Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On DVD: "Margaret Cho: Beautiful"

There was a time when many people, herself included, probably presumed that Margaret Cho was on her way to huge mainstream success. She made TV appearances, she opened for Jerry Seinfeld—hell, she did a Bob Hope special. And then she hit the 1990s stand-up jackpot: she starred in her own sitcom. All-American Girl was pegged as a sure-fire hit in 1994, but it crashed and burned quickly, its failure stalling Cho’s burgeoning career for several years. However, her 2000 stand-up film (and accompanying book), I’m the One That I Want , marked the most startling stand-up comeback this side of Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. In that film, and its follow-up Notorious C.H.O., the comic was raw, candid, tough, and fiercely funny.

But something happened in the two films that followed (2004’s Cho Revolution and 2005’s Margaret Cho: Assassin ): she got dirtier without getting funnier, in a rather transparent attempt to offset that she was taking herself more and more seriously, to the detriment of her comic act. As she became more active and vocal in political issues (gay rights in particular), she took to lecturing her audience, going on long jags of rabble-rousing commentary that, while sometimes eloquent and usually on-the-mark, weren’t exactly gut busters. There’s always a danger when a political comedian begins to focus too much on commentary over laughs; it’s what happened with Dennis Miller, and, when he doesn’t check himself, Bill Maher is often guilty of it as well. I once read an Entertainment Weekly review that called a Maher special little more than “a Libertarian rally peppered with zingers”; Cho’s later specials often amount to a GLAAD fundraiser with some laughs. She’s going for what Tina Fey once called (in an otherwise unfortunate bashing of The Daily Show) “clapter”—people chuckling and clapping because they agree with what’s being said. Cho’s bold stances might have surprised and inspired casual stand-up observers a few years back, but these days, she’s preaching to the choir: her audience seems primarily composed of comedy geeks and members of the GLBT community, and they don’t need much convincing.

She’s thankfully toned some of that down in her new special, Margaret Cho: Beautiful. To be sure, it rears its head occasionally, particularly in the out-of-left-field commentary near the end of the show that explains its title, but for the most part, she’s going for laughs here. The trouble is, the special is only sporadically funny. First and foremost, there’s the issue of timing; the show was shot less than two weeks before the 2008 election, so there is much discussion of Obama and McCain and Prop 8, and while there’s some good material there (particularly her opening slash-and-burn job on Sarah Palin), it’s terribly dated (and has been for quite a while now). Her bits on the political sex scandals of Spitzer, McGreevy, and Craig play a little stronger, but even these feel a bit like warmed-up leftovers after the thorough roasting all three men received from late night talk show hosts over the last few years. (This is Cho’s first stand-up tour in four years, and she presumably didn’t want to part with good jokes just because they’d gotten stale.)

The show’s other problem, a continuing one, is its vulgarity. Look, I’m no prude, and I had no problem with the raunchy material in her first two shows; in those, that material felt (as it did in the work of the man she pinpoints as her biggest influence, Richard Pryor) like it grew organically out of her persona, that she was putting everything out there in a way that was candid and honest and frequently funny. Her recent shows have been just as dirty, but the dirt is nowhere near as funny; she’ll get some chuckles with some of the material (like her description of her “Mac sexuality”), but for the most part, it feels like a desperate bid for gross-out laughs. It’s frank, yes, but there’s such a thing as over-sharing onstage, at least if you can’t find a way to spin it into anything more than a cheap laugh.

Also, as my colleague Jamie S. Rich noted, the film feels geared specifically toward her gay audience in a way that her earlier films never were (and in a way that her contemporary and fellow self-professed “fag hag” Kathy Griffin never is). She does some heartfelt and effective material about racism, but it’s undercut by her frequent (and continuing) use of the stereotypical “ghetto voice.” And there’s distressingly little of Cho’s prime comic weapon: her uproarious characterization of her strict, conservative Korean mother (she does have one good, if short, story about her mother taking her to The Rocky Horror Picture Show—“It’s too late! Mommy is so tired!”).

By the time Margaret Cho: Beautiful arrives at its weak ending (with the aforementioned sermon and a terribly unfunny closing song), the less patient viewer may very well have checked out. Cho remains naturally funny—her timing is sharp and her body English is frequently hilarious—but too often, her material is simply subpar.

There are funny lines here and there in Margaret Cho: Beautiful (she says she began getting tattoos at 35 because “I wanted to be a Suicide Girl, but I’m so old I’m like an Assisted Suicide Girl”; of three-ways, she notes, “I don’t like them. They make me feel like a competitive eater”), but generally speaking, it’s a weak effort, low on the laughs and heavy on the vagina jokes.

"Margaret Cho: Beautiful" hits DVD on Tuesday, November 17th.

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