On the strength of successful stand-up comedy films such as I'm the One That I Want and The Notorious C.H.O. and activist organs such as her pro-gay marriage Web site loveisloveislove.com, Korean-American comic Margaret Cho has become one of the country's most successful comedians and one of the entertainment industry's most committed activists. Along the way, she's given relatively mainstream voice to a loyal core audience of people on the left side of America's cultural margins.
As a performer, Cho is very much in the Richard Pryor tradition. Like Pryor, Cho is a gifted physical comedian who is fearlessly blunt on subjects such as race, sex, and drug use.
And she doesn't tell jokes; she just talks about her life -- and, perhaps most memorably, her brusque immigrant mother -- in a way that brings out humor with which audiences can identify. As with Pryor's style of confessional comedy, Cho's personal tales inevitably take on political resonance, especially since she deals so much with the gay culture she grew up around in her native San Francisco, where her mother shelved --and commented on --gay porn at the family bookstore and her high-school friends were drag queens.
But the personal-into-political dynamic could be flipped on Cho's latest endeavor, dubbed the "State of Emergency Tour" scheduled to hit swing states up through Election Day. (Cho is apparently using different polling data than MoveOn.org's Vote for Change tour.) Cho's one-woman get-out-the-vote drive lands at The Orpheum Theater this week on only its second date.
The comedian gave a sneak preview of the show at Harlem's Apollo Theatre last week on the eve of the Republican National Convention and took to the streets to participate in protest marches the next day. Cho also took time to talk with the Flyer in the midst of the madness:
Flyer: Have you had a chance to watch much of the Republican convention?
Cho: I haven't gotten a chance to watch today yet, but last night I watched Dick Cheney try to follow Zell Miller.
Zell Miller was something all right.
You know, he was a very good speaker in that he gave the crowd exactly what they wanted to hear. But he's such an angry man, and it's unfortunate that he's giving people wrong information. [Watching it last night] you get the sense that these people believe the part of the truth that they want to know and just leave the rest behind. It's alarming to me. They were putting on a good show, putting this liberal face on the Republican Party.
It seemed like they kept the crazies locked up until Miller. You haven't seen Ann Coulter anywhere.
I actually saw her in the audience once! But yeah, they've kept most of the extremists away because they don't want to be perceived for what they actually are. After Zell Miller, someone like Dick Cheney is going to seem almost reasonable and calm. It's so strange. The mainstream audience watching this on television is seeing this weird juxtaposition of cultures. They have all these cowboy hats in the audience and all the music is funk and Motown and these people don't even know the words to "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." It's very incongruent. Thank God Brooks & Dunn were there to save the day.
Is it difficult to find humor in politics right now because of how demoralizing the drift in the country has been or does the extremism of this administration actually make it easier?
Well, how can you not find humor in Zell Miller? But, no, it's scary and sad, and you're hoping that something will make it better. But that's where our sense of humor comes in. In the darkest times, it saves us always.
Are you supporting Kerry or Nader?
Kerry. Ideally, I might be a Nader supporter, but I know that realistically even if people want to say that it's not a two-party country, it really is.
Getting back to the tour, how long has it been since you've performed in Memphis or even Tennessee generally?
I don't remember, but when I think about Memphis, it seems very familiar to me and maybe that's just because I have a lot of communication and connection to the area. I'm working with Damian Echols of the West Memphis 3, and he talks about Memphis in a very wonderful way. He seems to idealize it.
Really? What, as an urban alternative to the small town he's from?
How long have you been corresponding with him?
Well, I guess it probably seems longer because I've been familiar with the case for so long, but it's really only the last year that we've had this intense communication.
Is that something you plan to talk about at the show here, or is that something you plan to keep separate from your show?
You know, I haven't really thought about that yet. I may. I've never incorporated that into what I do as a performer. It's more private activist work, and that includes publishing his memoir, which I'm doing.
This tour seems to be hitting a lot of smaller cities in what aren't solidly blue-state kinds of places. This is intentional, I presume?
Yeah. We wanted to go to new places that need a different kind of message.
When Bruce Springsteen was on Nightline recently to talk about the Vote for Change tour, Ted Koppel kept hitting him with, "But you're just an entertainer, why should anyone care what you think?" Do you get a lot of that?
You know, surprisingly not. And I think that's probably because I've got a long history of involvement with certain political causes, especially within the gay community, working as an activist there. So I think my involvement has generally been treated as valid.
In terms of doing a tour like this, with such an obvious political goal, do you think you have a unique platform in that you have a considerable fan base of people that this administration seems to intentionally ostracize?
Well, I feel very lucky that I have the ability to speak to people and to make people feel like they have the right to ask for change or to want change. That's exciting for me. It's something I'm proud of.