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Ali Wong, Vertically Integrated Netflix Star

From stand-up specials to TV shows to rom-coms, Wong has remained loyal to the streamer and charted a new course of success for comedians

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Should a performer be lucky enough to reach the summit of the brutal, arduous mountain that is stand-up comedy, there’s a logical next step: become a movie star. Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Patton Oswalt all made the transition and thrived; Amy Schumer is currently trying to, with mixed results. Stand-up, apart from the occasional special, is anchored to a specific time and place, even when that place is an arena. Why not attempt to translate one’s charisma into a more universal, replicable platform like the movies?

But as comedy has transformed over the past decade, so has what’s expected of its superstars. John Mulaney is one of the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful comics working; after a traditional self-titled sitcom failed in 2015, he’s largely stuck to stand-up, give or take the occasional Sondheim impression, in a move that feels like a return to form rather than a defeat. This weekend, another one of comedy’s biggest names hasn’t so much shredded the playbook as bent it to suit their needs. Ali Wong and Randall Park’s new movie, Always Be My Maybe, may be a feature-length vehicle for Wong to flex her chops, but it’s not a studio-backed venture opening wide at the summer box office, á la last year’s Crazy Rich Asians. Instead, Always Be My Maybe is a textbook Netflix rom-com, a subgenre that’s reappropriated the concept of a made-for-TV movie into an advantage, not an insult. That Wong chose such a project to capitalize on her fame shows how comic celebrity has changed, and how Wong in particular aims to cultivate hers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, both Mulaney and Wong share an association with Netflix, the streaming service that’s remade stand-up and rom-coms, and might eventually, its shareholders hope, remake all of entertainment. Netflix’s reach and ease of access have helped stand-up become less of a niche than it once was; its deep pockets have also made the profession more lucrative, at least for its upper echelon. Mulaney—along with Schumer, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and other bold-faced names—got his start before the Netflix era, though his 2012 Comedy Central special New in Town gained additional popularity on the site. A multi-special, multi-comma deal was nonetheless inked on the strength of pre-existing achievements, an M.O. that’s long served as Netflix’s default in its relationships with high-profile stand-ups.

Wong, on the other hand, represents something new. Prior to her 2016 hour Baby Cobra, her first recorded special of any kind, the San Francisco native didn’t have much of a national reputation. But a combination of release strategy (Mother’s Day weekend), viral hook (Wong’s third-trimester pregnancy), and novel perspective (an Asian American woman sharing her experience with sex, marriage, and parenthood) made Wong an overnight sensation. Just two years later, Wong cemented her acclaim into lasting appeal with Hard Knock Wife, which kept the bracing obscenity while swapping out graphic sexcapades for graphic anecdotes about breastfeeding. In between, a New Yorker profile canonized Wong’s genius, which weds masculine bravado with taboo feminine experiences like childbirth.

That story planted the seeds of what would become Always Be My Maybe. Wong and Park have known each other since college at UCLA, when Wong joined a theater group Park had cofounded, and had since collaborated on Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC sitcom Park coleads and Wong previously wrote for. “Wong also wants to make a romantic comedy that she and Randall Park have been talking about for years,” The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy wrote. “Our version of ‘When Harry Met Sally,’” Wong said at the time. It’s an offhand detail in the story, sandwiched between Wong’s reflections on her faux-regressive stage persona and early drafts of material for Hard Knock Wife. Now, it’s a weekend viewing option for millions of subscribers.

Wong earned the capital required to make this dream a reality by becoming Netflix’s first homemade headliner. The Baby Cobra phenomenon is as inextricable from the rise of streaming as it is from Wong’s considerable talents, though the symbiosis is mutual: Netflix now has a vested interest in Wong’s continued success, and her career now serves as a walking advertisement for what comedians stand to gain by working with Netflix in lieu of its competitors. Last year, the Australian performer Hannah Gadsby achieved something similar with her polemic Nanette; once they were just a click away, Gadsby’s provocative ideas about comedy and trauma built a stateside following from scratch. But in the contrast between where she stood before joining forces with Netflix and where she stands after, Wong’s upward trajectory remains unmatched.

Earlier this spring, Wong costarred with Tiffany Haddish in Tuca & Bertie, the adult animated comedy from BoJack Horseman artist Lisa Hanawalt. (Wong voices Bertie, a shy song thrush whose passion for baking leads her to a mentor with boundary issues.) With the subsequent release of Always Be My Maybe, Wong has transformed from a Netflix-boosted comic to a full-blown, vertically integrated, in-house Netflix star. Wong now releases specials, coleads a sitcom, and headlines movies—all at the same outlet. Fans know exactly where to find her.

Wong is not the first entertainer to comfortably fit within Netflix’s all-encompassing umbrella. My colleague Alyssa Bereznak has reported on “Netflix famous” actors like Noah Centineo of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a new generation of teen idols who’ve followed their audience online. Massive overall deals have brought self-contained industries like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes into the Netflix fold. Elsewhere in comedy, Mulaney and frequent collaborator Nick Kroll have partnered with the service for efforts as diverse as puberty sitcom Big Mouth and Broadway duet Oh, Hello. But with Always Be My Maybe, Wong is showing how a progression that once required switching media entirely can now take place without ever shedding that trademark Netflix red.

Though Wong and Park cowrote Always Be My Maybe themselves with Michael Golamco, the film proves an imperfect showcase for Wong’s charms. As celebrity chef Sasha Tran, Wong falls victim to the classic straight-man problem, unable to show off her hilarious eccentricities as well when she’s anchoring an emotional story as when she’s creating comedy for its own sake. (That privilege falls to Keanu Reeves, who airdrops in for 15 perfect minutes as an outsized parody of himself.) Nor do she and Park, directed by Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, share an onscreen chemistry to match their real-life friendship. Much of the script, from Sasha’s San Francisco upbringing to her and Park’s character awkwardly losing their virginities in the back of a Toyota Corolla, is pulled from the stars’ actual biographies. Yet Always Be My Maybe still feels curiously impersonal, the delicate rom-com balance between familiarity and specificity skewing heavily toward the former. Commentary on San Francisco’s gentrification rings false, given that the movie was clearly shot in Vancouver; promising threads, like the sexism that poisons Sasha’s dating life as an accomplished woman, end up underdeveloped. Even the typically live-wire Michelle Buteau falls flat as Sasha’s heavily pregnant assistant.

If Always Be My Maybe doesn’t immediately succeed at establishing Wong as a movie star, however, it does show Netflix as a viable path to becoming one. Social media lit up almost as soon as the movie went live on Friday. The Reeves cameo, as it seems designed to do, has already become a meme. Wong is once again at the center of the cultural conversation; Netflix has once again won the weekend, even one with both an Elton John biopic and an Octavia Spencer slasher at the multiplex, by default. The movie business is changing, and the shrewdest stars are finding new ways to conquer it.