When Margaret Cho played the Saenger Theatre last year -- during that most opportune moment for a self-described "fag hag," during Southern Decadence weekend -- she thrilled the audience with her raunchiest material to date. She was nasty, blunt, consciously in-your-face.
Make that self-consciously in-your-face, for underneath all of Cho's spunk lies the same little insecure Korean-American girl who desperately wants to be liked. So as funny as Cho can be -- and at her best, she can break a rib or two -- she's not nearly as brash as she wants us to believe she is. She's much more pander bear than grizzly bear, catering to her gay and female audience instead of challenging it, a la her idol, Richard Pryor.
Further complicating matters is the fact that, unlike her last tour, the critically acclaimed "I'm the One That I Want" (and its popular movie version), Cho is much happier than the one who was fresh off rehab and seeing her ABC sitcom canceled. The edge, it seemed, had been further dulled for lack of fresh, challenging material. Without conflict and tension, and someone to really get pissed off at, where's the fun?
All this comes across once again in the concert-movie version of her tour, Notorious C.H.O., filmed last year in Seattle with little cinematic flare by One That I Want producer Lorene Machado. While it's a given that concert movies can never adequately capture the kinetic energy of the real thing, Machado doesn't even seem to rise to the challenge. She appears to have complete faith in Cho's material and delivery alone -- a blind faith, perhaps. So with Cho resorting to persistent explorations of the human anatomy -- both male and female -- and Machado letting it just sit there on the stage, we have something less than it could have been, or was.
Which is a pity, because Cho certainly has her moments. While she's not nearly as eloquent as she thinks she is, she remains one of the few female comics out there who presents herself completely as she is. She's a walking, talking open wound, even if that wound has healed a lot over the past couple years, completely honest and unrepentant about her insecurities, her sexuality, her ambivalence. If her attacks on the idealization and objectification of women don't reach the level of a Sandra Bernhardt, she at least gets credit for trying. Chutzpah goes a long way in an entertainment world where women are still expected to do very, very little.
Cho jumps right into the thick of things with a sort-of tribute to 9/11, keeping the audience off balance right away. "I was down there (at Ground Zero) day after day, giving blowjobs to the rescue workers," she asserts, dressed simply in denim jeans, an open flannel shirt and Lycra top. "Yeah ... because we all have to do our part. You find out a lot about yourself ... I found out I'd lost my gag reflex." She pauses. "It was a triumph of the human spirit."
Followed by the patented Cho mug: the bulging of those Asian eyes, the sucking in of the lips, the aside glance. We know it all too well by now, along with the grating imitation of her mother -- seen lapping up the attention in an annoying pre-concert interview -- the squeaky Valley Girl accent, the monotone rant.
There's nothing really new here, except for excursions into body parts that, while at first glance seem like the reflex motion of a comic, certainly break new ground. Who else goes into vivid detail about receiving an enema -- at a place called Water's Gift, no less, with Enya music piping in over the speakers. "There's something about Enya's music that just facilitates release," Cho points out. "I almost dropped a load right there in the waiting room."
And who could argue with her contention that the G-spot is a myth? Trying to find it, she says, "sounds like I'm trying to unlock my door with a coat hanger ... I think the G stands for 'Gotcha! Made ya look!'"
Her fag-hag material has grown a little thin, and she apparently knows it; even though it's a standard part of her repertoire, she knows she can only go so far with it even as the core of her fan base is gay men. So just when you think she's going to get on her high horse for gay rights, she undercuts it a little, especially when protesting the illegality of gay marriages: "We need to recognize that a government that would deny a gay man the right to a bridal registry is a fascist state!"
If only there were more of these moments, and if only Machado complemented the lines with a little more zip with her camera. Instead, the camera just sits on Cho, waiting for the next line. And in some crucial moments in Notorious C.H.O., we're kept waiting, and waiting.
- Without rehab and cancellations to talk about, Margaret Cho focuses on body parts in the concert movie, Notorious C.H.O.