News & Politics

Emergency Revolutionary

Margaret Cho is taking her revolution to the streets. The most difficult part of revolution? Feeling you deserve one.
Don't call it a revolution – perhaps call it a comeback.

Margaret Cho, whose concert film Revolution has her artfully styled as Che on the cover, isn't necessarily leading a revolution. She's leading a tour, certainly, called "State of Emergency." And right now, the comic has her sights set on mobilizing her base around the hotly contested 2004 election. But her revolution has been a long time coming.

Campaigning against injustice and hypocrisy whenever possible, Cho also takes the time to interact at length with a highly devoted audience composed of gays, straights, whites, Asians and whatever else America's so-called melting pot can contain. Because, as much as any talent working in these tough times of Patriot Acts and cowed journalists, she understands that although true revolution begins at home, it ends in the public square.

"To me, revolution is the entitlement to change, to empower oneself to change," Cho recently explained to me in an interview. "That's the most difficult part of revolution – feeling that you deserve one. It is a powerful statement to want one, and of course an even more powerful thing to go about starting one."

Right now, Cho is fomenting her revolution in New York, preparing for a performance at the Apollo on August 28. "There's real resentment here towards the GOP convention," she says, "because the Republicans are using the 9/11 tragedy as a bargaining chip in their campaign for Bush's reelection. Bush stiffed New York by avoiding the 9/11 Commission and withholding funding to the victims of those tragedies, and not a lot of people outside of New York are aware of it. Plus, he's arming himself with the kind of people, like Rudolph Guiliani and others, who are going to buffer him from the public-at-large and stand in harm's way. But that resentment could turn intense by the time all the Republicans get here. There aren't really too many of them here anyway, because they're not that indigenous to New York. They all have to come here in their covered wagons."

The road to New York hasn't been that smooth for Cho, either. What a difference a few years make.

Back in the mid-'90s, Margaret Cho's career looked troubled after her promising stint on prime-time's first Asian-American sitcom, "All-American Girl," ended in careless chatter about weight problems and addiction. But the true controversy involved an American public and entertainment industry still uncomfortable with an "inappropriate" female – as she calls herself in her concert film, Revolution, recently released on DVD in August – as well as anything Asian-American not involving martial arts or Sulu from "Star Trek." Even Asian-Americans harassed the performer about cultural misrepresentation, sending the already frazzled Cho into a downward spiral mirrored only by the racial ignorance of the network and its band-aid solutions of personal trainers and on-set Asian "experts" making sure chopsticks were visible in the kitchen.

"There were just so many people involved in that show," Cho wrote on her official site, "and so much importance put on the fact that it was an ethnic show. It's hard to pin down what 'ethnic' is without appearing to be racist. And then, for fear of being too 'ethnic,' it got so watered down for television that by the end, it was completely lacking in the essence of what I am and what I do."

But since that torrid time, Cho has spread like wildfire to an alternative audience not looking for role models on networks owned by General Electric, Westinghouse, Rupert Murdoch or Disney. The San Francisco-bred comic regrouped and got even with the explosively popular I'm the One That I Want, her first of many successful, independently produced concert films and tours. I'm the One That I Want went on to generate serious revenue, as well as significant interest from comedy peers like Jerry Seinfeld – who compared Cho to Richard Pryor in his prime – and a gay and lesbian fan base that had followed the outspoken artist's career ever since she was a girl wandering around San Francisco's Castro district. A busload of sold-out shows and two more well-received concert films later – including 2002's The Notorious C.H.O. and the aforementioned Revolution – and Cho is now a force to be reckoned with in progressive culture – and political culture.

"Everything [Bush has] done has been a grand disaster, a total failure," says Cho. "It's almost worse than if he had set out to fail, because he did put across the appearance of a politician trying to succeed. But his administration is so rife with lies, scandals, betrayals and cover-ups that it is fast approaching being utterly unforgivable. Whether it's his defiance of the 9/11 Commission, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or the whole War in Iraq, the evidence is just so damning."

