Ali Wong Speaks: “Fresh Off the Boat” Writer and Comic Talks Diversity and “Baby Cobra”

In her daytime job, Ali Wong writes for the popular ABC family show Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American family sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. Wong is also a stand-up comedian who just debuted her Netflix original special, Baby Cobra, this month. Wong has honed her craft as a writer for more than a decade, and has also acted on network shows like Are You There, Chelsea? and Blackbox.

Her Netflix stand-up special — filmed while she was pregnant — is refreshingly raunchy, raw and honest, spanning from topics like her miscarriage to the sexiness of Asian American men (dolphins!) and more.

I chatted with Wong, who is Chinese and Vietnamese American, about her Netflix special, diversity in the writers room, and on being a woman comic.

Below are snippets from our conversation. Catch Baby Cobra on Netflix now, and the Season Finale of Fresh Off the Boat Tuesday night on ABC.

—Momo Chang

On reactions to her Netflix special, Baby Cobra, and Steve Yeun’s surprising tweet
It’s really interesting. Netflix is new territory. I’ve been on network shows, on an NBC sitcom and an ABC drama, and the next day you know what the ratings are. With Netflix, it’s an ongoing marathon. It’s not like other things where it premieres, or like box office sales. It’s been interesting because I couldn’t sleep because I thought no one would watch it. Then the day it came out in the morning, I already started getting some traction on my Twitter. And I was like, who are these people watching the special in the morning? Like, don’t people have jobs? And then it was like really exciting at 3 o’clock in L.A. when I saw the tweet from Steven Yeun telling his followers to watch it. And I was like, what?! That was probably the most exciting and unexpected thing, because I’m such a fan of him. I think his character on The Walking Dead has been one of the most progressive milestones in Asian American presence in media. So that was really exciting.

https://twitter.com/steveyeun/status/728751917875249152

On the value of a diverse writers room
I think you’ll make a better show the more diverse your writers room is in general. You’ll just have more people who are in touch with different populations and have as many voices as possible. I think it’s very important to have a diverse writer’s room in general.

On how TV has changed for Asian Americans
Now I do feel like there’s been this shift, where before there was a lot of pressure to seek diversity in casting, in writers rooms. I think the networks felt pressure to diversify for diversity’s sake and for political correctness and was for ethical [reasons], rather than for business. When Empire, Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish were all the shows to get renewed and get all the buzz, then I think there was a big change. These are the shows with a unique voice that’s unheard of and getting press and also viewers. I think that’s what’s really going to affect change, when it’s a good business decision to have people of color in front of the camera, and behind the camera.

CiWQ12MUgAA7CJLOn the idea of “supporting” women comics
One of the things I get frustrated with is the word “support.” You know, “support female comedy.” I think that’s a disservice to females in comedy. Especially when it’s entertainment. If you’re a politician, yes, by all means, support then, if you’re a charity, they need support. But comedy is not a charity. Do you think people say, “support Louis C. K.,” “support Kevin Hart?” No, you go because they’re funny. But they have to earn that. To me, I just don’t think the word support should have any place in entertainment. The word support suggests that you’re donating your time and money rather than paying for something that you want that you’re dying to see or hear.

And also take out the category of “female comedy.” “Female comedy” is not an actual genre of comedy. What defines a comic is their point of view, their voice, their writing and their style of performance.

When she first realized she was funny
I was in this youth group growing up, in Chinatown. I would just do some sketches. It was really fun and people laughed, a lot. I had the opportunity to talk a lot in front of peers. I think it was really through that youth group (Cameron House in San Francisco Chinatown) that ignited my desire to perform. It kind of manifested itself in high school—I was the president of my school and I would lead the all-school meeting. It manifested itself in college, when I joined an Asian American theater group [LCC, or Lapu, the Cayote that Cares, Theatre Company]. That’s where I met Randall Park [who currently stars in Fresh Off the Boat]. Randall actually founded it, and that’s how I met him.

What about a Baby Cobra sequel?
If people do watch the special, and I hope they do, please give it five stars and leave a detailed comment on the page for Baby Cobra. It will increase the chances of getting another Netflix original special. I have been performing since the baby was born, and I have been talking a lot about my experience with motherhood. So if people want to see the Sequel to Baby Cobra, please rate it and write comments!

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The post is made possible by Comcast.

