At the noisy premiere of her new show at the Beacon Theater on Tuesday, Ali Wong lamented the condition of male groupies, compared oral sex to a pepper mill and advised women to persuade themselves when talking dirty. “The lies,” she says, taking the voice of a preacher, “will set you free.”
Too often, critics focus on the part of stand-up comedy that does something other than being funny. Wong’s 2016 breakout special, Baby Cobra, was hailed for his argument that mothers are judged much harsher than fathers, but his sex jokes were also very good. Now in stand-up sets, one constantly hears variations of her on the power of having sex with a white man (“I just feel like I’m taking in all of these privileges and claims”). Her new show, her funniest yet, also uses gender double standards, but her best comic set pieces dig into the bottomless pleasure of lust.
Sex is the biggest stand-up subject, stubbornly taboo, forever funny. It’s also the most common, the meat and potatoes of the comedy. This places great emphasis on creativity and craftsmanship. And in her filthy new work, Wong displays a truly refined vulgarity that frenzies the crowd with virtuosity. No mask can dampen the sound of dirty jokes.
This show, the first of eight at the Beacon as part of The Milk and Money Tour, represents a new (and deeply uncertain) era in New York stand-up. While clubs and even bigger spaces like City Winery showcase stand-up comedy, Wong’s is the first in a spate of major theater shows to hit the city since the pandemic began.
At Madison Square Garden, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Wanda Sykes, John Mulaney and many other stars will perform on the same bill for charities on September 11th. Louis CK is performing in the MSG’s smaller theater this week. Jim Gaffigan and Gabriel Iglesias arrive at Radio City Music Hall. Chelsea Handler, Jim Jeffries, Joe Rogan, and Chris Tucker are just a few of the other comics slated to hit thousands of fans before the end of October.
Most of these shows were part of tours announced when the news about the pandemic was more optimistic, but with the rise of the Delta variant, the mood has shifted. Gone are the weeks of exposing vaccinated crowds. A new fear sits side by side with a pent-up excitement of being back in the crowd. This creates a charged, high risk and reward atmosphere for comedy that relies on the trustworthy two step of building tension and releasing it.
The most notable decision Wong made was not to fully mention the pandemic. Since the subject has already dominated our lives, I was grateful, even though she risked ignoring an elephant stomping around the room. On the evening I attended, it helped that Gaffigan wasted no time pointing at the animal in a tight opening act that served as an excellent teaser for his next special. After thanking the audience for the applause, he indicated that they would all die in a week. “Just kidding,” he added before clarifying, more like a month.
It was a surprising opener, but the loud reaction to this dark joke suggests that it gave voice to (and defused) a thought that was already filling the room. On the other hand, death is the only stand-up topic that competes with sex.
Like Gaffigan, Wong has a few key themes, but her true handwriting at this stage of her career is the rhythm of her presentation. Your comedy has staccato music. His bass line consists of driving, haunting sentences that build momentum and volume until they pop with hard consonants. In recent years she has become more inventive, mixing in a whisper, relying on repetition and lingering in long pauses. Many of their biggest laughs come from being silent for an extra bar.
When she finds something that works, like a series of offended punchlines expressing the envy of individuals, Wong knows how to milk it, but not for too long. Her comedy doesn’t wander or riff much, and if it does, then there’s a purpose, like delivering that non-laughing line: “In our society there is no word for male lovers.”
This illustrates her argument that men will be tolerated more unfaithful than women, a tiresome subject for her since, as she repeatedly emphasizes, she is constantly engaged in cheating. This is a show about the married woman’s frustrated sex drive, one from the perspective of a person who met their husband a few years before they got rich and famous. Men get angry and get away with it, she explains and convincingly demonstrates their resentment. Why can’t she?
Wong’s comedy often makes fun of other comedies. Just like her previous special never mentioned, but remembered that Louis CK was making fun of his kids, this new hour could remind of the Chris Rock (a clear influence on their work) and Kevin Hart specials touching on their infidelity. A celebrity’s inability to capitalize on their newfound clout may not be as relatable as the frustration of seeing men get compliments for changing a diaper, but the challenge of monogamy is.
What matters to Wong: the more irritated she is, the funnier her attitude. There is something hysterical about the disgust in her voice when she describes how men say the kind of women they want to date are “chill”. Not only does Wong find zero attraction in it – she seems baffled by it. When she talks about relationships, she uses metaphors of prison or the stock market. (Her husband bought low, and if they divorced he would sell high.)
Somewhat predictably, her show eventually softens and morphs into a love letter to her husband, the one part of the set whose function is not to make you laugh but to keep you on her side. Wong took a similar move at the end of “Baby Cobra,” pointing out that he did it to her while she was trying to trap her husband, adding that she eventually paid off his college loans.
But her sex jokes here aren’t about cheating, it’s about thinking about cheating. By telling intricate details of a benign encounter with a young grocery advisor on the set of a film she wrote, Wong finds comedy in fantasy, the glorious sins of fantasy. This is the kind of escape that comedy can offer in a unique way. Judging by the amusement of some of the laughs she received, the crowd seemed to need it. Sex jokes may heal, at least for a short time.