Cho's show at the Apollo is part of a new State of Emergency Tour that will extend across the United States until October, at which point she'll take her riotous act to England and Australia, to War on Terrorism coalition members whose citizens have vigorously opposed the War in Iraq from jump street even though their elected officials went along with it anyway. But unlike her previous tours, the State of Emergency Tour will be less scripted and more free-form, allowing Cho to insert current events – including the election and its mediation on Fox, CNN and elsewhere – into her act.

"Some of the subject matter will be ad-libbed," Cho explains, "but some of it will also be material I've written specifically for the show. Like the title says, this tour about the state of the country, what's happening in media, politics and the world. It's definitely a news-oriented show that tackles big topics like gay marriage or the various concurrent wars – on terrorism, on Iraq, on free speech, on gay and civil rights – we have going on now. But there is also going to be space for the immediacy of the current climate."

To Cho's chagrin, that current political climate indicates a disturbing cold trend towards the gay and lesbian community that she has defended for decades, one that has helped propel her to the forefront of American comedy's cutting edge – as well as aid her in receiving everything from the ACLU's First Amendment Award (which she will receive in September), GLAAD's first-ever Golden Gate Award, the Intrepid Award from the National Organization of Women and more. But, unlike some of her more jaded liberal contemporaries, Cho believes that the president himself isn't individually homophobic, just motivated by what may be one of the only strategies that can retain the White House for the Republican party.

"They're really trying to legislate against the GLBT community, to drive a wedge into the collective American mindset, and to push the bigotry and homophobia buttons to create a division and diversion. But I don't think Bush actually has hatred for homosexuals himself; if you're in the position of being that wealthy, privileged and involved in politics and the media, you have to be pretty open to gays. The daughter of his own Vice-President is an acknowledged lesbian, and he was very supportive of her until about two years ago, at which point she just disappeared. It's very weird. I know they personally don't have those beliefs; they can't, being such cosmopolitans who have to get their hair and makeup done all the time. They have got to have some gay friends!"

Cho's understanding and diplomacy might send chills down the spine of Bush-haters everywhere, but it extends even to those, like the Human Rights Campaign, who are often on her side until their own interests get in the way. When the GLBT-friendly HRC summarily dropped the muckraking Cho from their ironically titled Unity 2004 event in Los Angeles – one timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention – for fear of a critical backlash, Cho took it in stride, making her disappointment public but not vindictive. But she still maintains that worrying about recriminatory right-wing assaults is doing the left more harm than good.

"It was right after the whole Whoopi Goldberg scandal," Cho explains, "and the HRC didn't want to attract any attacks from right-wing media outlets. I totally understood the thinking behind it, and it didn't make me angry or anything – it's just part of politics, after all – but one of the things that has to change is us. The right feels entitled to sometimes say the most bigoted and horrible things, and we haven't just got to that point yet. I don't think we feel the kind of ease or confidence in our message that the right-wing feels, and what it shows is a lack of faith in ourselves. I still think the HRC is great organization and I would love to work with them in future."

Indeed, the left might want to take a lesson from the could-give-a-shit right. That stubborn transformation of liberalism be the last nail in the fundamentalist coffin housing the reactionary beliefs that have caused more sociopolitical harm – and taken thousands of lives, in the case of the war in Iraq – than good since Reagan leapt off the silver screen and into the Oval Office.

"Take Ann Coulter, for example," Cho continues. "She says the most horrible things and is so smug about it. Which is what we need, that self-satisfaction and smugness that the right seems to own – except that they're not right. They're totally wrong and intolerant, but people believe in their unshakable faith and confidence. Sure, the people might not necessarily believe in the message, because they don't hear it: They just believe the person who sounds the most self-assured. But our message is a good one, and we should believe in it."

Photos by Austin Young and Phil Nee.

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Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.