  • Gangnamjosie

    It’s so great to see successful Asians in the business like Ali Wong, Constance Wu and John Cho speaking up and bringing attention to the issue of Asians and opportunities in entertainment. This has been simmering for a long time and it’s exciting to see it come to the surface. Unfortunately the whitewashing of our efforts and our achievements by US media is all too real, and it extends far outside entertainment itself. In fact I think it’s fair to say that the media’s overall attitude towards Asian-American achievement– contempt at best, usually extending to outright hostility or fabrication to push our achievements aside– is a general phenomenon, and it happens to spill over into the entertainment biz. It’s why Asian-American actors, producers and directors often feel the brunt of it.

    Yes, this whitewashing is painfully common and ongoing. This is the real-deal Bamboo Ceiling, and having come from Long island, I saw a pretty egregious example of it in what you might call the case of Natalie Portman and the Asian-American “Vanishing Valedictorian”. Apologize for the rant but this is a record that needs to be set straight.

    Here’s the background: For the East Coast Asian-American community, Syosset High School in Long Island is one of our great success stories, for years now Asian Americans have dominated the class ranks, National Merit Scholarships, student representation and used our success there as a launching pad for solid careers. Syosset is in a rich white suburban area of Long Island with a ton of connections to the film and TV industry, so it’s also been the H.S. of tons of celebs like Judd Apatow and Natalie Portman, a.k.a. Natalie Hershlag when she was there. As a result Syosset winds up in the news a lot, but here’s the thing-— US media for years has been doing one heck of a job of whitewashing the stellar achievements of Asian-American Syosset students and graduates, who by far have excelled the most there. And one of the most blatant, outrageous cases has been the way publicists and media have pushed to erase even the mention of the Asian-American valedictorian in Natalie Portman’s Class of 1999 there.

    Take a quick look at these articles from the local Long Island papers in 1999—- these are the neighborhood newspaper articles published every year around graduation time, where they celebrate the hard work and achievements of the valedictorians and salutatorians.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20020515013948/http://www.antonnews.com/syossetjerichotribune/1999/07/02/news/

    http://web.archive.org/web/20010707031916/http://www.antonnews.com/syossetjerichotribune/1999/06/25/news/syosset.html

    Notice that 2 out of the 3 top grads at Syosset in Natalie Portman’s class—- the valedictorian (Michael Ma) and one of the two salutatorians (Robert Wong)-— are Asian-American (the other salutatorian, Ian Yohai, was very smart himself). And Michael, the valedictorian, was a heavy-hitter. I was a few years behind him in L.I., but plenty of my friends and relatives knew him, and that guy worked like mad and earned every bit of that valedictorian honor and all the things he accomplished afterwards. His family was the classic Asian-American immigrant story of struggle and persistence despite not having a whole lot to start with, and the community was justly proud. And being best in class at a school like Syosset matters, it’s the sort of thing you keep on a CV well into your career.

    But now take a look at these fawning media puff pieces on Natalie Portman in the years afterward–- and as I’ll repeat here, this is not Natalie’s own doing so this isn’t on her specifically. (It’s much worse in fact—- a systematic effort, by her publicists and the “no Asians need apply” media.) Somehow just like magic, the name of Michael Ma the real valedictorian disappears, and out of nowhere they just put Natalie’s name in there for kicks:

    https://www.longislandpress.com/2013/11/08/natalie-portman-hometown-heroine/

    http://www.thehollywoodgossip.com/slideshows/18-celebrities-who-are-way-smarter-than-we-are/

    http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0000204/trivia

    Even something this easily fact-checked, even when a journalist’s first job duty is supposedly to get the facts straight—- here we see the same fabricated foolishness in article after article after article. And here’s the nastiest part: it isn’t just unintentional dropping of the ball. One of my friends and a number of her acquaintances wrote repeatedly to these self styled “media outfits” in the years after to correct the mistake, yet most persisted, deliberately, with the same fact-free made-up nonsense year after year. (This may also be why the original articles were conveniently taken down earlier this year and archived, despite being up since the 1990’s– a lot of people have been citing the primary-level sources and complaining to the editors of the news outlets spreading the misinformation, but rather than correct themselves, they seem more interested in trying to further play down the truth and deny the Asian-American top performers at Syosset the honors they earned.) Think there’s a reason for such blatant fabrications? You thought right.

