Margaret Cho returns to the screen in The Notorious C.H.O., a film that opened the New Festival here a few weeks ago. The title, an allusion to the powerful women of hip-hop, seems at first to be somewhat of a misnomer, since Cho never really references ‘Lil Kim, Eve or Mary J or their awe-inspiring success at beating incredible odds to become superstars. Even the publicity shots for the film are misleading, unlike the beat and brushed photo on the poster, Cho appears to have wandered in straight off the street and onto the stage, skipping right over wardrobe and makeup. (Apparently, all the self-catharsis of I’m the One That I Want, her last concert tour, film, book and CD, worked wonders; clearly comfortable in her skin, Cho struts her stuff in a clingy, midriff-baring shirt and tight jeans.)
Foregoing the quasi-narrative structure of her last film, Notorious C.H.O. is a straightforward concert flick. After a brief intro, where scenes of her largely gay and lesbian audience are intercut with short interviews with Cho and her scene-stealing parents, Cho takes to the stage to deliver a blisteringly funny routine full of bawdy jokes and potty humor. Cho starts her set on a seemingly serious note, referencing the then-recent Word Trade Center attacks. It’s not until the punchline, which concerns her efforts to “do her part” for the recovery operation, that Cho reveals the truly irreverent nature of the routine ahead. From then on, there’s not a weighty (or weight-related) issue to be found, yet another departure from I’m the One That I Want, which delved heavily into the self-image issues Cho dealt with after the failure of her short-lived television series. This time, Cho never ventures far from raunch, much of which concerns bodily functions and, naturally, sex. There’s an extended riff on periods – what if straight men got them, what if gay men got them (“what do you mean if???”). She also describes, in vivid detail, the experience of her first colonic irrigation, as well as her inelegant behavior at an S/M sex club.
Clearly demonstrating how well she knows her audience, much of Cho’s best material has a decidedly gay angle. A life of growing up in San Francisco, hanging out with assorted drag queens and fags, helped Cho long ago earn honorary gay-man status. But being a woman gives her a distinct outsider perspective of the gay male lifestyle, even as she gamely lives the life herself. Not quite straight, not quite gay, the omnisexual Cho tears through a litany of queer-specific subjects. Among the funniest bits are the hush-hush story of her father’s “near-gay experience,” as told in her mother’s heavily-exaggerated Korean accent, as well as Cho’s humiliation at her local videostore after forgetting to return a tape called “Beaver Fever.” As with all of her best material, Cho punctuates these gags with hyper-inflated impersonations, rubber-faced expressions, and impeccably-timed pauses.
These perfectly-honed skills, the big cannons in Cho’s comedic arsenal, allow her to overcome some jokes that are routine at best, and a few of which are downright worn-out. For Cho’s laudatory and readily-forgiving audience, one cross-eyed glance or pursed-lip expression more than makes up for any shortcomings in the material. To her credit, this isn’t often necessary, despite the fact that oftentimes her stories seem to just run out of gas. For Cho, this isn’t necessarily a flaw, it’s just the result of a boundless supply of energy (and material); with so many gags to cover in a short amount of time, Cho races forward with ragged determination, occasionally leaving a half-told tale in her wake.
Still, with on-and off-screen audiences rolling in the aisles, there can be no denying Cho’s genius as a comedian. Despite production values that border on nonexistent, Notorious C.H.O. remains thoroughly entertaining, no small feat. For a girl whose childhood showbiz dreams never ranged farther than being an extra on M.A.S.H. or playing Arnold’s girlfriend on Happy Days, Cho has achieved more success than she probably ever imagined. Not unlike her fellow Notorious Ladies ‘Lil Kim, Eve, and Mary J.
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