I'm here today with Ali Wentworth. Ali is the author of the memoir and essay collections Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, and Go Ask Ali: Half-Baked Advice (and Free Lemonade). As an actress, Ali stared in films Jerry Maguire, Office Space, The Real Blonde, and It’s Complicated, and in TV shows like Nightcap, which she wrote and stared in, and sketch comedy show In Living Color. A native of Washington DC and a graduate of Bard, she currently lives in New York City with her husband, George Stephanopoulos, and their two daughters.
Welcome, Ali. Thanks so much for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Ali Wentworth: So happy to be here.
Zibby: You mentioned in one of your books that you have the best recipe ever for chocolate chip cookies. Before we do anything else, I have to know because I'm obsessed with baking chocolate chip cookies and eating them.
Ali: Here's the thing. I haven't told anybody the recipe. My bestie, Mariska Hargitay, who’s obsessed with it, I won't give her the recipe because I don't want her to make it and then not need me. I like the need. I also give it as Christmas presents. I give like eight frozen rolls. If I gave you the recipe, I'd feel like it would hurt a lot of my female relationships.
Zibby: Maybe I shouldn't start our relationship in this way, coming in ruining everything. Is there a secret ingredient? Is it just the ratio of everything that makes them so good?
Ali: It’s the ratio of everything, which I think is very important. I use more butter than more people. I use sea salt. There's a few things.
Zibby: A few tweaks. I won't dig.
Ali: I will send you a roll. You will taste it. I’ll get you addicted. There will be a want that only I -- it’s like a meth addict. It’s a similar thing.
Zibby: It’s not hard to get me addicted to the sugar.
Ali: My friends, they get angry at me. They say I've given them ten pounds. I say, “You have no self-discipline. Just because I give you the cookie dough doesn't mean you have to eat it.”
Zibby: “I'm going to give this to you. Now, don't eat it.” You try and not do it.
Ali: It’s a stressful world. Do not go for that in the freezer.
Zibby: Just if you need it there. Good to know. In Go Ask Ali, your latest book, you have some really great one-liners. “Don't underestimate the power of the gut,” when you were talking about marriages. “Do not hire a hot babysitter.” That's just a good one.
Ali: That is, to me, a no-brainer. Yet it happens all the time.
Zibby: You don't want to discriminate. They could be great babysitters.
Ali: They could be great. If you're on a diet, why do you go to a bakery?
Zibby: You're the one giving the cookie dough.
Ali: That's right. I'm contradicting myself left and right. There's no reason, particularly after you've given birth, as I assume you have four times --
Zibby: -- Three times. I have twins.
Ali: Three times. You don't need that in your visual, is my feeling.
Zibby: The corollary, perhaps, is you never look as good naked as you think you do. [laughs]
Ali: That's true. I don't care what kind of lighting you have.
Zibby: You started your career as an actress and still do acting. How did you morph into also being a writer of these fantastic, funny books?
Ali: When I lived in LA and I was acting, I was not the girl that would go to the gym. A lot of actresses that I was growing up with in LA, when they weren’t working, they were going to the gym. They were physically fine-tuning themselves. I wasn’t, but I was bored because work is sparse. I started writing screenplays. That kept me busy. I was actually making a living doing that. Then when I married George Stephanopoulos and I moved to New York, I thought, “How do I create a career where I'm not in Los Angeles, where most of shows were shooting at that time, but where I'm active creatively, but not leaving?” I started writing the books. Then when I had my little baby girls, I was writing while they went to school. My rule was as soon as they got on the school bus, I would work. Then as soon as they walked in at three o’clock in the afternoon, I would stop writing. That seemed like something I could do, whereas I don't have control on a set. I can't say, “Listen, I got to get home to make dinner.” They're like, “I don't care. We’re tweaking lighting. You're here ‘til two in the morning. You're going to sit in that freezing cold trailer ‘til we tell you.” That was a lot of the reason.
Zibby: I also love to write. I feel like it’s the one thing, and podcasting, it’s the one thing you can do around your own schedule and make it work with kids.