    Again to be clear, not trying to single out Natalie here, it’s just her case is easy to fact-check and document because of the celebrity connection, so it’s like a representative example of the media disparagement against Asian Americans in 1000’s of other similar cases that get less attention. It’s also not a knock on Portman’s acting in any way, she’s a respected and capable actress even without all the media embellishment—- but it isn’t Portman herself who’s been pushing the misleading media memes against her Asian-American classmates at Syosset. The guilty culprits are the publicists and gullible, or willingly complicit pretend-journos who were so desperate to push their convenient storyline that they had little qualms about making things up and belittling a bunch of nerdy, unglamorous Asian-Americans along the way. After all, why let a fobby, studious, boring Asian-American kid get even a smidgen of public respect or recognition when there’s a born-rich white girl celebrity the media can just manufacture a fairy tale storyline around? (In anticipation of any nitpicks– yes there have been celebrity academic superstars, ex Kevin Spacey, Alicia Keys, Jodie Foster and Conan O’Brien were documented valedictorians of their classes, Bill Gates and several actors and other celebs got near perfect 1600’s on their SAT’s, Jodie Foster and Conan O’Brien both got magna cum laude honors, Al Franken and Tommy Lee Jones were cum laude, Mayim Bialik, Danica McKellar and Dolph Lundgren are also top scientists.. So yes this does happen and sometimes the publicity people are backed up by the truth. But too often there are exaggerations, and Natalie’s case at Syosset is one of them, at the expense of her Asian-American classmates.)

    And that’s exactly what went down. Back in the mid-2000’s, Natalie Portman’s publicity drones were trying to present her as the smart, wholesome alternative to all the misbehaving, inarticulate actresses making fools of themselves while they flaunted themselves for the tabloids. Natalie was a legitimately bright student back at Syosset but not quite to the level of academic superstar, yet the publicity drones figured the “academic superstar” label was just the thing to turn her into “the model citizen” actress. And so the real academic superstars of Syosset, almost all Asian-Americans, got shoved off to the side to make way for America’s newly anointed princess. Michael Ma’s achievements and domination of Natalie’s class at Syosset got practically rubbed out in the fawning media reports from that publicity stunt.

    And this isn’t trivial, as my old friend (from his class) told me, every time Michael would have noted his valedictorian and other achievements at Syosset on a resume, he had to hope that the background-checker or HR employee at the company would actually do their homework and get to the original records and articles. The ones clearly documenting the reality that Michael Ma was top dog in Natalie’s class, a hard-earned achievement, and not Natalie herself. Of course we all know this often doesn’t happen– shortcuts in HR are taken, shoddy secondary sources are used, and thus who-knows how many sloppy background checks would have referenced the Hollywood publicist-fueled BS that kept repeatedly denying Michael due recognition for his achievement. Aided and abetted of course, by Anglo-American media’s reliable conviction that Asian-Americans are little more than uncreative copycats who couldn’t possibly surpass a privileged pretty white girl. (Sure, forget about all that paper and gunpowder they ripped off from Asian inventors and used to invade the rest of the world.)

    It’s the same BS that causes a hard-working, straight-A first-generation immigrant girl from Vietnam to get rejected from top schools while some permanently drunken fool son of an alumnus gets in as a legacy admission. Yeah, I did see this and a boatload of other cases like it, so many times and it never ceases to set me off when someone claims US Ivy League colleges are a “meritocracy”. Who knows how many times Michael’s applications got quietly turned down without him ever knowing why, or down-right ignored because the media fabrications kept denying him recognition for an achievement HE HAD ACTUALLY EARNED?

    Even worse is that it doesn’t stop there. Like I said, Natalie was a decent student in a lot of her subjects, but not academic superstar level, including in the sciences. (This after all, is why Natalie didn’t quite have the grades to make valedictorian or salutatorian at Syosset in 1999.) Let’s be honest about this, Natalie had every advantage imaginable over the Asian kids who ultimately topped the Class of 1999—she not only came from one of the richest families in Long Island, her Dad is Dr. Avner Hershlag, who is THE top ob-gyn doc and fertility specialist in the eastern US. (Let’s put it this way, for the pre-meds back in Long Island, Natalie’s Dad was the celebrity, a lot more than Natalie was.) Like the other Syosset kids, Natalie did science projects, in her case with major help from a privileged background to get the connections and assisting scientists in labs to get the project done. Not knocking this as that’s often how it’s done, the same for the kids from Stuyvesant or Bronx Science always going to the big science fair gigs. But the result was much like her class rank—a solid achievement but not academic superstar level. She did well at the Intel Science Talent Search but didn’t make Finalist level, and the project she worked on got written up in the Journal of Chemical Education—which all of us who did science fairs at Syosset know about, it’s one of the classic “student project journals” where your project adviser gets your project written up as a sort-of educational aid.

