In Ali Wong’s latest stand-up special Hard Knock Wife, she tells the audience near the top of the show: “I’ve been with my baby girl all day, everyday, and I love her so much, but I’m on the verge of putting her in the garbage.” What follows this statement is an hour of visceral comedy that explores motherhood, pregnancy, and sex—warts, C-section scars, and all.
As a followup to Baby Cobra, the Netflix special that premiered two years ago on Mother’s Day weekend, Hard Knock Wife shows Wong settling into her material, teasing out the particulars of new motherhood in all its messy, queefing glory. This time, as in her previous special, Wong is pregnant, but the hour of explosive and sharp comedy that follows doesn’t mention it at all. If Baby Cobra proved to an international audience that pregnant women are, in fact, just regular women and not delicate beings whose personalities are snuffed out by impending motherhood, Hard Knock Wife is here to show that the only demonstrable way motherhood changes a person is by giving them much more responsibility and a whole lot of material.
Wong’s delivery is a loud, staccato honk, giving essential space to her words so that you really feel their impact. Through her lens, motherhood—even more so than pregnancy—is the realization that the body you’d inhabited your entire life is no longer your own. As a comedian, mining her life and her experiences for material, Wong has hit the jackpot: pregnant comics are few and far between (Joan Rivers performed standup when she was seven months pregnant), and the particulars of new motherhood are filthy, occasionally demoralizing, and, in the right light, very funny.
Wong’s various screeds about the bodily and mental terror of taking care of a newborn aren’t takedowns of the institution itself. By acknowledging the isolation of the experience explicitly and through graphic, colorful descriptions that are actually funny and rarely voiced in public, Wong’s in on the joke. Motherhood is rewarding, but its rewards don’t make it interesting. What we need to hear about more and more are the dirty bits, which Wong leans into with the same vigor other comedians apply to dick jokes. It’s refreshing because it’s so rare.
Talking about eating pussy isn’t radical and acknowledging that blow jobs are often performed out of obligation isn’t fresh, but when Wong says that after giving birth, she was officially done sucking dick as a begrudging requirement, the narrative changes. Old hat is made new, by dint of Wong’s perspective. She takes on the breastfeeding industrial complex that makes mothers feel bad about themselves when they are already so tired, beating themselves up with guilt. Her nipples are the fountains at the Bellagio, or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, at the mercy of that bear.
Breastfeeding, in Wong’s bit, is a “savage ritual” and a spectator sport—like parallel parking as an Asian woman, she says—but what it truly is that no mommy blog will tell you is that it’s a wise financial decision because breast milk is free. Later, Wong likens a mommy group she joined once she had her first child as a necessity, like banding together with other survivors on The Walking Dead. Occasionally, the special veers political because of the subject matter. When comparing the U.S.’s abysmal record to other European countries who treat maternity leave as a right, Wong skewers the notion that maternity leave is just for the well-being of the child: “Maternity leave is for new moms to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies,” she proclaims, to raucous applause.
The body, having literally birthed a child, needs time to bounce back. Wong is upfront about things like having a nanny and says her ability to maintain a work-life balance is because of this—just one fact of life she wishes more famous mothers were frank about. “It’s unfair to the hard-core stay-at-home moms to pretend you’re able to have an amazing body by chasing around your kids,” Wong told the New York Times earlier this month.
Motherhood itself isn’t a political act, but the various ways facets of society rise up to tell women how to be a mother are, certainly. The beauty of Hard Knock Wife is in hearing these gnarlier truths explored with filthy and honest verve. The fear, of course, is that Wong will be pigeonholed as a “mom comedian,” which is something of which she seems acutely aware. When speaking to the New York Times about a comedian who joked that pregnancy was becoming her “trademark,” Wong said, “Pregnancy is not rainbow suspenders.” It would be a shame to limit her sharp, idiosyncratic talents to bits about sleep training and breast pumps. She’s the same person she was before she had a child and and clearly, she doesn’t need to change.
Hard Knock Wife is currently streaming on Netflix.