Get Over Yourselves
I should be congratulating you – Sundance airing the movie version of your latest one-woman show Cho: Revolution last Saturday was a big deal. But I'm writing for a different, less gracious reason, and I'm kind of nervous about it. When I started typing, the dorky little paperclip icon popped up on my computer screen and asked if I needed help writing my letter. I sent it away with a snort, but now I'm regretting it.
That paperclip had my back, just like I would have had yours years ago, when you rose from the ashes of drug abuse, eating disorders, and the cancellation of a hellaciously mismanaged sitcom to bring us your live show I'm the One That I Want.
Girl, I always loved you. I thought that I'm the One was especially good – smart, sharp, unabashedly brave. You turned the experience of having your hair fall out in clumps and losing creative control over All-American Girl into wrenching comedy. You were like some crazy, Richard Pryor-esque alchemist, turning the pain of racism and oppression into a routine that was simultaneously revenge and embrace.
But now I'm writing to say... that you're not as funny anymore.
I know, I'd best run and hide. Your posse of the sassily disenfranchised will be coming for me. I should know – I used to be one of your minions. Four years ago, if anyone had said a bad word about you, I would have said, "Ooh, hold my earrings, hold my earrings," and then sunk my Frito nail extensions – all square and curling and corn-chippy, with maybe some rhinestones and airbrush art – into that bitch's face. But now, here I am, cowering in the whitest, straightest, most male place I can find, because I have cast aspersions on Our Lady of the Oppressed People's Hilarity.
I started laughing a little less with Notorious C.H.O. My friend Aaron still came out of the theater deaf on the side where I was sitting, but it wasn't the same. You were getting... preachy. And when I watched Cho: Revolution live last year, I was still laughing, but I was sort of forcing myself. All of my friends were too – it was an emperor's new clothes situation, and we were all shifty-eyed before we came clean that we felt sledgehammered by your self-validating message, your rage against the -isms. Revolution was like the end of Ghostbusters, but with a giant, Stuart Smalley affirmation golem menacing Manhattan instead of Mr. Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man doing the job.
I know you're getting attacked viciously all the time. I know about the Drudge Report thing – how Drudge selectively excerpted portions of your performance at a MoveOn.org event where you criticized Bush in your usual fierce manner. FreeRepublic.com then linked to it, and you got torrents of awful hate mail from right-wing conservatives – people were calling you a gook, a slut, a pig. And just a few weeks ago, the president of the Omni Hotels, where you were doing a convention gig, turned off the mic and stopped payment on your check. He's a close friend of George Bush, so I guess he didn't like what you had to say about the Mess o' Potamia.
When stuff like this happens, I'm reminded just how radical – and, yes, revolutionary – it is for you to be you: Korean-American, feminist, queer, sexual, and scatological, an unflagging advocate and political activist on so many fronts of injustice. I see your Web site in support of queer marriage: loveisloveislove.com. I see you stumping for Ms. Magazine. I want you to keep on keeping on, you know? But I want you to make me laugh, too. Is that so selfish?
Yes, you can still be political and funny – whoever says those things are incompatible is too stupid to live. The issue is the approach. Before, it was enough for you to lean on the "I" in the identity politics. I felt blessed that you even existed. When I interviewed you for a story long ago, I was plotzing the whole time, and I couldn't find the wherewithal to thank you for being a role model, an inspiration to this Mini-Cho wannabe. That "I Will Survive" feel to your comedy – the same thing that made some magazine call you and Cher, Ms. "Do You Believe?", comeback queens – was exhilarating and great. But your shtick is starting to feel indulgent. It's not enough for us to just survive anymore, to bask in the glow of our adoring gazes, to mirror each other, audience and performer.
We're the ones going to your show: the converted. And we need to be jolted, provoked, we need to second-guess ourselves. One way to keep us on our toes is to mix up your timing – lately, you've gotten into the habit of repeating punchlines, stretching out a joke forever, hitting us with this staggering, marcato rhythm. It's delivery dogma, man, and I just want something subtler.
Instead of hitting me with a fastball where you tell me what I already know and expect me to give you snaps in return, come at it sideways, all sly the way you do sometimes. I know you have it in you – I read your blog entry on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and marveled how you just articulated everything I struggled over for hundreds of words, and how you were hella funnier than I could ever be about it.
I know you operate from the premise that the personal is political, but maybe you could ease it back. Keep those personal stories coming, but don't lay out the analysis for us. We can figure it out ourselves. You're a generous person – so be a generous artist, too. Give us the freedom to interpret, to be puzzled. Otherwise people start drawing this one-to-one correlation between your life and your politics, in this amazingly reductive way. So yeah, you got married. And you're way skinnier these days. Are you not allowed these things, if you are happy and healthy and are still fighting the good fight?
