By the title, you can probably guess Ali Wong’s pregnancy was the centerpiece of her Netflix special, “Hard Knock Wife.” Does pregnancy make a comedian more funny, or less, or does it make a difference at all? I sat down to find out, and am rather sorry I did.
To run you through the topical highlights, the first 10 minutes or so of Wong’s routine were mostly recycled snarky mom memes—you know, the ones where moms make sarcastic comments about how miserable parenthood is. She complains about sniffing her baby’s bum for poop. She complains about breastfeeding (yes, it can be “torture” at times). She complains about how people always ask her, “Who’s watching the baby?” to which she retorts, “The television.”
She tells the audience that her taste in clothes has changed since becoming a mom, gesturing to her leopard print dress and shiny flat shoes. It’s her most novel joke to that point. When she sees something bedazzled, she’s attracted to it because the sparkle replaces “the light inside” that’s died.
Now, if you’re a man and you need someone to explain to you in entertainingly graphic detail what delivery and postpartum life is like, the next section of Wong’s routine will serve just fine. This is the only part that I’ll remember a year or even a month from now. I’ve never heard anyone crack jokes about postpartum recovery before, but Wong manages to land some big laughs, even from the clearly uncomfortable, blushing men in the audience. She paints a hilarious picture of her waddling around her house post-delivery in a diaper and a top knot, “like a defeated sumo wrestler.”
Of course, no bit about the pains of motherhood is complete without a mini rant, typical of the other female comedians I’ve seen, about how U.S. taxpayers don’t pay for three years’ maternity leave like in Europe, because women need this time to heal! (Newsflash: it doesn’t take three years for your body to heal, not even for a C-section). But other than that, ladies pre-motherhood might bookmark this bit to show their husbands. You know, just to properly calibrate their expectations.
Everybody Beats Up on Dumb Dads
Much of Wong’s routine is on parenthood and marriage, but you’ve probably heard a version of most of her lines before. She ridicules the cultural assumption that moms have to meet much higher expectations than dads do—for instance, when dad changes an occasional diaper, he practically deserves an award. That’s mostly true, but again, it’s something plenty of people have already joked about ad nauseum.
Her schtick seems to be that she’s out-earning her husband and is a mom to boot. While she doesn’t rely on the patriarchy trope so many female comedians do, her husband is the butt of a lot of her jokes. While she does poke some fun at herself (about how she’s not a trophy wife—she’s more of an engraved plaque, for example) there’s nothing in her material that makes him look remotely good, except that he changes a few diapers and has learned how to satisfy her sexually.
That brings us to the last leg of the special, which is mostly graphic sexual jokes. She managed to achieve a Craig Ferguson level of pornographic detail, which takes some real effort, and let everyone get a good look up her dress while she was at it (spoiler: she’s wearing zebra-striped underwear).
There’s only so much critique one can give the ironically named “mature” jokes while still keeping this readable for a general audience, but I’ll venture that Wong falls into the pit of egocentrism that has snared many a mediocre comedian: implying that everyone more or less has a promiscuous sexual past (even if they’ve made it up).
For example, when Wong jokes about having to “suck a lot of” you-know-whats in high school, statistically, about half of her audience didn’t even come close to having the same experience. Maybe she’s making fun of herself for making such terrible choices, but it’s still an extremely awkward bit that lots of people actually can’t identify with.
Celebrating Selfishness Isn’t That Funny, Either
You can also observe, as with other female secular comedians, that her message is of sexual empowerment with no strings (e.g., marriage) attached. You can say she’s just telling jokes, but she’s telling them from her worldview, and that worldview says “get more for yourself, ladies,” not “just tell your partner no” or even “maybe you should work out your preferences together,” though one can see it might be hard to generate material around that sort of message.
But the hardest subjects are often where the comedy gold is. It’s not easy to write jokes about hot topics that will be funny to a diverse audience, such as John Mulaney’s bit about how liberals see Trump as a “horse that’s loose in the hospital.” It’s not that easy to write humor about the trivial, mundane things. In an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld once tried to work up some material about restaurant forks, and James Acaster has a funny bit about buying bananas. That’s comedic bravery.
Targeting easy prey is ultimately what made most Wong’s comedy so boring. She didn’t reach very far for her material. It wasn’t particularly creative: most of her parenting “insight” can be found by mining the Facebook memes posted in moms groups, most of her marriage material is of the garden variety “women are bawss and men are the worst” rhetoric, and her sexual humor was just shock value with a selfish twist.
Restrictions are the mother of innovative humor. When any topic is open to them, performers tend toward familiar tropes and prevailing cultural themes or push as far as they can towards the graphic and taboo. This is why comedians who keep it TV-14 can be so refreshing.
If you’re going to fill 50 minutes with material that hasn’t been heard before and is mostly family friendly, you need to work a little harder and get creative. For instance, Jim Gaffigan mines a rich vein of humor with food, from Hot Pockets to Cinnabons, and Joe List (his routine on “The Standups” was mostly clean) has a bit about having too-short pants in grade school.
It turns out that “safe” material is the most relatable to a wide audience. Everyone eats. Everyone’s been a kid. Yet some of these “boring” jokes can make you cry from laughing so hard.
Playing the crass, whining momma with tacky fashion and a penchant for condescending to her husband is cliché, not funny. So if you had a fear of missing out over not seeing “Hard Knock Wife,” you can breathe easy. Plenty of other comedians have specials worth checking out on Netflix: Mike Birbiglia, List, and Mulaney among them. Go enjoy those instead.