If you’re going on the Margaret Cho ride, go for the full immersion — rent I’m the One That I Want (2000) and Notorious C.H.O. (2002) and watch them back-to-back if you can. The two pieces click together organically: I’m the One is about Cho finding her footing as a comedian and a person, and Notorious finds her talking about how amusingly difficult it is to keep her footing. The only stand-up since Richard Pryor to film and theatrically release two concerts within as many years, Cho is obviously making up for lost time. Her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl, bitingly and sadly referenced at length in I’m the One, made her miserable, and its failure and cancellation even more so, but in retrospect that flame-out was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. She needed to fail, and burn through the shame and despair, before collecting herself and presenting the results. (Besides, I can think of no more dismal fate than Cho still plugging away on that show eight years later, had it been successful.) Like a lot of great comedy, I’m the One rises from the ashes of genuine pain while still being funny as fuck.
Cho, an openly bisexual woman (after her first same-sex tryst, she agonized over the “gay or straight” question before arriving at the conclusion that “I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?”), enjoys perhaps the largest mixed-whatever group of avid fans any entertainer has ever claimed. Sure, divas like Cher and Bette Midler appeal to gay men, and there are the standbys Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and Ani Difranco for the lesbians; but Cho goes over big with both gay men and women, plus straight women, straight men, and transgendered of all stripes. Born in 1968, Cho may well be the perfect comedian for a generation of tentative adults who were toddlers when the sexual revolution was peaking and who had the spectre of AIDS to contend with once they finally got old enough to get jiggy. Cho’s take on sex can best be summed up as amiably befuddled inclusiveness. She’s done just about everything, and isn’t shy about talking about it to hundreds of strangers, yet even her rawest material somehow doesn’t come across as sleazy or raunchy — there’s an innocence to it, a sense of absurdist awe at the scenarios she (“Can you believe it’s me in this situation?” her expression always says) has found herself in.
In I’m the One, shot at a San Francisco theater she’d always wanted to play, Cho’s this-is-it comeback aura is palpable; the material has been honed, every squinchy-faced double-take polished for maximum effect. She knows her audience: she starts with a wicked riff on fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, then wastes no time playing to her loving queer following. Cynics may say that Cho, who often says that her trials on her sitcom were based on her desperately wanting to be accepted, is angling for acceptance among the societally unaccepted; but Cho has been steeped in gay culture since childhood, when her parents ran a bookstore on Castro Street and two of her best friends from school were budding drag queens. If she’s playing to her audience a bit, it’s only because she’s relieved to have found one she can truly call her own. Besides, straight viewers can take comfort in the fact that after the first half hour or so, Cho moves on to more personal matters. (She satirizes this in Notorious when she riffs on her troubles with orgasms and depicts her gay male listeners as being imperiously uninterested.)
Quentin Tarantino, who once dated Cho and appeared on her show, makes a cameo of sorts in I’m the One: Cho does a reasonably accurate impression of him on the phone to her, bitching her out because she’s allowed the network to take her voice away. Typical: Hollywood hires you for the sound of your voice, then tries to get you to take voice lessons. Cho was told she wasn’t Asian enough, then that she was too Asian; she was told she was too fat for TV (“I’m a giant face taking over America!” she shrieks). It all led to a self-destructive spiral of drugs, booze, and promiscuity — the latter isn’t bad, she seems to say, as long as it doesn’t come out of self-hatred. After a particularly sordid night, Cho is moved to exclaim, “What the fuck kind of Mötley Crüe Behind the Music shit is this??” It took her a while, and months on the road here and abroad fine-tuning her act, but the result is its own revenge on Hollywood: Lines around the block, bright-eyed fans speaking of Cho as if she were some sort of self-actualizing queer guru (something I hope she doesn’t start to believe), and the acceptance she always wanted, on her terms.
If titles tell us anything, I’m the One That I Want is Cho learning to love herself, while Notorious C.H.O. is her learning to love her sluthood. A hefty portion of Notorious is devoted to Cho giving herself the Slut Pride parade she wished for in the first film. No matter what she says, though — whether talking about why gay men have great bodies (“You gotta suck cock to get those abs”) or the difficulties of cunnilingus (“Eating pussy is a mess; you need a Wet-Nap after”) — she has a way of taking the raunch out of it by cocking her head sweetly and grinning. Her sex material is more self-confident here, and now and then she gets herself up into a full roar (“If you don’t like the way I look when you’re fucking me,” she says, “MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T BE FUCKING ME!”) that would do Courtney Love proud. Even her opening bit about Ground Zero (the concert was filmed in Seattle a couple of months after 9/11) segues into a riff on fellatio.
Cho is diabolically funny when she’s dirty (she has a fall-down-hilarious one-liner about S&M people, she discusses her one experience with fisting, and she comes up with a priceless bit on an overdue porn video), but many folks (myself included) eagerly look forward to the moments — she rations them sparingly, and wisely doesn’t overwork them — when she works completely clean; that is, when she brings her mom into the act. Cho’s impressions of her mom are legendary among fans, and for good reason: she becomes her mother, twisting her face into an expression of stern bemusement, braying out syllables in halting Korean English. It’s done with profound affection, of course, which is one reason that the subject of this parody finds it funny and enjoys the “fame” of being imitated on stage. (Judging from what we see of Cho’s parents, in interview segments at the beginning of Notorious and in the deleted scenes on the DVD, they’re the coolest parents alive.) Cho’s late-inning riff in I’m the One on her mom looking at gay porn books will go down in comedy history in some way, and Notorious ends with an account of her mom riding a camel on vacation in Israel (“since she’s such a Jew”) that has the momentum and building details of vintage Richard Pryor. The Mom parts of Cho’s act would appeal to anyone, even your grandma, yet retain every bit of Cho’s wit. By the end of the two films, you almost feel you know the senior Cho better than you know the performer. Cho herself is still in the process of getting to know the performer; let’s hope we get many more films and albums in which to learn along with her.