Ali Wentworth Makes 'em Laugh
by rachel sturtz
Wentworth’s memoir: Ali in Wonderland (Harper, $26) is now available at bookstores citywide
For an entertainer, a tough audience can come down to the one person you can’t make smile. This was a lesson five-year-old Ali Wentworth learned as she pas de bourrée’d her way through a rendition of Shirley Temple’s “Animal Crackers in My Soup” during one of her parents’ many dinner parties. She had hoped to charm the Washington elites who had gathered at the Wentworths’ Embassy Row home. To break up the seriousness. To perform like a starlet. To be really damn cute. As she concluded her dance, coos and awws and enthusiastic applause filled the room, save from one guest: the unsmiling, unapologetically bored Henry Kissinger. She would have to work harder.
Humor has a place in politics, but politics isn’t exactly a breeding ground for slapstick. As the child of a reporter for The Washington Post and the social secretary for the Reagan White House (and stepdaughter of an editor for London’s Sunday Times), Wentworth was quizzed about current events and sat audience to dinnertime crossfire among her parents’ guests. Breaking out of that blueblood mold took chutzpah, as she details in her new book, Ali in Wonderland. “I grew up in a serious house,” says Wentworth, 47. “That’s one reason I started veering toward comedy and did it in the most explosive way.”
At Bard College, the drama major began by injecting humor into Chekhov plays, then took her impish humor and set it free as part of legendary Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings. Wentworth had left a home where her mother, Muffie Cabot, used to curl up on the couch with Jackie Onassis, in exchange for playing hookers and dumb blondes on Fox’s In Living Color—humor that took some explaining for her mother (“She didn’t call me an actress until I starred in It’s Complicated, and only then because I was onscreen with Meryl Streep,” says Wentworth). She had strayed as far away from Washington as possible—until a blind date with George Stephanopoulos reeled her back in.
“I thought I would be Mrs. Hugh Grant,” says Wentworth. “I couldn’t have gotten away from that world fast enough, and I ended up marrying someone who was in it. On my first date with George, I just knew. And like The Godfather, the world of politics pulled me back in.”
The universe responded with opportunity. Her wit and innate goofiness landed her spots on shows like The View and Politically Incorrect, and she eventually became a correspondent of sorts on Oprah. Meanwhile she flexed her improv chops by creating and starring in a completely unscripted series on Starz, Head Case, about a misguided celebrity therapist. But after a two-season run, commutes between LA, Chicago, and New York, and a bad case of shingles, Wentworth flew the white flag. She was ready to spend time with her two children: Harper, nine, and Elliott, six. That red-eye existence may just have been the perfect setup for her latest project, an online show for Disney called Daily Shot with Ali Wentworth, a boiled-down send-up of The Daily Show for moms who have five minutes to catch up on world news (it premiered in February).
As it turns out, Wentworth still dines with the Kissingers, but these days as peers—a bizarre reality as she has gotten older. “I’m still the kid. And then sitting next to me is my husband debating financial responsibility with Henry. George’s colleagues are the people I used to pass peanuts to in my nightgown.” But now, her comedic skills honed, she finally makes them laugh.
photography by evan sung. hair and makeup by Stephanie Albarracin
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.