2 Limestone Comedy Festival headliners bring difficult conversations to the mic

Sensitive issues such as politics and sexual abuse aren’t always welcome on a comedy stage, but Limestone Comedy Festival doesn’t shy away from comics who want to change minds and hearts.

In a recent phone interview, headliner Margaret Cho said she won’t shy away from current controversial topics. As a rape survivor, she’s felt empowered by the “Me Too” movement.

“There’s a lot to say,” she said. “I’ve actually been talking about this stuff since before the movement happened. It was very difficult to fit audiences into a space where they felt like they could talk about things that were hard.”

Starting in the early 1990s, Cho has spent decades finding her voice on the standup stage, while also collecting several television credits. In 2012, she was nominated for a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for playing a caricature of Kim Jong-il on “30 Rock.”

Cho described a shift in not just the entertainment industry, but also the world, over the course of her career. Previously, she said, people didn’t want to give voice to rape survivors.

“Part of rape culture is keeping women silent about what happened,” she said. Now, it’s more out in the open, and she said there’s value in discussing trauma not just for her, but for other survivors who are her fans. “It’s something that we can use to just get better. When you share these kinds of experiences, you realize that you’re not alone, and that’s a healing thing to do. So I feel very fortunate to be able to do that, and it’s good for me as well.”

In this year’s Limestone lineup, Cho is joined by a fellow “30 Rock” alum Judah Friedlander. Among other credits, Friedlander is most well-known for his series-long role as Frank on the NBC sitcom. On the show, as in his standup, he wore a series of hats customized with different words and phrases.

On his last visit to Bloomington, Friedlander said, local comic Brad Wilhelm gave him a tour of sites from the movie “Breaking Away.”

“In my own mind, I got to re-enact the movie,” he said in a phone interview. And not just in his head — he posed shirtless for a photo at a limestone quarry where the Cutters gather in the film. After his “Breaking Away” tour and experience other aspects of the city, Friedlander said he’s excited to return and perform for Bloomington audiences in his shows Friday at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

“It’s just a smart city,” he said. “Good people, good food. I’m looking forward to it.”

Fans can get a preview of some of Friedlander’s more recent material in his Netflix special, “America is the Greatest Country in the United States,” now streaming.

In the scene that opens the special, Friedlander discusses his passions for helping the planet, using short, witty quips: “I wrote a self-help book for trees. It’s called how not to become a book. I’m hoping to sell 10 million copies.” He made the special independently because he wanted to have freedom.

“It’s black and white, very raw, very low budget, very intimate,” he said.

In his live show, he said, he’ll be introducing all new jokes, but still hitting on some of the same bigger issues — including health care, immigration and his own presidential platform.

“I don’t like telling people what to think,” he said. “I like getting people to laugh, and then because of that, getting them to think.”

Integrating a difficult topic into a comedy routine is a skill, and also a risk, but comics willing to take that risk can make waves. Entertainment has a long history of racist and sexist concerns, but the landscape is changing thanks to that risk-taking.

“It’s just coming to this place of realizing that sexual abuse is wrong,” Cho said. “We've been living with it for so long, and it’s been acceptable for so long. There’s this weird thing where people thought that we were living in a post-feminism world, or post racism, and were beyond it … But men have been allowed to get away with whatever and excused because the myth of genius kind of absolves them. Now we say it doesn’t excuse them.”

Performers like Friedlander, who reject the mainstream paths for getting their content out, also contribute to the shifting culture.

“I knew no one in Hollywood would greenlight (the comedy special),” he said. “Everything they do is very cookie-cutter, very bland, very unoriginal. So I said, well, I don’t care if anyone buys it or not. I’m just going to make it … As soon as somebody puts money into it, then your control goes away.”

Cho will perform in the festival kickoff show at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, and Friedlander will be on the same stage for 7:30 and 10 p.m. shows on Friday.

If you go

Limestone Comedy Festival kickoff show

WHO: Margaret Cho, with Rocco Stowe, Stephanie Lochbihler and Brad Wilhelm

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Buskirk-Chumley Theater, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave., Bloomington

Friday night show

WHO AND WHEN: Judah Friedlander, with Jon Hancuff, Brittany Carney, Lucas Waterfall and Brad Wilhem at 7:30 p.m.; with Jonas Schrodt, John Novosad, Atsuko Okatsuka and Brad Wilhelm at 10 p.m.)

WHERE: Buskirk-Chumley Theater