I’ve seen Margaret Cho perform at least half a dozen times. I’m a longtime and devoted fan of her work. I hated what ABC executives did to her on All-American Girl, her aborted 1994 sitcom, and I found her retort to that humiliation in her one-woman show, I’m the One That I Want (2000), to be hysterical, brave, shocking and profound. I love her queer sensibility, her elastic and swift facial humor and her instinct to punch up and not down. She belongs in the pantheon of great comedians—Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Louis C.K.—who (usually) mine cultural stereotypes to upend them. All that said, her performance last night at the Golden Globes—where she played a North Korean general and the newest member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—was a gross and unfunny bit of yellowface minstrelsy.
The thing is—it’s not as if Cho doesn’t know how to thread this needle with mad skill. Some of her funniest stand-up routines are when she imitates her Korean mother. Yes, Cho squints her eyes and slips into an exaggerated Engrish accent, but you never get the sense that she’s mocking her mother or Asians in general. Cruel and flattening stereotypes aren’t the point. Instead, her mom emerges as a fuller and weirder person, and the yellowface acts as a comic device to sharpen a universal gulf—the one between daughters and mothers. Margaret’s Mrs. Cho babbles on about learning astral projection from Leonard Nimoy; leaves overly long answering machine messages; micro-manages her daughter’s use of shampoo and curiously examines a gay porn magazine called Ass Master, which to her dismay does not begin with a table of contents.
Fun is definitely being had. But it’s laced with such obvious love that Mrs. Cho emerges as a more knowable and likable person. She’s no alien tiger mother; she’s a mom, a lot like your mom.
Cho has, of course, lampooned North Korean dictators Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which is presumably how last night’s skits came about. Some of the 30 Rock scenes work for me; some don’t. But I’m not offended by any of it. As Cho pointed out on Twitter today, to a person who has family members on both sides of the partition, as do many Koreans and Korean Americans, mocking the regime’s dictators is fair game. It punches up, in the context of a show that usually took care to punch up.
The problem is, that’s not what happened last night. Yes, I suppose if you think about it, Cho’s performance as North Korean army general and propagandist Cho Yung Ja was intended to deride the regime’s curious obsession with cinema, which includes having once kidnapped a South Korean movie director and his actress wife. But that context, as well as an actual real-life target, was entirely missing. Cho didn’t say a single word in the first of her two appearances. She just stood there, sullen and inscrutable, wearing some weird white kabuki makeup and holding a poorly faked North Korean magazine. We in the West know almost nothing about life in North Korea, including even how its elites live (read Suki Kim’s terrific Without You, There Is No Us for one of the few accounts). We don’t even know conclusively if North Korea was behind the Sony Pictures hack. In that vacuum, Cho’s performance became an indiscriminate parody, raising whatever chuckles it did not at the expense of the powerful but by trading in on tired stereotypes of Asians tout court as players of unknowable ego games. The one humanizing element came near the end, when Cho finally had some lines of dialogue and suggested that Orange Is the New Black should have been nominated in the drama and not comedy category. That was a little bit funny—although still not ha-hah funny—because its target was the Globes themselves, not Koreans.
As the whole world now knows in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—this funny business, it can be deadly serious stuff. You don’t need to valorize the Muhammed cartoons or The Interview, as too many Hollywood actors did last night, as the pinnacle of free speech in order to defend the right to make a joke. And to fail at it sometimes too—without being vilified for life. Satirists and comedians work in the seams of cultural disconnect. It’s volatile and edgy stuff. Last night, Margaret Cho was not amusing. But she’s earned the right to try again.
Update: I too hastily included Carlos Mencia on my list of comics based on a hazy memory of liking some of his clips. But readers have pointed out that he’s really not all that. Upon review, I agree. Poof—he’s gone from the pantheon! I also modified slightly my description of 30 Rock.