At the raucous first performance of her new show at the Beacon Theater on Tuesday, Ali Wong bemoaned the state of male groupies, compared oral sex to a pepper grinder and advised women to make stuff up when talking dirty. “The lies,” she says, adopting a hint of 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 be funny. Wong’s 2016 breakout special, “Baby Cobra,” was celebrated for its argument about how mothers are judged much more harshly than fathers, but its sex jokes were also very good. You can hear variations of her bit about the power of having sex with a white man (“I just feel like I’m absorbing all that privilege and entitlement”) in stand-up sets all the time now. Her new show, her funniest yet, also zeros in on gendered double standards, but its finest comic set pieces dig into the bottomless amusement of lust.
Sex is the greatest stand-up subject, stubbornly taboo, forever funny. It’s also the most common, the meat and potatoes of comedy. That puts a premium on creativity and craft. And in her filthy new work, Wong performs some truly refined vulgarity, working the crowd into a frenzy with virtuosity. No masks can muffle the sound of dirty jokes killing.
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 larger rooms like City Winery have been presenting stand-up comedy, Wong’s is the first of a flood of big theater shows coming to the city since the pandemic started.
At Madison Square Garden, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Wanda Sykes, John Mulaney and many other stars will perform on the same bill for a benefit for Sept. 11 charities. Louis C.K. performs in the smaller theater at MSG this week. Jim Gaffigan and Gabriel Iglesias are coming to Radio City Music Hall. Chelsea Handler, Jim Jeffries, Joe Rogan and Chris Tucker are just a few of the other comics set to play to 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 surge of the Delta variant, the mood has shifted. The weeks when vaccinated crowds were unmasked are over. A new anxiety sits side by side with a pent-up excitement of being back in crowds. This creates a charged, high-risk-and-reward atmosphere for comedy, which depends on the trusty two-step of building tension and releasing it.
The most notable choice Wong made was to avoid mentioning the pandemic entirely. Since the topic already dominates our lives, I for one was grateful, though she ran the risk of ignoring an elephant stomping around the room. On the night I attended, it helped that Gaffigan wasted no time pointing at the animal in a taut opening act that served as an excellent teaser for his next special. After thanking the audience for their applause, he pointed out they would all die in a week. “Just kidding,” he added, before clarifying, more like a month.
It was a startling opener, but the loud response to this dark joke suggests he was giving voice to (and defusing) a thought already filling the room. Then again, the only stand-up subject to give sex some competition is death.
Like Gaffigan, Wong has some go-to subjects, but her real signature at this stage in her career is the rhythm of her delivery. Her comedy has a staccato music. Its bass line is propulsive, urgent sentences that build momentum and volume until they pop with hard consonants. In recent years, she has gotten more inventive, mixing in a whispery voice, leaning on repetition and lingering in long pauses. Many of her biggest laughs come from holding silence an extra beat.
When she finds a bit that works, like a series of aggrieved punch lines expressing envy of single people, Wong knows how to milk it but not for too long. Her comedy doesn’t wander or riff much, and when it does, there’s a purpose, as when she delivers this non-laugh line: “In our society there is no word for male mistress.”
This illustrates her argument that there is more tolerance for men being unfaithful than women, a sore subject for her since, as she repeatedly insists, cheating is constantly on her mind. This is a show about the frustrated sex drive of the married woman, one from the perspective of someone who met her husband a few years before she became rich and famous. Men get to be bad and get away with it, she explains, persuasively performing her resentment. Why can’t she?
Wong’s comedy often pokes fun at other comedy. Just as her earlier special never mentioned but brought to mind Louis C.K. making fun of his kids, this new hour may evoke the specials from Chris Rock (a clear influence on her work) and Kevin Hart that touch on their infidelities. The inability of a star to take advantage of her newfound clout may not be as relatable as the frustration of watching men get compliments for changing a diaper, but the challenge of monogamy is.
For Wong, what matters is this: The more irritated she is, the funnier her take. There’s something hysterical about the disgust in her voice describing how men say the kind of women they want to date are “chill.” Wong doesn’t just find zero appeal in that — she seems baffled by it. When discussing relationships, she uses metaphors of prison or the stock market. (Her husband bought low, and if they get divorced, he’d be selling high.)
Somewhat predictably, her show eventually softens and shifts into a love letter to her husband, the one part of the set whose function isn’t to make you laugh but keep you on her side. Wong made a similar move at the end of “Baby Cobra,” pointing out that while she tried to trap her husband, he did it to her, adding that she eventually paid off his college loans.
But her sex jokes here are actually not about cheating so much as thinking about cheating. In sharing intricate details of a benign encounter with a young food consultant on the set of a movie she wrote, Wong is finding comedy in fantasy, the glorious sins of the imagination. This is the kind of escape that comedy can uniquely provide. Judging by the exhilaration of some of the laughs she received, the crowd seemed to need it. For a short while at least, maybe sex jokes are healing.