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'Notorious C.H.O.'

Tao of Cho

Friday, September 06, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

"Gay marriage is the most important issue we are facing now. We need to recognize that a government that would deny a gay man the right to bridal registry is a fascist state."

'Notorious C.H.O.'

RATING: R for extreme profanity and sexual content

STARRING: Margaret Cho

DIRECTOR: Lorene Machado

WEB SITE: www.margaretcho.com


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Margaret Cho

Cho is so right, of course. And has her priorities so straight. I like her and her comedy a lot; I like Bill Neel and his comedy more. But more on the latter later.

First, Margaret and "Notorious C.H.O." -- the concert film of her hip, raunchy one-woman show, shot in Seattle toward the end of a 37-city tour last January. R-rated starter sample from an X-rated performance:

"There's been a lot of activity in and around my [rear end] lately. I just had my first colonic. It's very New Age to get colonics. You walk in, they're playing Enya. Nobody's really sure whether it's a medical procedure or entertainment. The lines are blurred ... Everyone's anus is a little bit different. They're like snowflakes, evidently."

It gets raunchier from there, the sex-based drollery of this 33-year-old Korean-American, born and raised in ever-so-permissive San Francisco. She says her first big break on ABC's "All-American Girl" was similar to the fulfillment of any Asian performer's greatest TV-based dream: "that maybe someday I could be an extra on 'M*A*S*H.' "

Cho's take on sexual foibles -- particularly minority sex foibles -- is razor sharp: "If straight men had periods, I guarantee you would never hear the end of it ... Every bachelor apartment would look like a murder scene. And if GAY men had a period -- well, whaddaya mean 'if'?"

Her voice shifts, as her relatively impassive facial features follow, for subtly minimalist impressions of straight white or gay black male, ethnic female or white mall-chick stereotypes needed for the jokes -- above all, and most hilarious, in imitation of her mother and their own unique Joy Bad Luck Club. (Her vacation to Israel: "They force Mommy! 'You no ride camel, you cannot go to buffet lunch!' ")

It's all done without a note or a break, carefully and fully memorized, not improvised, and delivered with deliberate, virtually perfect timing.

A little too perfect. In the almost perfunctory, token AIDS pitch, for example. And in the glib, homiletic bottom line:

"I urge you all today to love yourselves without reservation and to love each other without restraint -- unless you're into leather. Then by all means use restraints."

The Beatles told us this in 1967, and it was lovely until we found out that love ISN'T all you need. You also need protection from Mark Chapman and the NRA, or you get murdered -- with all your sweetness and light -- on your own doorstep. It's fine to endorse warm and fuzzy repressed-minority lifestyles -- "people of color, people of size"! -- but basically just preaching to the choir, unless you identify and take on the enemy.

The New York Times praises Cho for being a good comedian "without anger" -- and is wrong as usual. The lack of anger is why she's successful, not why she's good. If, as claimed, she truly aspires to be a "taboo-busting comedian in the spirit of Lenny Bruce," she'll have to see (and act on the fact) that, in the Bush-Cheney era as in Bruce's Eisenhower-Kennedy era, raunchy isn't brave. Political is brave.

Which brings us, finally, to 65-year-old Bill Neel of Butler. They hauled him away in handcuffs Monday from Dubya's gig on Neville Island, and confiscated his sign: "The Bushes must truly love the poor, they've made so many of us" -- a rather whimsical, hardly dangerous sentiment -- when he balked at being herded into a baseball field behind a fence. "The police told me I had to be in the designated free-speech area," he said. "That's a contradiction in terms."

The designated free-speech area! People with pro-Bush signs were allowed to stand along the streets anywhere, and for as long as they wished. It had nothing to do with presidential safety and everything to do with ensuring that media coverage contained no negative views or images for national broadcast.

Margaret Cho's "Notorious" is a good outrageous show and film. But she needs to make better use of her designated free-speech area to become a force and not just an Asian Roseanne Barr.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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