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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Notorious C.H.O.
reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, Notorious C.H.O., directed and edited by Lorene Machado, is Margaret Cho's second live-filmed stand-up comedy show, following upon the fabulous success of I'm the One that I Want, released in 2000. 

Just before the show starts, we are treated to an animated short (the kind where only the lips of the cardboard-like characters move) that is perhaps better than most of the rest of the movie.  It's a mock-educational film about racism between Blacks and Koreans, featuring two student-like characters being pedagogical, and cutting to hilarious scenes in a Korean grocery store between an African American male shopper and a matronly Korean clerk (sporting the by-now infamous voice-parody of Margaret Cho's mother).  As the scene unfolds toward conflict, the students suggest alternate scenarios designed to foster harmony between the races.  A particularly funny scene involves the shopper complaining that the Korean grocery store never has any "funions," whereupon Mrs. Cho declares that that's because she loves them so much she's eaten them all-she then proceeds to tell the shopper how he can make his very own onion dip.  This edgy little skit, harking back to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, the LA Rebellion, and numerous other moments in the American struggle between people of color pitted against each other in the inner city, would actually make a very fine classroom multicultural education tool, since it spoofs the cloying pieties of that genre even as it gets the message across.  With a twist, that is, since the educators in the cartoon point out that such conflicts distract them from the real work of going after white folks. 

We then cut to the opening of Margaret's show in Seattle before a live audience.  One of the remarkable things about this comedienne is that she shows up on stage minimally adorned, dressed in regular clothes and sporting no props.  The routine this time is just a tiny bit strained, with certain moments failing to elicit the expected laughter and some stories simply petering out without a conclusion, or terminating abruptly for the next routine.  Normally when Margaret or her much-cited predecessor, Richard Pryor, moves from story to story-what a stand-up always has to do-one doesn't notice the parts of the story left dangling in the move.  In this routine, you do, and it's a little distracting. 

Nevertheless, the weird, sharp, gutsy, explicit and edgy material is still there, and Cho makes it all incredibly funny.  And for those of us getting tired of the self-righteous and pious sincerities, either of the past year's patriotic fervor or of lesbian/gay and multicultural political correctness, Cho is a vigorous breath of fresh air.  Her technique is to start on just such a note; she begins her routine, for example, with a solemn reference to 9/11, only to scandalize us with a raunchy definition of her own patriotic contribution.  This happens again and again; as all the trailers show, when she delivers an impassioned speech about the right of gays and lesbians to marry, the conclusion is that any government that would deny gay men a bridal registry has got to be a fascist state. And so on. 

Perhaps the funniest of her routines-second to the rather more shocking description of her experiment with colonic hydrotherapy--is a very extended riff about what it would be like if straight men had periods. The particular combination of feminism, gay in-joking, and anti-racist but irreverent critique, make of Margaret Cho an important figure in the world of comedy. She's a successful social satirist who seems at the same time to have gotten over herself just enough to make it all funny and heartwarming. 

I'm not sure she's completely palatable, since her material still shocks the sensibilities of a polite audience, but I think she can coax even the more prudish over to her side.  The fact that she prominently-and affectionately-features her parents, both in the audience and in her routine, certainly helps. The more critical might be disappointed that her eagerness to be adored blunts her edge. But I think one has to take into account the odds against which this ambitious comedienne is working: a not-very-model minority Asian woman, gay-identified and, as she puts it, a "person of size," Cho has shrewdly capitalized on film as a medium of wide distribution to take her from being an entertaining San Franciscan local to becoming a national spokesperson for in-your-face talking back. If she has to soften it a little, so be it-she's getting the message across. For a raucous good time, go see Notorious C.H.O.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero. 

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002