    Once again to be clear, I’m not trying to rag on Natalie herself here, but her publicists again inflated this whole thing way beyond what it was, and in doing so put down the achievements and true innovations of other Syosset science fair talents who really did achieve breakthroughs—- most of them Asian-American. Natalie’s project clearly wasn’t that—- it was a very old and well known reaction involving carbohydrate enzyme chemistry. (Something one of Louis Pasteur’s students got figured out 120 years ago, which is why it wound up uncited in an education journal as opposed to original research.) And yet the publicists kept going on about how it made Natalie some science smartie. (This includes some lame and pretty ridiculous puff piece article by Natalie Angier in the New York Times of all places-— sad how that newspaper’s standards have fallen ever since all the propaganda they tried to peddle with Judith Miller and the Iraq War, though at least they’re coming back with some good content the article on Asian-American actors here.) In the process, the media of course managed to totally ignore all the Asian-American Syosset high-schoolers who did real innovative scientific projects, without all the built in advantages. Often these kids, all first or second-generationers, were coming up with important discoveries that got them published in the biochemical or medical journals that report true research breakthroughs, some developing software platforms or even environmental clean-up systems that were independently recognized and followed up on. These things have a real positive impact on society, and one would think they’d get the respect they deserve for all of their hard work and real scientific contributions with a potential for significant impact. Some later became scientists, while others switched and became prominent in other areas. But no, not one bit of recognition by comparison, after all, they’re just Asian-American copycats who can’t think for themselves, they couldn’t possibly have done any true innovation.

    And on and on. Natalie didn’t graduate with honors from college and to her credit, she’s never claimed otherwise and has a good sense of humor about it (she started out pre-med, probably following in her father’s footsteps but struggled with the classes and switched to psych—- and hey, let’s be honest, seems to have worked out okay for her). Yet just like the valedictorian thing, more embellishing false media stories began springing up on this before, in this case (unlike the valedictorian BS), being taken down when the fact-checkers started in on it more aggressively. As contrast, a lot of Asian superstars at Syosset got into Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Duke, Penn, Cal Tech, UChicago, all the top schools, *on their own merits*– – no ultra-rich family and-or child-star perks to open the doors for them—- and graduated magna cum laude or other top honors at these ultra-competitive schools, doing great things afterwards. And their achievements, as usual, are greeted with a yawn. Natalie’s SAT scores? Around a 1400 as she herself points, very good but nowhere near the level of her Syosset Asian-American classmates (some of whom scored near 1600, that is a perfect 2400 on the current scale).

    This thing about Natalie and the languages she speaks? Well, she grew up natively speaking Hebrew and English spoken in the home, just like Asian kids growing up bilingual speaking Korean, Hindi, Chinese or whatever their parents speak at home. She took some French and Japanese but couldn’t speak them (hence that infamous Conan O’Brien interview, though living in France now she’s gotten the French down since). And to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that, for that matter I took four years of French and Spanish in high school and college, I only managed some broken Spanish cuz I needed it for work, and my French right now doesn’t go much beyond “bon voyage”. Yet once again we get the same publicist BS about how she’s some kind of multilingual specialist. At Syosset in my class we really did have about a dozen multilingual prodigies, again mostly Asian-American. They spoke their heritage language at home (which of course we never get credit for by comparison). But many could manage a half-dozen or more languages on top of that, and they used them to do real-world good—creating special medical advisories for Spanish or Haitian-Creole speakers, using their fluent Tagalog or the Portuguese they’d picked up to boost community festival attendance by immigrant families. But for all intents and purposes to US media, those fobby Asian kids, however accomplished, might as well not even exist.

    So this is what it boils down to, a case that exemplifies how we’re viewed and treated by “greater America:”. A born rich white girl celeb, talented but with things handed to her on a platter from Day 1—- her publicity team gets to embellish and puff her up, time and again, and the uncritical media eats it up. Whereas, a tough hustling first or second-generation Asian-American kid from a poor or middle-class struggling background who attains far more in the way of real achievements in these areas, having to sweat for everything they earn and achieve, without any of the built-in family wealth or privilege of someone like Portman? You know, supposedly the bill of goods we were all sold about rags to riches, the American dream? “Nothing to see here” according to US media, we’re all just too fobby and our actual achievements don’t count compared to the made-up fabrications from the publicists and lackeys for the US nobility.

