Ali Wong Talks Diversity and How TV Has Changed for Asian Americans

Ali Wong. (Photo credit: Alex Crick)
Ali Wong. (Photo credit: Alex Crick)

By Momo Chang

She’s been performing for more than a decade, but like many comedians, put in years of honing her craft and skills, both on stage and as an actress and writer on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

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 SF 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 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.

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 writer’s 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 “Blackish” 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.

On the value of a diverse writer’s room

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

On the idea of “supporting” women comics—and the term female comics itself

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.

On reactions to her special, “Baby Cobra,” and Steve Yeun’s surprising tweet

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.1

My neighbors who live next door and said, “Oh yeah, we saw your special. And it’s just funny because we know you as our chill neighbor who’s a new mom.” Otherwise, it’s great. I’m glad it’s out there.

On Asian American dudes

Nobody can compete with that, when their face is all chiseled, they look like statues! I like the svelte, trim, Asian man. The lean and long look. I love Glenn from “The Walking Dead” —I like that dude— I like one of the “Fast and Furious” dudes. That statue thing that Asian man got going on.

Advice to young creatives

Just do it. Just go create. There’s no rush to get payment. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to act, then go make videos. Or go on Craigslist and act in other peoples’ movies. If you want to direct, it’s never been easier to do it. Just do it.

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