcoming reality. Comedy sits in the interesting space between escapism and realism, sitting on the fence while holding a mirror up to both sides. A mirror that you can kind of catch glimpses of the other side of the fence through…does that metaphor work? We turn to comedy because it allows us to laugh at a world that it is all too easy to despair at.
I had caught clips of American comedian, Ali Wong’s 4 Cobra on various social media platforms and truthfully, I had never felt particularly compelled to seek out the full Netflix comedy special. The clips had made me smile, sometimes even prompted an amused burst of exhaled air from my nose – you all know the one – but I’m just not one to turn to full length stand up specials as my comedy of choice.
Ali Wong is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Filmed in 2015 (remember 2015!?), Wong was over seven months pregnant, juggling writing, acting, and producing credits. She is captivating in Baby Cobra; unfiltered, unapologetic, and deeply interesting, she strikes me as the kind of person who enjoys impressive success without the intimidating superiority complex that can accompany it.
I wish I could say she had me doubled over with laughter. Her comedy is clever, varied, and relatable – it had all the characteristics of a perfect comedy show. And yet I couldn’t quite tip over the edge from an amused burst of air to full on vocalised laughter. British comedy is certainly a very specific, inimitable kind of comedy, which is definitely what I turn to the most. It is difficult to pinpoint how American comedy differs, but I think we can all agree that there is an immediate and recognisable difference between the two.
Though interesting and likeable, there is something about Wong’s comedy special that has hints of the ‘I’m a scorned middle aged woman quickly starting to see younger women as the enemy’ brand of comedy, which is honestly not what I’m here for. I found these moments disappointing as it was otherwise refreshing to see a pregnant woman dare to continue her inescapably public job in which she speaks unapologetically openly about the universal female experience. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy Baby Cobra, but I also can’t say that it lived up to my expectations. I respect Ali Wong, but perhaps her style of comedy just isn’t for me – perhaps it’s the difference between British and American comedy, perhaps I’ve been scarred by stand up after that one disastrous first date I had one time, perhaps there’s no real reason, and there doesn’t have to be.
A heavily pregnant Ali Wong waddling on stage to open her hour-long stand-up special is rather impressive. And that was the last time I was impressed while watching Baby Cobra. It is admirable watching anyone who is so heavily pregnant do their job, let alone a job that requires you to prance about on a stage for an hour in front of hundreds of people and sweating profusely under the stage lights, so for that Ali Wong gets a thumbs up from me. However, her job was supposed to be comedy and yet, for me, something was just missing.
This being my first Ali Wong experience, I was coming at it without any prior knowledge of her style or content. She opened her set by talking down on 18-year-old women, which just did not sit right with me. While I understood the angle of the joke, I just didn’t see the humour in attacking 18-year-olds for their youth, with Ali herself being just 33 and healthy. She goes on to discuss how younger women have thigh gaps, which is harmful for so many different reasons. This is not to say that you can’t discuss body shapes in comedy, with genuinely funny results, but this was borderline body-shaming that was just simply not amusing. A slight saving grace for her was her approach to the topic of HPV and explaining how common it is, which contributes to the importance of normalising such subjects being discussed.
I know with stand-up comedy specials you expect to hear the audience laughing, but for some reason during this special in particular, I found the laughs of the audience incredibly distracting. I think it was due to the fact that every time they laughed, I found myself thinking ‘what was funny?’ Personally, I felt that a lot of her jokes just fell flat. I was waiting for a punchline that never seemed to come. I was very surprised to learn she was a writer on the show Fresh Off The Boat, a show I really enjoy and find incredibly funny. Where was that comedy here? Maybe her delivery lacked good comedic timing. Or maybe the jokes just weren’t very strong.
Towards the end of the special there were a few moments I found myself smirking slightly at, in particular her advice on not dating skater boys (it’s possible that just resonated with me for personal reasons). Her open discussion of more important topics was another positive aspect of the experience; as an informative piece on issues such as miscarriages, STI’s and women’s sexuality in general, it excels. But as a comedy special…not so much. While I understand the irony surrounding her bit on being a housewife and how that connects to feminism, I’m just not sure it landed the way she intended.
I guess her comedy style just didn’t suit mine, which could be attributed to the age difference between us and how it seemed a lot of these jokes were aimed at women more in her age bracket than mine – often framing the people closer to my age bracket as the butt of the joke. Or maybe I just didn’t understand her comedic intentions. Either way I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch another of her comedy specials anytime soon.
There’s something really sad about watching women make misogynist jokes. At points, this comedy special borders on ‘pick me’ territory (the phenomenon of women tearing down other women to rank higher in the eyes of men). In what was 2021, are you really making a joke about women being bad drivers? It’s genuinely confusing because how can she think that’s new terrain? It’s the lowest hanging fruit. It’s been on the ground for years, it’s rotten baby, leave it alone. And it gets chased with a rape joke. My mind drifts uneasily to that statistic we saw so frequently after Sara Everard’s death; 97% of women have been sexually assaulted. At some point a few months ago I found myself looking at young girls unable to shake the thought that, statistically, it’s only a matter of time. I still struggle with that reality. I hate looking at my friends, my family and myself with a mental tally. So no, not even a whisper of a smile is on my face right now.
Sexual liberation is a layered topic, but regardless, Wong’s jokes about feeling disgusted after sleeping with a homeless person don’t hit quite like she thinks they do. It’s hard to think of a more marginalised community to poke fun at. Ricky Gervais says nothing is out of bounds in comedy and that is the point, but I align more with James Acaster’s points about mocking the trans community from his special Cold Lasagne Hate Myself. He argues stand up comedians use their self proclaimed job title as someone who must ‘challenge the world’ as a blanket cover to excuse anything offensive. Acaster jibes “yeah, the trans community is short of a few challenges”. This rings true for homeless people.
It goes on and I’m still sitting sour-faced. Wong talks about times when women were ‘allowed’ to be housewives as being the peak of female existence. As if a woman didn’t literally throw herself under a horse in front of a crowd to say hey, we’re done. As if they had a choice. ‘Our job used to be no job’ erases a whole history of domestic labour that, as proven here, continues to go undervalued, underpaid and unseen. Last week I saw a woman on LinkedIn class her life as a mom as a job on her profile. It made me violently cringe but also: proved a point. We are conditioned to look at mothers and see anything less than the highest effort as laziness and a lack. We don’t hold fathers to the same standard. See: people first point out children with “daddy issues” as a problem which the child holds, rather than a problem with the grown man who fails to meet the needs of a child.
Critiquing female comics is always layered because I’m having to double check it’s not internalised misogyny making me wince at Wong’s jokes. It’s not, though. I try to tell myself women are allowed to be loud to justify the volume of the special, but then I clock the American accent so actually that explains it. The highlight for me was her emphasis on not dating skaters. Attractive on the outside, ashtrays on the inside. The lowlights were the rest of the show.