Ali: Exactly. There is control over it. I was fortunate enough, a couple years ago I created a show that I stared in and wrote called Nightcap. We did two seasons of that. Because I was the boss, we didn't start production ‘til nine o’clock in the morning because I wanted the girls to go to school. Then we stopped by dinner time. That never happens. What I realized was you can actually shoot a half hour comedy in that time. There's so much time wasted. If you know these are the parameters to which we have to shoot, it actually works. I don't know why people don't follow that formula. I really don't. I don't understand why my friends in LA who are shooting half hour comedies are there ‘til eleven o’clock at night. Why? It doesn't get funnier the later…
Zibby: [laughs] Maybe it does to them.
Ali: I don't know. Yes, it’s all about controlling time.
Zibby: Do you have a preference, screenplay versus essay, memoir?
Ali: I actually like writing the books. I like writing my experiences in the first person. I can just go on and on in that arena as opposed to writing dialogue in a character’s name. I find that a little bit harder because you have to put on your acting hat too. Then I'm acting it out, and then I'm crazy, in more ways than one. I like doing the narrative in my own voice.
Zibby: By the way, I used to live in LA. I lived off of Wonderland Avenue also.
Ali: Oh, you did? On what street?
Zibby: I actually lived on Wonderland, 8th something. It was so creepy. When I was reading what you were writing again -- I was afraid at night every night until we left. It was the creepiest neighborhood, and the murders and everything. I was relating to what you were saying.
Ali: You know, my landlord was Freddy Krueger. His mask was in the garage. You couldn't get creepier than that. I was terrified the whole time.
Zibby: One of the funniest parts that I really identified with right now, given all the Instagram craze and everything, was how you talked about your Instagram addiction. You set this whole maddening scene where your friends are doing this, and you thought you hadn’t been invited, and then you throw your phone away. Then you say, you screamed it through the phone, you said, “I hate Instagram,” only to hear a ping. Then you dove under the bed, digging for the phone “like a pig for a white truffle.” How have you managed this addiction? Also, do you still look at your daughter’s feeds? Do they still have feeds? You mentioned that in the book.
Ali: How do I manage this addiction? I'm like a investigative reporter with this stuff. I'm still trying to figure it out because we didn't grow up with it. My kids have to teach me. I'm like, “What do you mean? What's a Finsta? What is that? What is that? Are you getting dick pics? What's happening?” I feel like it’s the wild west. I'm dealing with my addiction, meaning I realize now a lot of it is for work. It’s all curated. I don't believe any of it. I'm concerned for my daughters. There's so much self-worth that comes out of Instagram. There's so much FOMO and all that kind of stuff. It’s a big topic for me and my house. I feel like I am educating my children in a different way when they come from school. “I can't help you with chemistry or math or pretty much every subject, but I can tell you that girl who is wearing a bikini on a public account has a hole she's trying to fill.” I do a lot of that. I think it’s a slippery slope. I do a lot of work with the Child Mind Institute. We do these panels about social media. It’s really terrifying what's going on and how polarized boys and girls are now because of what they look at and see. I'm going to be the Norma Rae of the social media for teens one day because I'm terrified of it.
Zibby: My daughter, I let her be on it a little bit last year. She's now eleven. All of a sudden, I was looking at her account and I saw her friend Elise had brought someone else to Jingle Ball. I was like, “How could she have done that? Why didn't she invite my daughter?” I was like, “You know what? I'm getting off here. We’re unfollowing these people.” I can't even take it. I can't take the stress of it.
Ali: I know. It digs at the very root of all our insecurity. It does. My daughter, she does a deep dive sometimes in Instagram. Then she knows too much. I'm like, “How do you know that?” She's like, “I'm just telling you Kim Kardashian is not…” I'm like, “Oh, my god. What a time-waster. Why are you doing that? Why do you care about these people?” It’s a little crazy.
Zibby: Child Mind Institute, I'm on the board there. I've seen you. You moderate the lunches every year -- you're so great and funny -- and the dinners and everything. How did you get involved? Did Harold Koplewicz rope you in?
