According to promotional materials, Margaret Cho’s new concert film NotoriousC.H.O. pays homage to “the hot ladies of rap music, particularly their lustful and bawdy expressions of strength and sexuality.” But the connection is a dubious one. Cho never uses terms like “hot ladies” unless she’s disparaging straight porn or celebrating the drag queens who raised her in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. And “notorious” refers to male rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace), not the women the publicists say inspired Cho–Li’l Kim and Eve. In fact, aside from the tons of attitude Cho brings to her standup act, she has little in common with most female rappers. Unlike most women of rap, Cho doesn’t put out the mixed signals that arise from the clash of overexposed booties with lyrics proclaiming girl power. Cho comes across as a sexual radical, moving beyond traditional ideas of power as she demonstrates the poignancy, hilarity and complexity of the experiences and choices that have made her a “Korean-American fag-hag, shit-starter, girl comic, trash talker.”
Cho accomplishes this by dramatizing her relationships to the entertainment industry, to her male and female lovers, and to a variety of people she physically embodies over the course of the 95-minute performance, including her mother, two teenaged “drag queen guardian angels,” a giggling colon hydrotherapist, and an airheaded anorexic who accidentally eats her best friend Karla. The series of vignettes is loosely tethered to the theme of Cho discovering herself by testing personal and social limits. One bit recounts a failed relationship in which her lover’s parting words were “don’t talk about this on stage.” Another deals with Cho, a former anorexic–“you know you have an eating disorder when you are consuming dessert at McDonalds”–deciding to let go of her weight obsession. A third has Cho bound and gagged in an S&M sex club, wishing that her dominatrix, Mistress Polly, weren’t so beautiful: “Don’t Sharon Stone me to death,” she says. “I want a woman who looks like John Goodman!”
Cho’s humor is unprecedented in the way it recognizes the diversity and absurdity of sexualities. She admits that she prefers men to women, but she’s not averse to the odd fling on an all-woman Olivia Cruise. She asks herself the tough questions: “I don’t know if I’m a bottom because it turns me on, or if I’m a bottom because I’m lazy.” She describes relationships in uncompromising terms. She wants to break up, but wants her birthday present first. She pledges to never again provide manual stimulation while wearing a grimace, “giving myself carpal tunnel and TMJ at the same time!”
Cho may be best known for her ill-fated TV series, All American Girl, which aired on ABC in 1994-5. Coming off a string of successes–hers was the most popular act on the college comedy circuit that year and she won an American Comedy Award for favorite female comedian–Cho hit rock bottom as a result of her experiences with the show. Fearful of being too “ethnic,” the producers hired an “Asian consultant.” Because executives thought her face was “too fat,” they placed her on a two-week diet and exercise regimen that left her 30 pounds lighter and landed her in the hospital with kidney failure. Cho jokes about these experiences and her subsequent journey through drinking, drugs, bad relationships and, finally, rehab, in her hilarious and highly successful one-woman off-Broadway show and 1999 concert film, I’m the One That I Want.
A hint of irony with respect to Cho’s All American Girl status lingers in the opening of Notorious, when she tells the audience that there’s nothing like a tragedy to teach us what we are all about. What she learned about herself after Sept. 11, she explains, was that the “services” she performed for rescue workers at Ground Zero caused her to lose her gag reflex. “I figured everyone has to do their part,” she deadpans. In fact, Cho briefly interrupted the Notorious tour after Sept. 11, then resumed performing with benefit shows for the families of victims of the attacks.
Cho draws upon her Korean-American background in “polyamorous, crazy, political San Francisco” as a source of humor. Her funniest “character”–and the one audiences love best–is her mother, who ran a bookstore when Cho was growing up. Cho credits her mother with introducing her to both eating disorders and to the delights of gay porn. Embodying “Mommy” as she speculates that everyone is a little gay, Cho chips away at rigid ideas about sexuality, gender, age and race. And Cho is just as likely to use her background to overtly challenge stereotypes. In one bit, she recreates her childhood, sweetly looking into an imaginary mirror as she perfects her delivery of the line “me love you long time.” In mock seriousness, she lists the roles she thinks she might grow up to play: an extra on M*A*S*H, Arnold’s girlfriend on Happy Days, a prostitute.
It’s not a huge leap from the child imagining which Asian whore roles she’ll nail to the mature adult finding it difficult to locate herself in contemporary popular culture. Perhaps Cho associates this piece with women of rap because there are so few women doing what she does. It’s tempting to make comparisons to Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing, but Cho’s comedy is earthier, edgier, and more intellectually satisfying than Bernhard’s. Another bawdy standup comedian, Sarah Silverman (currently performing a one-woman show in New York titled Jesus Is Magic), seems destined for some of the same treatment Cho experienced. A New York Times reporter called Silverman “bewitching” and “babelicious,” and said her “slinky good looks” mean she is a “feminist comic whose appeal skews male.”
Our entertainment culture rarely credits women with humor, unless it’s self-deprecating, or with sexuality, unless it’s narrowly heterosexual. Few critics outside the gay press know what to do with Cho. In order to situate Cho’s comedy for a mainstream audience, reviewers make reference to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, comparisons that are only marginally useful. In contrast, Cho’s own perspective on being a funny bisexual woman of color is complex. She claims “gay divas” Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland as artistic role models. After an amusing if somewhat conventional bit on the possibility of men menstruating (“every bachelor apartment would look like a murder scene”), she highlights her comic pedigree only to deconstruct it: “I thought that if Richard Pryor had a period, he would talk about it.”
My favorite moment in Notorious C.H.O. isn’t the joke that made me laugh the loudest, but a sequence in which the comic launches into an anthemic proclamation about minority status. She begins in a pointedly melodramatic tone but concludes with a resonant statement reflecting the breadth of the notion of “minority.” “If you are a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, a person of size . . . a person of intelligence, if you’re a person of integrity, then you are considered a minority in this world.” Her words strike a chord, perhaps because they imagine a community able to unite across identity. Cho’s badass persona, she says, “is being a role model for smart people.” Because of its personal and political nature, her ribald humor urges us to reclaim and define diversity for ourselves.