Maraget Cho - State Of Emergency

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

In the programme for her West End run, the opinionated Korean-American stand-up Margaret Cho invokes the legends of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor - then lays claim to be their natural heir. That’s quite some boast, lady.

But then adopting a posturing stance is what Cho does best. Not only does she wear her bleeding heart on her sleeve, she virtually erects a flashing neon sign saying ‘liberal here’ pointing to it.

For her, it’s not enough simply to hold views, she has to be seen to hold them, relentlessly reminding us of her Left-wing credentials or just how much she loves those homosexua types.

Like the shoddiest alternative comics of the Eighties who lazily won support simply by mentioning the name ‘Thatcher’ in a derogatory sense, Cho panders to her large queer constituency with ceaseless references to her fag-hag status and how cute the gay boys are. But there’s a thin line between pandering and patronising, and Cho doesn’t seem to know, or care, where it is.

Interestingly, in her popular, award-winning blog, she wrote of her London press night: "Oy, just learned that all the reviewers but one are straight men" - as if that would guarantee her a rough ride. Well, aside from prejudice cutting both ways, it indicates that she’s not that comfortable preaching to the unconverted.

The compunction to so obviously nail her colours to the mast is perhaps understandable in fundamentalist America. There, where intolerance and hatred are an accepted political stance, her views are boldly controversial. Daring to suggest homosexuality is perfectly acceptable make her a dangerous lunatic in some blinkered eyes, and she attracted the full bile of the pig-ignorant ultra-conservatives by making a harsh, but very funny, gag comparing George Bush to Hitler.

But in less polarised, less fervently religious Britain, such a stance is commonplace, and certainly doesn’t have the same air of danger it would in the intolerant Mid West.

That’s not the only problem she has adapting her act to this side of the pond. On the first night, she has yet to Anglicise all her references. She compared Blair’s relationship to Bush with… well, I’m not sure at all but possibly a cartoon double act Brits have never heard of, and entertained us with impressions of the wife of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, which may have been uncannily accurate for all I know.

But despite these minor annoyances, behind the liberal swagger, there are things to enjoy in State Of Emergency. For all her posturing, Cho does have an admirable, genuine passion. And despite an often unforgiving edge, she comes across as strangely likeable, with the occasional sly self-deprecating comment to puncture the superciliousness.

Of a teenage flirtation with lesbianism, she asked herself: "Am I gay", only to ultimately conclude: "No, just slutty… where’s my parade?"

There are a handful of similarly strong jokes, which tellingly tend to cluster around the fringes of her politicised routines – for example dubbing her devout army of homosexual fans, and protectors "Al Gayda".

Elsewhere, her assertion that society is afraid of female sexuality is as funny as it is well-argued, and nowhere near as militant as it might sound, even if we could do without the ‘if men had periods…’ follow-up that has been done so often, and so much better, before.

As many ethnic comedians feel obliged to do, she frequently adopts the ‘funny’ accent of the parent who struggles with English. At first this is intensely grating, although later she adds some depth to the stereotype, with a joyful little routine depicting her mock-shocked mother browsing gay fiction in the liberal San Francisco bookshop she once ran.

But too often, the accent, and other exaggerated stage mannerisms, are used as a prop for mediocre material. It seems Cho has discovered a philosopher’s stone for turning bad comedy good: leave out the verbs. When talking about your state governor’s skin tone, "Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s orange," isn’t half as funny as, "Arnold Schwarzenegger, he orange." Oh, those wacky Koreans.

Ultimately, such annoyances and bluster overshadow what good material she does have. And for all the curiosity value, it’s hard to justify the £30 top-priced tickets on a show as patchy as this.

But then I would say that, as one of those accursed straight male reviewers, apparently predetermined to dislike her.

Steve Bennett

December 1, 2004

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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