By Olivia Popp
Note: Links may contain explicit or graphic content.
To me, Margaret Cho is one of the funniest comedians on the planet. Bisexual, Korean American comic Margaret Cho is known for her uncensored, acerbic takes on the sociopolitical state of the U.S., most notably for her open and wide takedown of racist sentiment. Her comedic methods and devices are often controversial (her accented impression of her Korean mother, descriptively graphic and explicit language), but others find it hilarious and meaningful. Cho’s clapback at critics of her Golden Globes bit with Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler in which she played a North Korean Hollywood Foreign Press reporter was rooted in the fact that this was her culture — and most of the people who felt offended were in fact not Korean or even Asian at all. No matter what your opinion may be, it’s clear that Cho’s comedy attracts strong attention, and she diverts it to the issues she discusses, bringing much well needed awareness. As an Asian American and as a fan of comedy, I’ve been a longtime fan of Cho’s unique style, coupled with content that includes messages and activism I support — and “Fresh Off the Bloat” didn’t disappoint.
I’ve been looking forward to Cho’s Oct. 21 tour stop at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco ever since I saw that her tour was planning a show in the city. While her comedic content is famous for discussing Asian American stereotypes and LGBTQ+ issues, during “Fresh Off the Bloat,” Cho strayed away from this content during the show if not simply for the sake of more broadly addressing more politically recent matters. Opening with criticism of Harvey Weinstein (met with much audience approval) and Trump, Cho infused political criticism of those in power along with comedic takes on the ridiculousness and inappropriateness of their actions (Harvey Weinstein and the potted plant, Trump’s “golden shower”). Even though the material might have been overused within the past year, Cho’s interpretation of the events was fresh and rather gratifying to hear. While her show in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre might have been a little bit of preaching to the choir, (with The Castro as one of the first gay neighborhoods in the US), it was still satisfying to see that Cho’s versatility in sociopolitical comedy paid off.
Nevertheless, Cho still did include her trademark content on her role as an advocate for proper Asian American representation and portrayal in arts and society as a whole. Addressing her email conversation with Tilda Swinton over Swinton’s role in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” in which she played a character who was written as an ancient Tibetan man (though Marvel wrote her character off as Celtic), Cho expressed how weird she felt about the emails and about being a conduit to the entire Asian community — “I can’t contact all the Asians; I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome!” (You can read the entire conversation here.)
Later, Cho continued on with more lighthearted content that addressed LGBTQ+ experiences, including her own, playing off of material from her collaboration with Peaches and portrayals of bisexual individuals in the porn industry. As a bisexual woman, Cho expressed her dissatisfaction at the erasure of bisexual individuals from media and a society as a whole while also cracking jokes about young LGBTQ+ culture that much of the audience appeared to know to be true. Cho was also unabashed and unashamed about her struggles with drug and sex addiction (hence “Fresh Off the Bloat,” her year-long time in rehab and attempts at suicide). To some, this uncomfortable material serves as a reminder that as a society, we still haven’t found a place for openly discussing these issues. Cho’s comedy therefore serves as an avenue to normalize (or at least attempt to normalize) talking about mental health and addiction, and hearing about it during her show made me feel more connected to an artist such as herself.
Notable young Asian American rappers including Awkafina or Dumbfoundead are known for their consistent social media presence and constant pushback of Asian American stereotypes and racially charged content. (Both rappers were also featured in the 2016 documentary “Bad Rap” about Asian Americans in the hip-hop/rap music community.) The Awkwafina and Margaret Cho collaboration “Green Tea” received viral attention and praise from the younger Asian American community, much of which connects with the hip-hop musical style and content as a form of self-expression. Even though Cho has been in the business for much longer than Awkwafina or Dumbfounded, I often like to think of Cho as a sort of comedian version of them as vocal critics of anti-Asian American sentiment, unafraid of criticism from the general public as well as the Asian American community. All of their work is fundamentally rooted in the reclamation of anti-Asian racist sentiment and turning it into a form of Asian American pride, with each of them addressing a different lens — Awkwafina’s including feminist and progressive ideals, Cho’s including LGBTQ+ experiences and Dumbfounded’s including discussion of representation and masculinity.
Cho’s signature content and comedic style will always be too harsh for some but a form of personal empowerment for others. “Margaret Cho: Fresh Off the Bloat” was a well formulated extension of her previous comedy, extending into the Trump world of today that justifies a hypercritical lens of whom and what we support for the sake of our own sanity as well as the continued safety of Americans everywhere. For those unfamiliar with her or Asian American and LGBTQ+ issues as a whole, I highly encourage you to take a look at some of her work. You might learn something new, you might find a new perspective, and you might be offended — but hey, you might even find it some of the funniest comedy you will ever see.
The U.S. leg of “Margaret Cho: Fresh Off the Bloat” continues in California through November, and the European leg of the tour will occur in November and December.
Contact Olivia Popp oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.