"When the crowd is with you, the jokes are fresh, your timing is just right, and the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. You feel like you are exactly where you should be, and there is nothing better. Comedy is a rare gift from the gods, an awesome invention. It propels you right into the heart of the universe." - Margaret Cho in her best-selling book, I'm The One That I Want
Margaret Cho stands elegantly on the stage as a sold-out audience welcomes her with a raucous applause rarely heard in the echoing hall of New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall. With typical poise and flair, these are her opening remarks: "I'm pretty sure I'm the first Korean-American woman who has ever stood on this stage without a violin."
An appropriately hilarious comment from one of the most controversial, political and liberally feminist comedians of our time. And, truth be told, it was also probably just one of many firsts for Carnegie Hall that night. Unless you might happen to know of a time where that hall has hosted conversations about colonics, locating the elusive G spot, the embarrassing world of underground sex clubs for heterosexuals or just how men would deal if they were the ones that got visits from Aunt Flo every month...
Notorious C.H.O. Live at Carnegie Hall captures Margaret Cho's boisterously entertaining closing night show of a 37-city North American tour. Performed on January 16, 2002, the double CD vibrantly expresses the singular magic of the evening even without visuals.
"It was a great experience," she reflects, with a voice that is as polite and quiet in 'real life' as her on-stage persona is blunt and raucous. "To be able to play there was amazing. The concept that the venue is usually filled up with blue-haired classical music fans, to have one night where it's taken over completely by a queer, tattooed, hipster audience is just really outrageous! It was really exciting."
Margaret Cho's success as one of the country's premier comedians has been groundbreaking. And it's as much for her distinctive humor as for her enormous contributions as a social equalizer. Born and raised in San Francisco, where she began her standup career at the early age of 16, she's long been recognized in the Bay Area for being a devastatingly funny talent in one of the most discerning and intensely competitive markets for comedy in the country.
Margaret's continuing commitment to representing unity and acceptance among many different cultures and lifestyles has led to a string of important accolades. Among her most recent awards are the Golden Gate Award from GLAAD, a Friend of the Community Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a Media Award from the National Organization of Women and the Lambda Liberty Award from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. All ample proof that Margaret Cho means so much more to people than simply great comedy. The Notorious C.H.O. performance and tour was inspired by the hot ladies of rap music, particularly their wonderfully lustful and bawdy expressions of strength and sexuality through their images. Like Li'l Kim or Eve, Margaret Cho has a dash of that "Queen Bee" and "pit bull in a skirt" vibe (as those ladies respectively describe themselves). Her raw, often raunchy material has a decidedly female spin on machismo, tough as the perfectly manicured and bejeweled nails of her hip-hop counterparts.
"It's a way to experience and almost metabolize power and have it take the form of glamour and fashion," explains Margaret. "To go from the ghetto to the runway is not an easy transition and these women have done it so beautifully and effortlessly. I wanted to sort of jump on the bandwagon of that for the show."
But music and ghetto fabulousness is simply a metaphor behind the scenes of The Notorious C.H.O. ? she doesn't drop her science on stage with rhyming or songs, though she admittedly might be delivering her equally powerful words while clad in fierce bustiers or intricate lace-up leather pants. The overall arc of the show is about being your own role model and maintaining control of your self-image while navigating through a punishing, media-manipulated world of body politics that can ensnare the best of us.
Margaret's last show, the 1999 Off-Broadway success I'm The One That I Want, dealt largely with her former bouts with drug and alcohol addiction. It also faced her external pressures to conform to body standards in television (most poignantly during her short-lived yet much discussed ABC sitcom All-American Girl in the mid-'90s). I'm The One That I Want (which was later released as a movie that is now on video and DVD) was a one-woman show with a definite story line. The Notorious C.H.O. is more of a free-form set hearkening back to more traditional standup comedy that visits Margaret's sex and food addictions (recent battles she seems to have triumphed over), but with a larger overall feeling of the control that comes with maturity. It is a routine not so thinly disguised as an uplifting performance on the importance of piloting your own esteem plane.
The film for The Notorious C.H.O., filmed live in Seattle, will be out in theaters in many major markets around July 4. As in her last film (1999's I'm The One That I Want, from her Off-Broadway run), this one is also self-produced. The last film (which was also self-distributed) enjoyed tremendous success, generating a record $1.4 million at the box office with only nine prints in circulation.
"I'm looking to the same level and more," she says excitedly. "I think this one is a better film, so I think it will do well. I really like this one." Margaret especially admires the comedy films of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, and seems to have channeled the raw honesty of the latter performer, often using him as a litmus test for busting open taboos. With her own films and recordings, Margaret is more than on her way to leaving a worthy, diversified legacy of great and enduring performances in the world of comedy.
For the next year, Margaret will concentrate on writing a show for her next tour, as well as working on a second book (2001's I'm The One That I Want is a national bestseller that has recently come out in paperback).
"I've been really getting into talking and thinking about race, so I think that's a lot of what I'll be dealing with in the next year," she predicts. "Not really sure what context it will be in but that's what's been on my mind a lot. My work has been looked into a lot by [university] classes that study racial identity and Asian-American studies, so I think part of what I do could be construed as academic and it's certainly been an honor to be included there."
There are also whispers of a possible return to television (she has so far avoided starting a new series since All-American Girl ended in 1995), this time in animated form. But for now, there's The Notorious C.H.O. Live at Carnegie Hall to school us on the mechanics of feeling fabulous in your own skin while laughing your ass off. (You can thank us later.)