Margaret Cho review – queen of lurid bad taste roars back from rehab
Since her last UK visit, Korean-American comic Margaret Cho has spent over a year in rehab, after friends intervened to rescue her from drugs and suicidal impulses. She had to apologise for a New Jersey gig last year that ended in a “bizarre onstage meltdown”, and a slanging match between Cho and her audience. One punter protested that her rape jokes were inappropriate for Easter weekend, to which pious heckle – 18 months later and a continent away – she tonight delivers an outrageously transgressive response.
So yes, the 48-year-old is now clean, sober and back behind the microphone, and her style and onstage manner are less attention-seeking than in the past. But there’s nothing rehabilitated about the content of Fresh Off the Bloat, which is as filthy and full-frontal as we’ve come to expect of Cho. The material ranges across sex, sexual abuse and scatology, and is dispatched with sometimes beautiful economy.
I’d say it’s the best show she’s delivered to UK audiences. It feels more measured than her previous OTT offerings: she strains less to play the look-at-me wild child. And in the absence of all that, you can really see the craft behind these affectless nuggets of luridly carnal comedy.
Of course, it starts with “all the great sexual harassment stuff” – a gift of sorts to female comedians, whose post-Weinstein material feels all the nearer to the knuckle given their proximity to several prominent offenders. Alongside the Bill Cosby and Louis CK gags, there are amusing reflections on Lindsay Lohan’s contribution to the debate (she defended Weinstein and urged his wife to stand by him), and on Weinstein’s intimate relations with a potted plant. And just in case you’re uneasy about this levity, Cho cites her own personal experience of sexual assault. That’s no emotional rug-pull, though, just an excuse for more cynical joke-telling, as her mum tells Cho (cue preposterous Korean accent) that she’s not the rapist’s only victim, and so is “not special”.
There’s a postscript: Cho is choosing irreverence as a response to her experience of rape, she tells us, because she wants to help others overcome their shame. That’s a modus operandi across the board: much of the show is about shining the harsh light of bilious humour on things that many prefer to keep concealed.
Latterly, the transgressive frisson is diminished by overuse. Cho knows full well that her scatological material will get laughs (and squirms of disgust) from its content alone, as with the routine that begins: “People always want to pee on me …” What brings a more interesting dimension is Cho’s beady delivery. Stillness and silence are excellently deployed. Rabelaisian content is twinned with faux primness, as Cho maps her own moral code on to this carnival of licentiousness.
Then there’s the quality of the gags, such as the one about feeling “outnumbered” by semen, or the excuse she gives for staying in an abusive relationship. Unlike her friend Kathy Griffin, a recent visitor to the UK, there’s not a word wasted, as per the choice joke about her mentor Joan Rivers, with its blink-and-you-miss-it two-word punchline.
She talks about Griffin here, in the context of her thoughts on the Trump presidency – which are as you’d expect. We’re invited to imagine the president and first lady’s sex life, and given some practical advice about “pussy grabbing”. It’s not the show’s strongest strand. Elsewhere, she discusses her spat with Tilda Swinton over the “whitewashing” of Asian roles in cinema, telling a partisan version of the story that Swinton later challenged by publishing their entire email correspondence. So: you might not want to take on trust Cho’s version, in which Swinton treats her like a “house servant” and a hotline to Asians everywhere. But you can’t deny it’s wickedly funny.
Elsewhere, there’s material about Cho’s sex toys, reprised from her previous UK visit – which is a bit underwhelming in a supposedly new 60-minute show. But if Fresh Off the Bloat isn’t all fresh, and takes Cho’s comedy in no new directions whatsoever, it is for the most part winningly done. Not an iota of shame is expressed for her pre-rehab life, which is celebrated in a cheerfully poor-taste anecdote about carousing with Courtney Love and Anna Nicole Smith. The sex comedy (“I like an ugly fuck!”) is almost giddily improper, and leaves prudery and inhibition scorched in its wake. Eighteen months of “self-care” seem to have left Cho’s comedy gloriously unreconstructed: leaner and more disciplined, maybe, but as outrageous as ever.