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Just Acting Natural

Comedian Ali Wong left the ivory tower behind for the stand-up stage

After college, Ali Wong had her life all planned out. She earned a Fulbright scholarship, moved to Vietnam and was ready to devote her life to academia. Then reality hit.

“I hated it because no one understood me,” says Wong, 30, who was born to parents of Chinese and Vietnamese extraction. “I’m not very good at Vietnamese, and I could probably express 5 percent of what I wanted to say. Nobody would get my references or my humor, and I felt super lonely and got really depressed because I couldn’t make anybody laugh. That’s when I decided, ‘I’ve gotta go home and try to do this for a living.’”

The first time she walked into the Punch Line, a comedy club in her hometown of San Francisco, Wong knew she was on to something.

“They were doing a roast for this local comedian who was leaving, and I realized this was a fraternity I wanted to be a part of,” she says. “They were doing these super-mean, personal jokes about each other, really undercutting, and I loved it. I was like, ‘I want to be part of this club so bad.’ It was the first time I ever felt that way. I had finally found my tribe.”

She started performing at open mics and quickly developed a reputation as a “raunchy” comedian, a distinction she says she begrudgingly accepts.

“I guess that’s just who I naturally am,” she says. “Of course I’m a dirty comic. I definitely fell into it because that’s what’s naturally funny to me. Poo-poo. Pee-pee. Penis. Vagina. Ever since I was a kid, [those words were] hilarious.”

Without having released an album or stand-up special, Wong has parlayed her comedy into acting jobs. She did a guest spot on the Fox sitcom “Breaking In” and was a regular on the recently canceled NBC sitcom “Are You There, Chelsea?” She also regularly appears as a panelist on Chelsea Handler’s E! chat show, “Chelsea Lately.” Though Wong had no acting experience before appearing in “Breaking In,” she says she found the transition relatively simple.

“Acting is super easy,” she says. “You just show up and say the words. Especially for me, coming from stand-up. I moved to New York with no money. I was eating beans from a can, living with eight other people and now I have my own trailer. There’s a woman who puts my clothes on. She literally dresses me. She puts my underwear on. She makes space for my leg, like I’m a kid, in each of the underwear holes. All that stuff is cake.”

Riot Act Comedy Theater, 801 E St. NW; Thu., 8 p.m., $12; Fri. & Sat., 8 & 10:30 p.m., $17-$20; 202-697-4900. (Gallery Place)