The qualities that made Ali Wong’s Netflix debut Baby Cobra such a surprise hit back in 2016 are front and center in Hard Knock Wife, which suffers from no sophomore slump that I can see. Wong’s signature bring-the-whisper-to-a-shout delivery—which plays the audience like a fiddle here—captures the bravura of a club comic without the showy dishonesty that sometimes accompanies it.
This plays right into the thematic throughline of Hard Knock Wife, as direct a spiritual companion to Baby Cobra as two comedy specials can be. Baby Cobra was all about Wong’s anticipation of how she’d be affected by motherhood, highlighting larger issues surrounding the work-life divide for modern women. Hard Knock Wife is all about how goddamn right she was, as well as a full-on call to arms for people to take maternity leave more seriously in the U.S. (effectively communicating how ridiculously far behind other countries we are in that respect). Men never get asked how they balance family and career because “they don’t,” Wong notes, to a roar of thankful applause.
Wong revels in the truths about motherhood that no one will talk about in public. This is one of those rare situations where “telling it like it is” is actually a good thing, as opposed to how too many other comics use that phrase to justify bad and/or problematic jokes. There’s real perspective and purpose to the shock value in Wong replicating what is possibly (probably?) the longest queef in comedy history, beyond just being funny.
And Hard Knock Wife is incredibly funny, building on Wong’s uncompromising statement with a wealth of observational specificity and reliable bite. “I could have accomplished so much more if I had had a catheter attached,” she bemoans, in reference to life after her C-section. Hopping back and forth from sex (when a woman sleeps with a man right away, “it’s not because we don’t respect ourselves, it’s because we don’t respect you”) and her hapless husband (painted as a freeloader who responds to Wong’s sudden windfall by waltzing into work and screaming “this job is just an eccentric hobby for me now”), Wong also touches the other event that separates her from her pre-Baby Cobra. Many comics can become quickly alienating when they first become famous, but Wong’s reaction to her own fame (she watched her own special on her sister’s Netflix login) grounds her and opens her up to further reflection.
If the special has a shortcoming, it’s the meme-y tags Wong tends to to add to the ends of jokes and stories (“bye, Felicia” makes an appearance). When the audience laughs at these codas, you get the feeling that they’re laughing more in recognition of that thing they know than at the actual joke, which is a shame, because the joke is already great. But the occasional obscuration of her own punchlines, this is a special that solidly fulfills the promise of Baby Cobra and proves that Wong isn’t going anywhere.