Ali: He does eventually.
Zibby: Child Mind is a research and treatment center for children's mental health disorders, for anyone who’s listening who doesn't know. Amazing, amazing place.
Ali: Yes. It’s a fantastic place. I have a very close friend in LA who runs the philanthropy for the creative arts agency. She works with Harold all the time. When I was moving to New York, she said, “This is in your wheelhouse. You should talk to Harold.” I put my toe in the pool. Then Harold pulled me right in, submerged me. I'm there because I believe in the work that they do. I've been fortunate at times to have friends whose kids were in crisis and I was able to call Harold and get them in and have seen amazing results. I have a daughter with -- both daughters have anxiety. At this point in my life, I feel like any kid that doesn't have anxiety, there's something wrong with them. It’s an anxiety-making world in general. I love doing those panels. I think that if it’s too dry, if it’s just some doctors talking about it, if you don't take it in as much -- as a mom, I try to be that relatable person and make it engaging. I know I tune out. If it was a TED Talk on children and teenage anxiety disorders, I'd fall asleep. It’s more about entertaining myself. If it entertains other people, it’s great too.
Zibby: It entertains me. [indiscernible-talkover]. My friends always want to come back. In the book you said you wanted to name your child Zoloft. I thought that was so funny. You have so many great lines like that. They're so funny. Speaking of lunches, you have a whole section about the importance of ladies’ lunches, not the ones like your mom or my mom probably used to have, but where you, as you were saying, dive deep into issues. You said, “I don't do chitchat. I don't care where someone bought her suede boots or what day of the cleanse she’s on. I want us to speak honestly about the realities of being women, mothers, and wives. I want to know if you wake up covered in sweat, can have an orgasm without equipment, or convinced you have an undiagnosed infectious disease.”
Tell me about your relationship with your girlfriends. How has this been so helpful? How often are you going to these lunches? Is this weekly?
Ali: It’s not a set time because everybody's working and has kids. We figure out, “What's everyone's first week in March like?” I found that over the years, I have gotten my best information from my girlfriends more than anybody else. I have a friend Tracy who’s like a doctor. She’s an actress, but she's a doctor. I go to her with all my, “My daughter needs surgery for this…” “Well, you got to talk to this person.” She knows everything about that. Besides that kind of information, if I'm sitting around with my six girlfriends, there's no chitchat. Somebody cries at all times. There's something going on. Somebody's having a problem with a toxic person at work. We talk about that. Somebody's having a marriage issue. There's big things to tackle. We feel like we’re not interested in getting together and talking about, “Does that kale thing work for you?” We go deep very quickly. It resolves stuff. There's also a sense of comfort.
One of the other things I say about it in my book is it was a huge relief for me to realize that my husband didn't have to be my best friend. There's a lot of pressure. Women think the perfect marriage is, “We’re best friends. We do everything together.” No. No. I love George and all the important, fundamental things we share, but he’s not going to chew on a martial issue with me that belongs to somebody else for an hour. He doesn't care enough. I always use the example that if I said, “Oh, my god. I just found out that Lucy and her husband are getting divorced,” George would go, “Oh, my god. That's so sad,” and move on. I'm like, “No, no, no, no, no.” I want to know why. What happened? Is it going to happen to me? I need to chew on it. My female friends will. They’ll also go deep on a lot of things I think husbands are -- they're such problem solvers that their feeling is like, “If this is happening, this is what you should do.” My feeling is, no, we need to, as my mother would say, “Shake it out and lay it down.” We have to really look at the whole thing and then be okay with it.
Zibby: Is this part of the secret? You said your dirty secret is that you have a really happy marriage. That's not really in vogue anymore. You used to hide it.
Ali: That's part of what was a revelation to me that made my marriage better. I didn't put all the pressure on him to be that best friend. Like I said, he’s not going to go forty-five minutes into why Lucy’s getting divorced. My girlfriends will. If I know I can go to them and go, “I don't understand it. Isn't that scary? Why are they getting divorced and not us? He was having an affair. How did she not know?” I can do that with them. I won't, instead, then get mad at my husband and go, “I want to talk about this. Why won't you talk about this? You have no time for me.” It goes off the rails that way. It’s funny.
