Margaret Cho: Notorious C.H.O.
The story of comedian Margaret Cho's life to date has been a uniquely American tale of success then failure then success again, against enormous odds. Growing up chubby, Korean, and unpopular, she wanted desperately to be a performer but knew how narrow her options were: "I would dream that maybe someday I could be an extra on M*A*S*H!" Cho started doing stand-up at age 16, but was told by agents, photographers, and casting directors that she was "too Asian." Or sometimes that she wasn't Asian enough. She was advised by her manager to lose weight in an effort to minimize the roundness of her face. But being funny and driven, she pursued her dream anyway, and her successful stand-up career led to a TV sitcom when she was 23. "All-American Girl" was hailed as "groundbreaking" for Asian actors, even as the cast became progressively more Caucasian each week. At the insistence of the network and her own agents, Cho enlisted a trainer and a diet doctor, started taking diet pills, and lost 30 pounds in two weeks and then checked into the hospital with kidney failure. Having publicly wrestled with these demons in the stand-up act I'm the One That I Want, a more actualized Cho moved on to cover a different subject altogether in Notorious C.H.O. sex. No longer dwelling on the past, Cho took her Notorious C.H.O. show to 37 cities, closing with a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall. Shot during her stop in Seattle, in this concert film the comic goes beyond "working blue" to the point of graphic intensity. Depending on your own personal comfort level, Cho's vivid descriptions of her first colonic, her first trip to a BDSM sex club, and other events will inspire either utter horror, shocked giggles, or if you're truly jaded a been-there-done-that yawn. The film begins with audience members arriving at the concert, an amusing interview with Cho's parents, and Cho musing on the vagaries of fame. But the heart of the movie is Cho on-stage, stripped down to the most basic elements of stand-up a comic, a microphone, and couple of bottles of water. The pace of the 90-minute performance is unhurried, and director Lorene Machado's camerawork is serviceable if uninspired. But the comedy is solid, even if it's not the sort of yuckfest you can enjoy with grandma. A lengthy discussion of oral sex devolves from the messiness of the act into a mind-bending deconstruction as if it were something one might order from a menu; Cho's bit about her lover forgetting to return a porn tape turns into an imitation of the Korean video store clerk chiding Cho for having "beaver-fever"; and her exploration of that trip to the SM club ends with her description of herself hanging in a sling, surrounded by folks with whips, and unzipping the mouth of her leather hood to state, "You know ... this is so not me."
* * *Notorious C.H.O. is significant among comedy concert films not so much for its humorous content but simply because it exists at all. Cho is a woman... and Korean... and proudly voluptuous, refusing to starve herself any longer to attempt fashion-model anorexia. That she's producing successful films with herself as the star would be amazing enough. But add to that the jaw-droppingly graphic nature of her material: This unskinny Asian woman is talking about sex, bondage, porn, and everything else one could imagine. She's not making safe jokes about such acts in the abstract, either instead, she's recounting her own experiences, and without shame. Aware of how raunchy her material is, Cho occasionally strays too far into preachiness when she lectures that gay people should be allowed to get married and that oppressed minorities need to have more self-esteem, she knows that it's a guaranteed applause-getter from her heavily gay/bi/trans/female/ethnic minority audience. But still, watching Cho develop into a comedic powerhouse is a treat, and there's an element of Lenny Bruce in this performance, both in the edgy choice of material and in the repetition and cadence she uses in some of her bits. Margaret Cho is developing into an important voice in the realm of stand-up comedy, and she's doing it by sharing the raw material of her own life with her audience. And she's damn funny, too. Wellspring Home Video's DVD release of Notorious C.H.O. is a nice little package, offering an adequate presentation of the theatrical release. Shot on video, the picture is dark, occasionally murky, and far from crisp; the lighting in Seattle's Paramount Theater was hardly ideal for filming, and it doesn't look like director Machado had much more in mind than to simply record the performance for posterity, and as cheaply as possible. However, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is terrific. Extras include a commentary track by Cho, the twist being that she does the commentary as her mother if you're one of the many, many people who falls off the couch in convulsive fits of laughter when Cho does her mom, this track's for you. Also on board is "Grocery Store," an animated short written and directed by Cho that was shown with the film during its theatrical run; a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a short promo; "deleted scenes" (unused interview footage with Cho's parents); trailers; and a filmography. Keep-case.