Ali Wong: Relationships, Motherhood, and the Comedy of it All

Ali Wong is on everyone’s radar — but the ‘Beef’ star didn’t get here by accident

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5:39 PM HKT, Mon September 11, 2023 4 mins read

Twenty years ago, Ali Wong was pursuing a degree in Asian-American Studies, and seriously considering a career in academia.

Now at 41, she’s a breakout hit writer and producer. She’s well-known for her Netflix stand-up specials, Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife, and Don Wong, and just this year, she took on a major starring role in the smash-hit show Beef.

It seems to be the year of Ali Wong — but the star definitely didn’t get here by accident.

Ali Wong: Stand-Up Comedy to TV Show and Movies

Growing up in San Francisco, California, Wong was the youngest of four children in a family with a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese-American father.

Her journey as a performer started at UCLA when she became part of Lapu, the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company (LCC), now the longest-running Asian-American theater company in the United States. She discovered her passion for performing here, later explaining that, “by creating complex characters and relationships through dialogue, [she had] the power to portray Asian-Americans as multidimensional human beings.”

Wong (top) with siblings and father. Image via Instagram

Those experiences provided the foundation for her standup comedy career. Right after her college graduation, at 23, Wong started out performing at a laundromat/coffee shop in San Francisco called Brainwash Cafe, which she jokingly describes as “basically a homeless shelter.” She later chose to move to New York to pursue her comedic aspirations.

Life in New York wasn’t easy. In the early stages of her career, Ali Wong dedicated all her efforts to comedy, sharing a loft in SoHo with six other people. Wong would perform as many as nine sets in a single night, moving from one venue to another between 7 PM and 2 AM.

“For the first year I lived in New York, I never ate out,” Wong said to NBC News, “I literally just ate lentils and brown rice at home. Sometimes I’d treat myself to this half chicken from Chinatown that cost $3.50.”

Wong believed that every joke had to land successfully at least 20 times on stage before it could become part of her regular set, a practice she maintained throughout her career. She also rarely takes a break from the stage — her longest hiatus was just 13 days long, during her honeymoon in Japan.

It was this unyielding pursuit of comedic excellence that would eventually catapult her into the limelight. 2011 was the tipping point for Ali Wong’s comedy career. She earned recognition from Variety as one of the “10 Comics to Watch” and began making notable appearances on esteemed platforms like The Tonight Show, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and Dave Attell’s Comedy Underground.

In 2016, Wong took center stage and gained a new degree of notoriety with her Netflix stand-up special Baby Cobra. Alongside her stand-up success, Wong also ventured into television and film, leaving her comedic mark on productions like Breaking In, American Housewife, and even The Angry Birds Movie, solidifying her status as a versatile and talented performer.

Ali Wong on Ethnicity and Asian Representation

Wong is also known for her adept use of elements from the Asian-American experience — segments like “Asia is not only China and Japan” and “Getting Asian Food with non-Asian People” highlight her skillful integration of these cultural aspects.

Raised in a household where Chinese culture took precedence, Ali’s Vietnamese heritage was somewhat overshadowed. She attributes her mother’s limited connection to Vietnamese culture to her early immigration to the United States in 1960, where she had few opportunities to engage with fellow Vietnamese immigrants. This disconnect was further influenced by her education at Duchesne College in Omaha, Nebraska, where the nuns emphasized assimilation into American culture. Nevertheless, Ali pursued Asian-American studies at UCLA, and later learned Vietnamese through the Fulbright program, allowing her to infuse her performances with a deeper cultural resonance.

Wong was a writer for the first three seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, the first U.S. television sitcom to revolve around an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl.” The show was a success, and was part of ushering in a new era of Asian-American film and TV.

Stand-up comedian Sheng Wang commented that Wong’s work has directly contributed to the growing demand for Asian-American comedy.

“Her comedy reaches a huge audience and it doesn’t feel like it’s selling out. That’s meaningful to this audience,” Wang said.

However, Ali Wong emphasizes the importance of not putting oneself in a box.

“I think it’s really important to not limit yourself to Asian-American stand-up comedy shows,” Wong said in an interview with NBC. “In order to be the best comic, you have to perform in a wide diversity of rooms.”

“Because whatever job you do, if you do it well with a unique point of view that makes people pay attention to your voice, it will influence Asian-American studies by nature of you being Asian-American,” she added.

Ali Wong: Relationships and Motherhood

Ali Wong occupies a unique position in comedy, not only as an Asian-American but also as a woman and mother in the industry. She has two daughters with Justin Hakuta, the son of inventor Ken Hakuta.

There are plenty of distinct challenges for women in stand-up, especially those with families, Wong explains, remarking that, “it’s very unusual for a female stand-up comic to have kids or even want kids. The stand-up comedy lifestyle is particularly unsupportive of having a family.”

During the filming of her first special, Baby Cobra, Wong was seven months pregnant with her first daughter. She took the opportunity to share details around her pregnancy journey on social media, and in interviews while promoting the show. New York Magazine wrote that “The special’s arrival on Netflix is the sort of star-making moment that unites the tastes of the unlikeliest fans."

Two years later, Wong, pregnant with her second child, returned to the stage for ​​Hard Knock Wife, another Netflix special which saw Wong sharing her takes on the challenges of breastfeeding, the comical aspects of post-pregnancy bodily changes, and ever-evolving marital dynamics after having children.

“Maternity leave is for new moms to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies! I couldn’t go back to work topless beating my wet titty, trying to establish dominance over all my coworkers. You’d get fired! People don’t tell you about all the crazy shit that goes down when you get pregnant, when you give birth.”

“How’s that for leaning in?” Wong quipped. “I don’t believe any comic has ever done that before.”

In 2022, Wong finalized her divorce from ex-husband Justin Nakuta, although the two remain friends and collaborators, with Nakuta continuing to act as her tour manager.

More recently, Wong has been dating SNL star Bill Hader. The pair started dating last year and parted ways, before picking up their romance again in 2023.

“They were both at a good place in their lives and decided to give it another shot,” said an insider source.

Ali Wong has earned her place in entertainment — and today, her star is still rising. Even with specials like Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife behind her, it wasn’t until this year that Wong turned heads with her starring role in Beef.

With an impressive list of achievements that’s still growing, Ali Wong shows no signs of slowing down.

Cover image via RADII

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