The thing with marriage is that there was a while where people were really bitching about their marriages a lot. I had nothing to complain about. Then I started to feel like I have nothing to say. I'm somebody that likes to talk. When I'm at social situations and everybody's complaining about their husband and I have nothing to say, maybe I need to come up with something. I started to feel like I noticed that we started hanging out -- you start hanging out with other couples that are happily married. It reinforces everything, but also you just have a lot more in common. I did notice too that I have friends that have very complicated marriages that end up hanging out with other people that have very complicated marriages. The unhappy seek out the unhappy. The unfaithful seek out the unfaithful. Then I made a joke about how we meet at Polish restaurants in Queens late at night with other happily married couples because we don't want to get caught.
Zibby: It’s so true. I'm divorced and remarried. My friends from my first marriage are now so different, in part because I feel like a few friends felt like I was abandoning them by actually getting divorced. Anyway, that's enough of that, but you know.
Ali: You were unhappy, and you made yourself happy.
Zibby: Another part that I really liked in your book, which I felt like was a fast-forward into where I'm going to be at my own life, not that soon because my littlest is still four, but at some point, the moment when you were at your beach house in the kitchen and debating is it too depressing to go to a farm stand now and by one ear of corn. Your girls were away. Your husband was working. You were alone in house. You said you were “on the other side of life and scrambling to find purpose.” You said, “When I was young, time was irrelevant. Summers were endless and the possibilities were infinite. But now standing in my kitchen in this still house wondering if it’s too depressing to go to the farm stand and buy one ear of corn, I realize that this is it.”
Ali: That's so sad. I wrote that. [laughs] I will say, I have friends who are empty-nesters now. They're scrambled and freaking out. “What am I going to do? Who am I? Oh, my god. I'm alone with my husband now.” My girls are in eighth grade and tenth grade. I see it. I'm already dealing with that emotionally. I'm preparing myself [indiscernible]. How I'm preparing is I have kept a steady profession going. I will probably delve more into work when they're out of the house. I think women need to. You need to have these other things.
I'm going to be the mother that demands everybody home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don't care. Bring your boyfriend. I know I’ll be that person. My mother’s like that. We’re all going out to San Francisco for my brother’s birthday soon. If you are a mother that dictates how important family is and we will get together no matter what, no matter how old you are, then that lives on. I am very wistful about when we were painting rocks on the beach. Those were great times. Those were days that went on forever. You're at the beach and you realize the sun’s setting. We’ll go home and have chicken fingers. To me, those were the best of times. A lot of women would say, “Oh, my god. That's the worst. Your kids are crying.” I loved that period. I really did.
Zibby: Even looking back on my own life, that was my favorite period, when I was a little girl on the beach and outdoor showers and that whole thing.
Ali: Me too. We were in Cape Cod every summer. I remember feeling like the days, they were endless. I could just lay on a porch. Maybe I had a tennis lesson. You went to the beach. Those were your big worries.
Zibby: My only distraction was Snoopy Tennis. Do you remember that little game, Snoopy Tennis? It was on that little thing with the batteries. It was the beach and Snoopy Tennis and books. That was my summer.
Ali: Also, we didn't have a TV. My mother didn't have the TV in the summer. It was like, “Go outside with stick and a rock, and figure it out.”
Zibby: I made this rule a while ago, which now I've basically given up now that I have four kids. I used to have this rule where we could only watch TV if it was raining. If it’s raining, fine. Go enjoy it. On a pretty day, no.
Ali: That's a good rule. What if it’s kind of sprinkling?
Zibby: Then we got into this whole grey territory. Then it didn't rain for a while. Everybody's freaking out.