    Yeah, it’s a pattern, and sad thing is it’s real and it’s everywhere. I’m not trying to be a wet blanket on people’s dreams here but if there’s one thing my college thesis adviser taught me, it’s that you gotta look at the country with your eyes open and see it like it actually is. And it doesn’t mean you give up, but just like Constance Wu was saying, it does mean you realize there’s a certain group in America-— rich white kids— that’s gonna get showered with buckets of media privilege on top of the privilege they were already born with. And even though you started with less, you’re gonna have to work 20 times harder and achieve 20 times more, and when you realize that isn’t enough, jack it up to 40 times, then 50. And then still realize that the media will do everything it can, passively but sometimes actively, to frown on you and your achievements, or ignore them entirely, even to the point of making up fish stories out of thin air to puff up the pretty rich white kids and the slacker heirs of Yale and Harvard legacies to make you look worse. Every now and then one of us will still manage to break through that impossible barrier (Ken Jeong in my line of work being one of the very few examples), but just don’t use the examples of the pretty rich white kids to blaze your path, cuz that one’s closed off to you and us.

    This is what the Bamboo Ceiling means in the real world. You can be reasonably accomplished, even pretty successful and comfortable like my sibs and me have managed. And yet when the whispers are made behind closed doors or the smoke-filled rooms where the real power decisions are made, you can bet your bottom dollar that when it comes to the face the institutions want to represent their highest levels to the world, or symbolize American style or elegance or to occupy the exec suite, they’re gonna be looking for the high-born white American—- sometimes immigrant themselves, usually from the old aristocracy-— and will barely notice you exist. The hard truth is we don’t fit into any of the narratives the US has concocted either to designate its nobility or atone for historical guilt. We’re closed off from the halls of power and importance that are reserved for the rich white aristocracy, but as the “model minority” without historical roots in the land, we don’t fit into the “victim making it in America” narrative either. America’s institutions and media have no place for us, and that’s at the heart of how we’re brushed aside here, despite our achievements.

    As a last point, like I was saying above, I think this explains a lot of what I used to think was a crazy phenomenon, with all the second- and even third-generation Asian-Ams heading back to the mother country to start their careers and families even after all the fancy degrees and internships in the USA. It’s why we’re getting all these shocked media stories (to the extent they cover us at all) about how the gyopos are heading to Korea or the ABC’s to Taiwan and China, or the South Asian heritage kids heading to the Subcontinent, the Fil-Ams back to Manila or Quezon City. Look I’ll be honest, I thought this whole idea was nuts when I first heard about it in college—- why in the world would we want to head back to the same overcrowded messes in Asia our parents left before we were born? But then my favorite professor in college did the same thing when he headed back to China, telling me exactly the things I and I’m sure a ton of the rest of us had to learn the hard way. That America will tolerate a certain level of success for us, but it’ll penalize us for it, and only let us go so far. Not saying we’re the only ones dealing with this, other minorities have certainly had their own struggles, and to be fair about it, poor and middle class white kids who don’t start out with a lot of wealth and family connections generally don’t make the cut either, even if they too hustle like the Asian-American second generationers and soar past their rich white peers in terms of real achievement.

    But there’s a reason the ceiling that we face has its own name. The United States truly does have its own aristocracy now, a nobility that’s very very rich and privileged and also (with few exceptions) very very white, whether born in America or not. The land of opportunity it ain’t, at least not like it was (or at least pretended to be). Nobody’s saying the mother countries are paradises free of corruption or bias, but from what my gyopo, South Asian,Vietnamese and ABC friends back there have been telling me, nor will you be effectively shut out because you didn’t have the born-rich white pedigree to be a media darling or a “respectable” front for some self-important company or institution. With that same media moving to puff you up to the point of fabricating things straight out to put down the fobby Asian-Am strivers who don’t fit in anywhere within the self-serving narratives the publicists are trying to spin. We all gotta figure out our own path. But for a lot of us it really does mean looking past US borders, whether it’s the old country for us or somewhere different entirely. And for those of you who do head back across the Pacific, don’t for a minute think you’re abandoning anything or depriving yourself of opportunity, cuz in a whole heck of a lotta cases, the only thing you’re really abandoning is a mirage.