Ali Wong Only Started Acting So She Could Justify Doing Stand-Up Sets for Free at Night
Most open-micers in the stand-up comedy circuit have to hold down side jobs to support their statistically unlucrative dreams. Ali Wong was no different, but while the rest of the amateurs waited tables and walked dogs, she was slumming it every week on an NBC soundstage.
Wong’s work ethic when it comes to comedy is immense. The Beef star previously claimed that she would perform as many as 13 sets every night when she first started stand-up, which is all the more admirable when considering that her fallback career was the drudgery of recurring roles on network sitcoms, starting with the Christian Slater-led series Breaking In in 2011. In a Variety interview with Jason Segel, Wong reflected on her atypical career arc where sitcom success came long before a Netflix special, but she clarified that, unlike many comics who do it in reverse, the TV gigs were only ever a stepping stone to steady (and paying) stand-up work.
“I started acting in sitcoms because it was a great way for me to justify doing sets for free at night,” Wong explained. At least the day job in “Don’t quit your day job!” had SAG benefits.
When Segel asked her if her successful acting career was ever the end-goal of her stand-up aspirations, Wong replied, “Not really. I just wanted to tell jokes for a living.” Wong would enjoy steady acting work on the aforementioned Slater series as well as a series regular role on Chelsea Handler’s short-lived autobiographical series Are You There, Chelsea? in 2012. Though Wong would eventually break through into stand-up stardom with her 2016 smash hit special Baby Cobra, she would fill up a respectable credits section on her IMDb page before being taken seriously as one of the world’s top comics.
It’s worth noting that despite Wong being lucky to have one of the most glamorous day jobs in open-mic history, compensation for small-time stand-up comedians typically ranges from “laughable” to “nonexistent” depending on the club. The vast majority of comics work for free, and the few that land paid gigs usually only make $25 to $100 per night, or, as is often the case, the club owner tosses them a couple drink tickets and they call it even.
Sadly, like many creative professions, only a dismally small percentile of comics will ever subsist solely off of their comedy work, and a very select few will score eight-figure paychecks for streaming specials. The vast majority of stand-ups burn themselves out long before they can even imagine paying the bills with funny money — or the kinda cash Wong was bringing in for her acting gigs.