Ali: When I was young, my mother only allowed us one hour of television a week. I found when I was older that I wanted television so badly because I didn't have it. Now, even when I'm home cooking, I turn the TV on because I can. I equate it a little bit with when my kids were little, the friends that weren’t allowed sugar, they'd come over and they'd be in my pantry choking on marshmallows. With my kids, I'm like, “When you're done with your homework, you can watch TV.” I just know I became so -- all I wanted was TV. Go to a friend’s house and watch TV. TV, TV, TV, TV. I don't want them to be like that, even though they're going to be watching on their phones. They’ll have a chip in their head by the time they have kids. I've found that anytime you take away too much, they want too much.
Zibby: I interviewed this man, Gary John Bishop. He has kids. He’s a self-help guru. He was saying everything you do in parenting is a direct reaction to how you were parented yourself. Either you do it exactly the same or completely the opposite. Nothing is just random. It’s always some sort of response.
Ali: I totally agree with that.
Zibby: I feel like I do that. I'm a little too lenient with sugar because that was really restricted in my house. Now with my kids, “Let's bake brownies again.” They were doing some make-pretend thing about “Let's pretend we’re Mommy.” They're like, “Here, would you like a brownie?” Maybe I took this too far.
Ali: Oh, my god. I hope my kids never want to act out Mommy. I do think that's true too. George’s father was a priest. Their meals were not always together because he was always in church. My mother was working in the White House. She wasn’t around a lot for dinner. We have family dinner every single night. George and I won't go out during the week unless it’s really important, like have to, have to, not should, have to. That's also a reaction. We had these ideas of, “One day when I get married, I'm going to have family dinner, sit around and do roses and thorns.” Then of course, you try to throw away the stuff that wasn’t so great about your childhood. I don't spank anybody.
Zibby: I won't even go into that. That could be a whole nother hour. One of the funny things your mom says, speaking of parents, is her advice to always go to the Four Seasons. Can you tell the story about -- this isn't even so funny -- on 9/11, what happened with the…
Ali: She has thing about in a crisis, go to the Four Seasons. If you're mugged, just go to the Four Seasons. It’s really engrained in me. Every once in a while, somebody will say to me, “Actually, really, it makes sense.” It was 9/11. George and I were engaged. We weren’t married yet. I was in New York. 9/11 happened. George was at ABC News. Nobody could call. I don't know if you remember. Cell phones, nothing was working. Except of course, my mother was able to get through to me because she's so formidable that cell phones won't stop her. She was like, “What's going on?” I said, “I don't know. There's the terrorist attack.” My mother said, “Go to the Four Seasons.” I said okay.
Finally, George had made his way back to the apartment. I said, “We have to go to the Four Seasons.” Now, we were on West Eighty-Sixth Street. He was like, “What?” I said, “We have to go to the Four Seasons.” He said, “We’re going down towards Ground Zero. We’re not going to Midtown Manhattan.” I said, “Pack your bag. We’re going to the Four Seasons. My mother says to go to the Four Seasons.” We go to the Four Seasons. Of course nobody's there. We’re sitting around. He’s dealing with news stuff. He was like, “I don't understand why we’re here.” I said, “We’re here because if it’s the end of the world, at least we can watch it with room service.” He still makes fun of me. We were not even married yet. We were at the point where he did what I said. It’s funny. My mother, she’ll still say that. If I called her right now and I said, “Oh, my god. It turns out I have the flu and pneumonia.” She'd say, “Go to the Four Seasons.” I'd go. It would be very costly.
Zibby: With slightly older kids, eighth and tenth grade -- my older ones are in fifth grade -- do you have any New York City parenting advice-isms, things you've learned that maybe if you were in my seat over here you might have wished you'd known?
Ali: That deal with New York City specifically?
