Dear Girls, a memoir by Ali Wong

If you have Netflix, I’m sure you saw when Ali Wong’s stand-up special Baby Cobra was featured. You know, the way Netflix is basically like, “Hey, we put money into this so you better watch it.” So I did watch Baby Cobra. And I didn’t laugh. I found Wong’s humor to be shouty and aggressive, like she was trying to prove that she’s a cool girl, just like dude comics. But I watched because Wong was hugely pregnant during filming, and I’d never seen that before.

When Wong came out with Hard Knock Wife, a second stand-up special that she filmed while pregnant with her second child, I didn’t watch it, but I did keep my ears open. Who is this lady? Only after Wong broke preggo comic ground did I see famous actress and comedian Amy Schumer record a stand-up special while pregnant. Women can do everything.

Really, it was the Netflix film Always Be My Maybe that drew me back in. Wong and Randall Park co-wrote and starred in this rom-com about two people with different Asian heritages who grew up together and “should” be together but can’t get it together. An old story, to be sure, but Wong was powerful and sweet, determined yet flexible. My enjoyment of the film led me to read Dear Girls, Ali Wong’s first book. And this memoir had me very, very surprised.

The tenderness and deep emotion Wong expresses is almost contrary to her aggressive comedy, which sure features a butthole joke or twenty. The book is written as a series of letters to her two daughters, so it feels personal. The chapter that stood out most was describes Wong’s desire to have a large family. But she experiences a miscarriage that scares and changes her when she becomes pregnant again:

Every day of every trimester was filled with happiness that I was still carrying and paranoia that I could all of a sudden lose the baby. So I never got too upset about all the discomfort. Even when I was I was throwing up on planes, even when I would get a charley horse at night that felt like a ghost was strangling my calf, I was just grateful Mari was alive.

Maybe it’s because I often hear mothers (rightly!) bemoan how terrible being pregnant can feel, but I was surprised to see Wong appreciate even those moments of misery. I hadn’t thought of how grateful and scared a pregnant mother who had previously experienced a miscarriage would feel. It made me more sensitive to women’s complicated feelings during this time.

Of course, when babies get here and grow up, no matter how their parents feel about them they’re going to shoot out fluids and need constant care. As a book lover and library employee, I was delighted to read more about what it was like for Wong to feel pressured to make sure her children were read to:

I had a plan to read to Mari constantly, because someone forwarded me an article threatening that if your child doesn’t hear five thousand words by the age of one, they’re definitely gonna turn into a prostitute. And even worse, an illiterate prostitute. SO then I began to read Mari all those ‘first words’ baby board books that didn’t have any plot. No beginning, no middle, no story arc. A lot of them would just go like this: Banana, boy, spoon, egg, everybody takes a bath. The End. Finally my mind got so numb from reading all these dumb-ass baby books that I said to myself, ‘Fuck it, no more reading to the baby.’ By the time Mari was five months old, at the end of any day, if I held my finger under her nose and felt breath, I was a great mommy.

I don’t typically include such long quotes, but this one stuck out to me because it progresses from the hopes of a mother to keeping one’s children alive. Plus, it’s funny. And I couldn’t help but wonder why Wong’s humor on stage isn’t more personal like her writing, and less . . . about buttholes.

I enjoyed Dear Girls and learning about Wong’s multicultural background (Chinese-Vietnamese-American) and her years spent in Vietnam getting to know the people, food, and culture. I was less impressed when Wong relayed some of her stand-up jokes (one ends in pulling down her pants and show the audience her, you guessed it, butthole) or tried to make her single sex life funny (it’s just graphic). Had she the courage to let go of her “one of the dudes” persona and just be Ali, her comedy could have a wider appeal. That is not to say you shouldn’t read Dear Girls. Just keep in mind that it’s for audiences who don’t mind graphic language.

21 comments

  1. This sounds pretty good, but I watched Wong’s first stand-up set and it was much too graphic for me, so I might give it a miss if this is comparable. I did enjoy Always Be My Maybe, though – I’m not much of a rom-com person, but I watched it when I was sick and it was the lighthearted, sweet film that I needed at the time.

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    • Yeah, I didn’t like Baby Cobra, either. The book feels more sweet and less aggressive, though she does continue to use graphic language. In an early chapter she discusses a distasteful (to me) sex life, but then she moves on to her miscarriage and pregnancy and getting married, and I really liked the book there.

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  2. I think I feel the same way about Wong that you do. Even the trailers for her comedy specials turned me off. I think I literally asked myself “why is she shouting so much’?, but I did really like her rom-com movie (it’s one of the few movies I’ve watched this year) so I may enjoy her book too.

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  3. I’ve never come across this woman but it does sound like her book is more herself and her standup role a mask she’s put on – maybe because of it being hard to be a woman in comedy. Kudos for her for doing her work visibly pregnant; not sure if this would still be a bit graphic for me.

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    • Female comedians are so split on the women-in-comedy conversation. Some say being a woman has nothing to do with it, and they don’t want to be a “female comic,” but a “comic.” Others note the ways they’ve been shut out and discriminated against because of their gender, and their acts are highly performative.

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  4. Great review! I watched Always Be My Maybe earlier this year and enjoyed it, but hadn’t really heard of Wong outside of that. (I don’t pay much attention to comedy, which apparently was wise in this case, butthole jokes are NOT my niche!) I don’t know if liking the movie was quite enough to convince me to pick up her memoir, but it has been on my radar and I’ve been curious- I’m glad to hear it’s pretty good!

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  5. Looks like I’m the token guy down here. I don’t generally feel that way, so perhaps it’s “women’s comedy” making me defensive. I don’t know Ali Wong but I enjoy rom-coms, not that I get to see many, and I’ll listen to this memoir if I come across it. With my own kids, I had one ambition: to get them thru to 18, after that “you’re on your own, kid”, but reading to them came before breathing. I must say though I think Wong was enormously brave to perform pregnant after a miscarriage.

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    • Bill, I think you’re the only guy who follows my blog, so I think of you less as a token and more as a staple of GTL readership. My parents had this idea that if they didn’t prepare us kids to do something after graduating high school, to some degree they had failed. Kids shouldn’t ask “now what?” when they graduate. Prepared means having a skill, a plan to go to college, an internship, something. It’s not one size fits all. But preparedness for adulthood was key. I really appreciate that.

      I also think it was brave of Wong to perform while pregnant because Hollywood so sees women as sex objects that a pregnant woman talking about sex doesn’t fit the box at all.

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  6. Ok, this totally sounds up my alley. Like you, I started Baby Cobra and didn’t finish it because I found her comedy crude and aggressive. I did like the movie but am not generally drawn to “celebrity” books. I can relate so hard though to what you say she describes in terms of miscarriage and pregnancy so I think I’ll have to check this one out.

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