This has a lot to do with the way you identify with your friends, with the suffering and joy around you. You say you're turning into a gay man in drag – but you're not. You're the queen bee of the haggarati, it's true, but you are not a gay man. So explore those tensions, those differences, that relationship. You're such an insider in your communities, but what gives your comedy power is your outsider status, too – that ability to see incongruity, hypocrisy, absurdity. Why abandon that just because you're talking about your own people?
So yeah, you will survive. That old joke about cockroaches, Cher, and the nuclear holocaust should be amended to include you. I know you'll be sitting there in the dead of nuclear winter, fighting those bitches for the last can of Spam. The question is, will you still be funny? Will you still have the gift of comedy that is your shock-and-awe campaign against intolerance, whatever injustice may live in the post-apocalyptic world of this fantasy? I can hear Cher now, hootling, "Do you believe?" And you know what? I do. Now go out there and prove me right. Make us laugh again.
Your fan, Noy
Now that I've talked to Margaret, you're gonna be a piece of cake. So you have this Steven Spielberg movie that opened last Friday: The Terminal, about an Eastern European immigrant who winds up stateless and homeless, living in an airport and jonesing for the incomparable Catherine Zeta-Jones. I have to say, I'm a little worried. I thought you had pulled out of your sanctimonious slump – the tedious, noble crap for which you abandoned your "winsomely comic" movies like You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, where you put up with the tuffet-headed Meg Ryan. I haven't seen Ladykillers yet, but I thought the enormous fake choppers you were sporting in the previews were a good way to get you out of your toothless phase. Don't prove me wrong, please.
You didn't start off this way, as stiff and golden and tasteful as the Oscars you won for being a gay martyr in Philadelphia and a simpleton in Forrest Gump. I remember you when you were making junk like The Money Pit and The 'Burbs and Turner & Hooch. I remember you in your far better work: Big, Splash, Punchline. You were crazy, that affable likeability just a cover for some serious rage and confusion. You had this bray you would let out sometimes – not a laugh or a shout, but more a hack of comedic anger. Where'd you put that? Did you bury it under the halo and the angel wings?
I know you tried to be all bad in Road to Perdition. You were so bloated with badness, with sadness, with angst. But you were this somber creation. Don't you know that you are your best bad when you feed off that manic, antic grace, the frustration you have behind that Everyman face?
I've been taking a lot of potshots at liberal icons today. First Margaret, now you. I so appreciate your support of queer causes, of liberal politics, of little indie movies, even if they turn out to be as hideous as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But does being a card-carrying liberal or progressive mean that you can't be a little bit evil, a little bit funny anymore? Look at your buddy Steven Spielberg, the prototypical Hollywood liberal. Too bad his humanistic feelings toward his characters have run rampant – his deep concern, his sense of moral righteousness, his inability to inflict unhappy endings on characters he loves keeps him from following the natural arc of his storylines and making the art he so badly wants to create. If someone came by and guillotined the last twenty minutes of almost all his movies, we'd have a serious oeuvre. If ET kicked the bucket, if the little boy robot of A.I. froze to death, if Minority Report's Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) rotted in prison forever... well, those would be some damn fine movies, instead of some damn fine movies nearly wiped out by a landslide of goo at the end.
This Terminal movie – I've seen the trailer and am feeling skittish. Your Viktor Navorski character is supposed to "make new friends... play matchmaker... help a beautiful stranger... discover America." I hear the rumbling, the sound of a goovalanche on its way down to obliterate me.
But I'm still hopeful. I hope you go against the Spielberg grain and your recent tendencies. I know Spielberg specializes in little boys lost, but I hope you dig deep and find some of the adult anger of dislocation, the darkness of fractured identity in your character. He is, after all, loosely based on Karimi Nasseri, a man who has lived in France's Charles de Gaulle airport since 1988. Nasseri sounds like he is seriously troubled, yet well-loved by the people around him – won't you give us a bit of this complexity? Yes, your character is supposed to discover America, maybe make a home of it – but does he find the America that offers such promise and menace? Does he react with only a simple shrug and a cutely accented epigram to life in the existential hell of a waiting room?
I hope not. I'd love to see you give this role some unsettling dimension. You don't have to be a gentle, bumbling, lost saint with feet of clay. Let me know what you'll do. I'll be watching and hoping that you find a way out of your own purgatory, return to your comedic roots – to that prickly-pear persona that gives humanity to anger, and warmth to rage. It's time to come home, Tom. Come home.
All the best,