Margaret Cho’s I’m the One That I Want and The Notorious C.H.O. were some of funniest, most biting yet heartfelt comedy shows happening in the early 2000s. Bombastically sexual at a time where “sex positivity” hadn’t yet become an absolutist buzz term, relentless in her mining of the ways America had erased Asian Americans from the zeitgeist, proudly embodying self-proclaimed “faghaggery” while rejecting the notion that it meant casting one’s own sexuality aside, Cho was important. But more important (for a comedian) than being “important,” she was dangerously hilarious. Her routines often consisted of long monologues and dialogues that saw her flaunting goliath impersonation skills while proving to be an exquisite storyteller.
She could — and still can — make a single facial expression funnier than a thousand candid photos of Donald Trump in the wind. But from her Revolution tour through Margaret Cho: psyCHO, which airs Saturday on Showtime, Cho’s comedy seems to have become dictated by her activism (and the idea that peppering this activism with facial expressions evocative of, say, a Muppet performing cunnilingus render it “comedy”) to such an extent that it can seem like she’s now writing 80-minute humanitarian sound collages as opposed to standup routines.
She leaps from one social issue to another as though it were all transcribed from an experience at a familiarly progressive, and progressively drunken, dinner party. Don’t get me wrong: she’d be your favorite person to talk to at this party. But you also wouldn’t be expecting a standup routine. There’s less emphasis on storytelling here than on covering the most social ground possible — and the impersonations are shorter, less specific. The current formula seems to be: big issue + half joke-relying-too-heavily-on-onomatopoeia-and-facial-contortion-expressing-how-the-machinations-of-one’s-genitalia-might-vaguely-relate-to-said-issue + final statement of pathos. It’s a formula Cho has made work before, but, simply, with bigger, more masterful jokes.
There are some exceptions, where the laughs are strong enough to bolster the messages as opposed to disappearing within them. psyCHO starts both trenchantly — and hilariously — with Cho discussing Fresh Off the Boat. “I created the first Asian American family show ever on television… 20 years ago. And I fucked it up so badly that they had to wait for an entire generation of Asian Americans to be born and grow up to Nielsen voting age.” The show continues to be insightful and gripping — if not completely funny — when she addresses the voluminous think-piecing that followed her depiction of a North Korean general at the Golden Globes: “I think white people tell Asian people how they should feel about race because they’re too scared to tell black people.”
From here, she segues into discussing the deaths of Leonard Nimoy, and two of her comedy mentors/idols/surrogate parents: Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. This isn’t funny so much as it is poignant, until she punctuates it with a joke about Rivers’ death that you don’t see coming, and which will elicit happily incredulous “oh no she didn’t”s — and the desire for more of these.
Cho’s comedy about her own sexuality can rely too heavily on the fact that she’s fighting prudishness. Her audience, however, is here because they aren’t prudish, and it thus becomes a monolithic act of, well, queefing to the choir. (The encore, for example, is a particularly long, unfunny, band-backed song called “Fat Pussy,” which she’s been performing for a while.) Anyone can get together with their best friends and imitate their various orifices: when you’re watching a comedian do it, though, you hope they’ll bring some surprising insight to the act.
Here, all the squelching and flopping has a purpose, but that purpose rarely results in an actually funny twist. There is some worthwhile radicalism, even for this audience, to Cho’s depictions of lesbian sex — which still, given that queer representation remains dictated by the patriarchy, doesn’t get enough realistic consideration today. Cho manages to play the “hag” in a way that’s not nullifying for female sexuality: knowing that her fan base predominantly comprises gay men, she purposely rubs her vagina in their faces. (On HPV vaccines: “[doctors] milk my pussy like a cobra and they inoculate young girls with it.”)
Her discussion of “faghagging” itself seems somewhat tired, though. Within younger, queerer generations, the term and the relationship itself has become déclassé for both members of the equation — the way it turns gay men into collectables, the way it relegates women to the role of desexualized accessory. Though Cho uproots the latter stereotype, she plays into the former too explicitly, bringing up Kathy Griffin’s “gay” or Elizabeth Taylor’s “gay” — albeit with genuine affection for the community. (The possessive terminology is obviously jocular, but still irksome.) As a history lesson, it underscores the importance of this type of relationship as a crucial stepping stone toward acceptance for earlier generations. Still, this material feels like it’s supposed to be speaking to the entire gay population, even though a great deal of that population has already moved past these roles. It’s a reminder of Cho’s tendency to question some generalizations while — always with humanistic instincts and the absolute best of intentions — annoyingly fortifying them.
Outside of those antiquated assertions about gay culture and some of her more cutting critiques of white policing of how she perceives her own race, her politics are comfortably aligned with those of the leftist blogosphere. Listening to her plow through the list of the most recent cultural stories — of both injustice and empowerment — can feel like a fast scroll through the archives of any cultural-political website. Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 241 women, acid throwing in South Asia, Jian Ghomeshi and the power of Canadian women coming forward, Bill Cosby and America’s victim-shaming tendencies, how John Travolta should come out.
Cho is an exceedingly likable personality, so it’s not hard to follow her through the half-developed jokes couched between a litany of socially conscious headlines. But then, once you’ve finished your 80-something minutes of Margaret Cho: psyCHO, you realize your whole day prior to watching consisted of consuming exactly the same content (or for some, it consisted of writing it). For you’d likely, via Facebook or Twhatever else, been seeing fragments of politically charged pop cultural blog posts all day. And like much of what you see on the Internet, it’s empowering if unenlightening, rephrasing the news with an emphasis on opinion and agreeable righteousness. Surely Cho would have done a stand-up job writing this review too.