“It’s very rare and unusual to see a female comic perform pregnant,” says comedian Ali Wong in her popular Netflix special, Baby Cobra.
“Female comics don’t get pregnant. Just try to think of one, I dare you. Once they do get pregnant they disappear. That’s not the case with male comics,” she adds.
Wong is a notable exception to this rule. While her comedy is unabashedly profane, what has everyone talking is the fact that the 34-year-old comic recorded Baby Cobra when she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant.
“Pregnancy for a working woman is generally perceived as a weakness,” Wong says in an interview with US magazine, Elle.
When you're pregnant, you're hungry, tired, and fat, so you have this "I don't give a f*ck" attitude that lends itself really well to performance.
“I had so much anxiety about my stand-up career taking a big hit, so I wanted to use my pregnancy as a source of power and turn it into a weapon instead of a weakness. When you're pregnant, you're hungry, tired, and fat, so you have this "I don't give a f*ck" attitude that lends itself really well to performance. You let go of all dignity and shame, and it's beautiful.”
Amid the jokes about race and the scatological humour, Wong offers a distinctly female view of the world, relating the discomfort of fertility treatment, reenacting conception, and deadpanning on doulas.
While describing her jokes as raunchy is an understatement, she says the riskiest joke in Baby Cobra is about a miscarriage she experienced while trying to get pregnant. “Don’t be sad, they were the size of poppy seeds,” she tells the audience. “I’ve picked boogers bigger than those babies.”
Wong says in her interview with Elle that while miscarriage is a dark subject, it’s something that happens to a lot of women. “I'm proud that I was able to craft part of that experience into a joke, [and] I also wanted other women who have miscarried to know that I've had one too, and that they're not alone—they'll get through it.”
Wong is riding the crest of a wave of funny women who offer a more realistic portrayal of the experience of motherhood. In the US, Judith Light is earning high praise for her role in Transparent, while in the UK the popular feminist writer Caitlin Moran has turned her pen to television to create Raised by Wolves, a biting depiction of family life featuring unconventional single mother, Della Garry, played by Rebakah Staton.
This year in Australia local audiences were treated to a taste of The Letdown, one of six comedy pilots screened as part of ABC’s Comedy Showroom.
The Letdown (named after a breastfeeding term) offers a satirical – but remarkably realistic – view of parenthood. Alison Bell, the show’s writer and associate producer, plays Audrey, a new mum adjusting to life with a baby.
While fans are yet to learn if the The Letdown will be made into a series, Bell says she has been “genuinely heartened” by the pilot’s warm reception among viewers. “People have said it reflected their experience,” she says.
Bell created The Letdown with friend Sarah Scheller, whose own experience of motherhood first inspired the show. “There’s a complete loss of control when it comes to parenthood. From the time you’re pregnant there’s very little dignity,” says Bell. “When we started six years ago it felt at that time that no-one was telling the truth about what motherhood is. The depictions on the small screen were so romanticised.”
Another rich source of comedic material is mother’s group, a unique social situation where “a bunch of strangers are thrown together,” says Bell. “The contrasting personalities and juxtapositions of different politics means there is great potential for clash and tension and awkwardness - all the great comic stuff.”
Motherhood makes a lot of naturally funny women even funnier.
Mother’s group figures prominently in the pilot episode, which sees Noni Hazelhurst play the no-nonsense maternal health nurse presiding over a group of new mums, including characters played by Sacha Horler and Leah Vandenberg. “By design we’ve put together a bunch of characters who are eclectic,” says Bell, who plans to use this odd group to flesh out the “divisive” politics of parenting styles in future episodes.
While Bell was child-free when she first started working on the project, she now has a two-year old son, which helped her hit the right notes playing Audrey. “It gave me a deeper understanding of the rollercoaster that is motherhood,” she says, describing the peculiar pendulum swing that accompanies life with a newborn. “You can hit rock bottom, and then five minutes later it’s glorious to have this little baby in front of you.”
Bell thinks the reluctance to see mothers and motherhood as funny is part of a larger tradition that questions women’s role in comedy. Preserving comedy as the domain of men infuriates the actor-slash-writer, who think motherhood and comedy go hand in hand.
“Motherhood makes a lot of naturally funny women even funnier,” she says, naming her sister as an example. “My sister is so wry. She has a way of turning the most demoralising event into anecdote.”
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Catch the entire series of Raised by Wolves on SBS On Demand. Here's episode one: