State of emergency
by Erick Trickey
Comedian Margaret Cho is barnstorming swing states this month, hoping to provoke her fans to vote the president out of office. A lot of protest singers are doing the same this fall, but they aren't calling Laura Bush a bomb-sniffing dog, or saying George W. could be a good fascist if he weren't so lazy, or imitating CNN's Christiane Amanpour and imagining her reporting from Iraq that "the fighting in Najaf has ceased because all the soldiers are dead," as Cho did on the opening night of her new State of Emergency tour.
In July, Cho was disinvited to a Democratic convention fund-raiser for a gay-rights group because the organizers were afraid she'd cause a comedy scandal, as Whoopi Goldberg's raunchy presidential put-downs had done. They were right to be worried. Now that she's free from affiliation with high-minded Democrats, count on Cho to beat out Goldberg and become the liberal id of 2004.
From-the-headlines humor isn't usually Cho's style, but she's long been political in a speak-your-mind sort of way. Like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, she's a taboo-breaking social satirist, but with twenty-first-century identity politics thrown in. A bisexual Korean American woman who's struggled with eating disorders, she lets you know, in every proudly vulgar way she can, who she is.
A great physical comedian, Cho contorts her face to show off the face-lift she wants to have or to impersonate crazy-smiling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. After complaining that sex with her last boyfriend got old, she gets laughs for an entire minute just by bouncing in place while shifting from bored looks to a yawn.
In 1994, at age twenty-five, Cho starred in prime time's first Asian American sitcom, ABC's All-American Girl. The show was a debacle, canceled after one season and best summed up by Cho's routine about it. "Ms. Cho," she says, perfectly imitating female TV interviewers' stock shocked voice, "isn't it true that the network asked
you to lose weight to play the part of yourself?" Her riffs about being the child of Korean immigrants are still highlights of her act, especially her imitations of her mother's choppy accent, terrifying earnestness, and unpredictably strange ideas.
So what should her Michigan Theater audience expect on Saturday, October 9? Tasteless, unfair, hilarious put-downs of the president. Uncomfortable moments when Cho coaxes laughs out of her most private bodily functions. And, in the audience, plenty of empowered women and gay guys, who'll cheer as she rallies them to fight not only Bush but also Michigan's proposed constitutional amendment against gay marriage. After all, she's fond of saying, "a government that denies a gay man the right to bridal registry is a fascist regime!"
[Originally published in October, 2004.]