There's no one quite like Margaret Cho. If forced to contrive a comparison to her achingly funny style of self-referential comedy, I'd have to say that she is to the current era what Richard Pryor was to the 1970s and early 1980s. Even that is inadequate, although she certainly belongs in such rarified company. Like Pryor in his great concert era, she utilizes as the central base of her unique, idiosyncratic humor the events of her past and the political and social contexts of our present to say something pertinent (and wildly funny) about the culture at large.
I experienced a little frisson of déjà vu at Cho's Aug. 10th performance at The Carolina Theatre. Although her local appearance was not quite in the league of Pryor's great, first filmed concert — at the time, and still, the single funniest movie I've ever seen, after which my cheeks (and my gut) hurt so keenly from laughing it took hours to fully recover — my facial muscles still ached afterward. Cho is more uproariously funny than virtually anyone else on the scene today. But then, no other comedian I can think of comes at her material — and her audience — with such a combination of unalloyed energy and perspicacity.
Writing about Cho, I'm tempted to quote liberally from her act, but much of what might be cited would look something like this: "____ ____ ____." Hers is most definitely not a family-friendly set. Thank God. A self-confessed "fag-hag," Cho's embrace of gay culture was not merely appropriate to her appearance here as a kind of kickoff to The Carolina Theatre's 11th North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival; it's a large part of her appeal to gay audiences and to the more liberated heterosexual contingent. She excoriates bigots who watch "Will and Grace" but still refuse to admit social equality, celebrates the "inner vaginas" of gay men (she feels they possess "vaginas of the heart"), and observes that even Satanists find the Exodus movement mean-spirited.
Cho's racial identity, like Pryor's, is inseparable from her comedic stance. Some of her most uproariously funny observations involve her native-Korean mother, who, sight unseen, is as beloved to her audiences as, say, off-stage husband Fang was to Phyllis Diller's. Mrs. Cho's slightly fractured English, non-sequitur conversational segues and touching, sincere attempts at open-mindedness (Cho describes with relish her mother's attending a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) are as endearing and refreshing as Pryor's occasional personifications of the untutored philosopher Mudbone.
Cho's defiant embrace of her ethnicity is both bitter and sweet. She recalls jaw-dropping encounters with radio hosts ("What was it like to make Charlie's Angels?"), the acute embarrassment of an airline steward offering her an Asian Chicken Salad, and her outage at her former manager's threat to turn their contentious relationship into a movie, that point up her status as a kind of curiosity to be observed but never quite accepted by the industry in which she operates ("I can't even be in a movie about me!")
If she has a message — a word too sober and earnest to represent what she talks about — it is one of self-acceptance. "The lower down on the social scale we are, the more we need to feel beautiful," she says as she describes her desperate adolescent attempts to attain that great desirable among American obsessions, thinness of body. This leads to her most gut-bustingly hilarious (and unquotable) set-piece, on the perils of a persimmon diet.
Cho's physicality and innate power to morph into personified comedic reactions are, like Pryor's, only slightly exaggerated exhibitions of a breathtaking mimetic ability: her physical timing is as uncanny as her exquisite verbal facility. Screwing up her face to invoke her mother, turning her entire body into a crouch to call up an ancient specter of witch-like Asian wrath — these are attributes that place her indelibly in the same class as that other great channeler of distinct personae, Lily Tomlin. Cho remarks that she can never take a Botox treatment or she'd lose her gift for making faces.
Never take Botox, Margaret Cho. Remain just as you are. We need you, as the ads for That's Entertainment had it, now more than ever.