Review: Margaret Cho in Singapore, "This is my sickest show to date"
Cho is hilariously savage and deeply personal in her Asia tour.
Margaret Cho enters the stage twerking wildly to a cheering audience. She is decked in black with a spaghetti top that reveals ornate tattoos of peonies, peacock feathers, a phoenix, and a Venus eye across her chest and arms. She looks vibrant, bad-ass and ready to unload.
Mic in hand, Cho pauses for a few seconds to take in the warm reception before swiftly launching into a tirade about her Asian lack of ass, wearing maxi pads, and provides remarkably specific details (sound effects included) on what periods are like for an almost 50-year-old.
In the opening for her Asian tour show, “Fresh Off the Bloat,” Cho pretty much sets the tone of the rest of her show: being hilariously savage to the point that the uncontrollable guffaws keep on coming and coming, but then she occasionally inserts deeply personal and vulnerable details about herself and that throws you off, and sometimes even makes you question why you are laughing in the first place.
While this may initially seem unsettling to someone unfamiliar with her brand of humor, it is suitably reflective given that her latest comedy show is fresh out from the oven after spending a year and a half in rehab for substance abuse.
“This is my sickest show to date,” she writes of this tour on her website, “This time, I’m talking about being fresh off drugs, drinking and on the brink of suicide and I’ve come back to life.”
When I watched Cho’s early sitcom “All-American Girl” in the 1990s, I was naturally drawn to her because she was the first English-speaking Asian female lead I had ever seen on an American sitcom. For a shy and overprotected teen with latent rebellious rumblings, her character was a heroine of sorts because she truly didn’t give a shit about her judgmental Asian mother with verbal diarrhea.
In later years I enjoyed binge-watching videos of her stand-up performances on YouTube. In particular, I would howl with laughter at the clips where she would imitate her mother by squinting her eyes and dragging words out with an exaggerated Korean accent.
However, during this live show, there’s a particular family anecdote that unnerves me. Cho recounts being raped by her uncle from the ages of 5 to 12, and refusing to go back for extended family gatherings because of his presence.
“My mum would tell me: he also raped your aunt, so you’re not special,” she says, with the usual dismissive nasal drawl she adopts when mimicking her mother.
It is during such moments where you’re not sure if you are meant to gasp in horror, observe respectful silence or laugh out loud. The stranger next to me writhes about in his chair and mutters, “Jesus Christ” to himself.
Another particularly jarring moment comes when she talks about attempting suicide in a bathroom. According to her, the shower railings bent when she tries to hang herself, making it impossible to lift her feet off the ground and suffocate.
“I was too fat to kill myself,” she quips dryly, and the audience bursts out laughing, because we do seem to like the fat jokes. But soon after the laughter dies down, there is a brief moment of unease. Did we just chuckle over probably one of the worst periods of her life?
Later in the show, Cho explains, “I am going to continue to keep talking about tragic things so that they will no longer have the power over me. I have to go in the dark to find redemption.”
While I’ve always understood that humor can be a way of coming to terms with one’s trauma and pain, I’ve never seen a stand-up performance quite like Margaret Cho’s, where she relentlessly tackles issues of sex, drugs, racism, politics, and LGBTQ identity with passionate abandon. At times, it almost feels like it’s a cleansing ritual of sorts; these brutally politically-incorrect expulsions that get converted into laughter.
And because Cho makes these issues so deeply personal—not just for herself but for the audience (she makes it a point to familiarise herself with Asian current affairs)—these topics become elevated into something more: routines (though they are far from routine) that are crafted precisely to evoke strong visceral reactions, even from a relatively passive audience in Singapore. At the same time, there’s an unmistakable angry authenticity that perhaps is derived from decades of hacking away at the various injustices and forms of bullshit that have come her way. The result is an incredibly nuanced analysis of the world that is delivered splendidly through a plethora of fart and semen jokes.