Zibby: It doesn't have to. I just felt like in several years I’ll be…
Ali: Watch, educate the social media world. That's really important. I see how it affects my kids. I see it with others. I'm talking about girls being sexualized. I'm talking about boys who feel they can judge girls. I remember one boy on my daughter’s Instagram wrote, “You'd be cute if you had boobs.” That really had an effect on her. They start to think the likes are important. They do get addicted. You do have to set rules. You do have to say, “There's no phones at dinner. There’s no phones until you finish your homework.” It’s dopamine. It’s the same as when you play the slots in Vegas. The other thing is, even with that, I notice that my older daughter, she doesn't feel like she has to go out with her friends on a Saturday night because she feels like she's connected to them with social media. We encourage her to go to the movies, socialize, make eye contact, have empathy, all the things you're losing. That, to me, is the biggest thing to look at, especially with teens. The suicide rate is so much higher now because of it.
I would also encourage you to be very talkative with your kids. I find that the parents that don't have a great communication with their kids, their kids are the ones off Juuling and vaping and doing all kinds of stuff, whereas my kids, I made myself very available. I didn't judge them. I've always said to them, “I'm the mom. Your best friend’s drunk and throwing up all over you, please call me.” Those conversations are really, really important. New York is fast. It’s a fast city. They see a lot. They experience a lot. Sometimes they don't really know what's going on and what they're experiencing. If you can be that person…
I really believe in showing your kids charity that isn't going to a black-tie ball. I took my kids to Puerto Rico. I took my daughter to Burundi, Africa, last summer. The more they can see it, the soup kitchen, anything -- private school, Upper East Side kids, they see charity, they think it’s a ball. Bone Marrow Gala, it’s about Kesha singing. There's a huge disconnect. I believe in getting our children's hands dirty a little bit. The money stuff is always a big thing. We’re not good at it. We’re trying to, “This is your allowance. That's it. You figure it out. There's not an endless supply of money for you. If you're going to the movies tonight, then I guess you can't get that mascara later in the month.” There's this feeling, particularly in this environment, that you can just do and have anything you want, anytime you want. We push against that a little bit.
The greatest thing was my husband just renewed his contract at ABC. It was in the papers and everything, which is always gross. My daughter was like, “Oh, my god. I saw in The New York Post. Daddy, that's so great. You're making so much money.” He goes, “Oh, no. Mom and I spending it now. When you're out of college, you're going to be poor. We live on salary, and we’re going to spend it. You need to figure out what you're going to do.” Her face turned [indiscernible-laughter] freaked out. There is that entitlement thing that we’re constantly battling against. We’re trying to instill in them now, “No, you need to go work and figure out what your life is going to look like. We did.”
Zibby: That was great. Those were a lot of great -- thank you.
Ali: Yeah, pretty good. Look at me.
Zibby: [laughs] Are you going to be writing more books? What do you have coming up next? Do you want to do more screenplays?
Ali: I always say my career is like if you throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall. I'm going to write another book. I'm going to, I think, write a humor book called How to Grow a Teenager. I'm talking to Audible about doing a podcast. There's a couple TV projects I'm working on, but as a producer because I'm staying at home with my kids until they leave. As soon as they're gone, you can have me all the time. [laughs] There's all lots of different stuff going on.
Zibby: On the writing front, last question, do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
Ali: Yes, I do. There's this cliché line that is “The act is in the doing.” So many times I found myself guilty of it. I would say, “I want to write a movie about this. I want to write a book about this.” I hear people say, “I would love to write a book about this woman and her husband. They go to Africa. He gets killed. It’s the thing.” Well then, write it. My feeling is just write it. Write it and don't judge yourself. Too many people write a paragraph. They go, “Oh, my god. This is terrible.” They turn it off. They watch Netflix. They can't go back. I always say vomit it out. Just write it out. It can be complete garbage. You go back and fine-tune and fine-tune. I've found that really freeing for myself. I'm going to write a chapter about how I did this podcast with my friend on Park Avenue. I would just write it out, write it out. I don't care if it’s terrible. There's all kind of spelling mistakes. Then I go back. I edit and edit. Then before you know it, it’s actually not bad. The writing is not getting done until you literally have your coffee, sit your ass in the chair, and just do it. You have to do it.
Zibby: Sometimes I'm like, “I'm a non-practicing writer,” when I don't do it. [laughs]
Ali: You should try it.
Zibby: That's great advice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Ali: Thank you. It was fun.