Monday, April 26, 2004

Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho played in D.C. this weekend. We saw her 8:00 show on Saturday night at the Improv. She is, as one might imagine, great fun to see live. Who knew she had lost a bunch of weight, though, and looks even more beautiful than ever. Wow. She came onstage in what seemed to be a pair of black tights over a pair of black underwear and some red and black striped thigh-highs, with a belt on top of all that, and then a skimpy shirt and some red lacy gloves that came all the way up her arms. The first thing she said was "Sorry about the gloves. I just saw Prince in concert." She went into a joke about him, saying that Prince always has his cock in one hand and the Bible in the other, you know, like, "Oh yeah, baby, do it like that....thank you, Jesus!"

I can see that recreating Cho's act on paper is nearly impossible. I hadn't really thought of it before that so much of her humor is based on impressions. I had heard her impressions of her mother, which really are so funny. The Korean accent is so funny to me because I've worked with so many students who sound EXACTLY like the accent she does. But Cho also does a lot of what might be called imaginary impression. In one part of her act, she talks about having gone on an Atlantis cruise (a gay cruise), where there was a reading room. Then she does a whole riff on the idea of the reading room, that it couldn't possibly be a place where people sat and read books. All of a sudden Cho transforms herself, voice and stance, into this kind of ghetto drag-queen, saying "R-E-A-D," defining it as, "What you do when you decide you don't like someone. You look them up and down and then you stare at something you don't like." Pick, for example, their close-set eyes. "Do you have to get special glasses made? Maybe you could go to Lens Crafters. I hear they can make them in just about an hour." You're probably not laughing if you're reading this without ever having heard this act, because the whole joke is in the inflection.

So I said before that I knew she did impressions of her mother and that her audience awaits those impressions because they are funny. I can see that, too, as an artifact of her Korean-ness, her Other-ness, if you will, a sort of acknowledgement of being on this imaginary border. At any rate, I expected to see this in her comedy. But what I didn't expect is the inflection that I am finding it so hard to explain. I found that most of her jokes, including the drag queen above, were delivered in the hip-hop/ghetto/urban vernacular or accent. How do we explain this?

For one thing, young, hip people try to dress and sound black these days. I have to look up a great New York Times essay I read about that last year. The Dave Chapelle Show did a great skit about a blind black man who was a white supremacist. In one scene, his friends are driving him to a White power rally. At a stoplight, the pickup truck he is in pulls up to a car full of teenage (white) boys playing loud rap music. The Black White supremacist yells at them about their music, calling them, "Niggers!" The boys look at each other with horror for a second and then high-five each other because they think it's so cool to have been called that. Margaret Cho is clearly a part of this phenomenon. She seems to adapt a ghetto persona every time she means to deliver a punch line.

So is that because Black culture is cool? Does Cho, as a person who treads so many borders, feel equally comfortable among any of these marginalized cultures? How does it work?