Laughing Out Loud

There’s nothing understated about Revolution, Margaret Cho’s latest.

Cho: All-American revolutionary

Is she a stand-up comedian? Performance artist? Activist? Slut? In the 10 years since All-American Girl, Margaret Cho’s short-lived ABC sitcom, was canceled in part because of producers’ concerns with “the fullness of her face,” the 34-year-old Korean-American performer has gleefully claimed all of these roles for herself, along with fag hag, bisexual diva, and now, revolutionary. Her new film, Revolution (premiering Saturday, June 19 at 9 p.m. ET), is the centerpiece of the Sundance Channel’s Out Loud festival, a month-long celebration of gay and lesbian-themed films. Like Cho’s two previous films, I’m the One That I Want (2000) and The Notorious C.H.O. (2002), Revolution documents a live performance, this time at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater in May 2003.

Cho arrives onstage in a pink-and-green satin ball gown, long flapper pearls, and a bobbed black wig. (Ten minutes into the performance, she whips it off, joking, “You know I would never get this chinky of a haircut.”) Sipping demurely from a water bottle, she muses about George Bush’s inability to pronounce the word “nuclear,” then suddenly morphs into Condoleezza Rice as blaxploitation superbitch, looming over the president with flash cards: “Fool, it’s NU-CLE-AAAR!” Having seen all three of Cho’s concert films (along with one memorable live performance in a Berkeley Presbyterian church), I’ve determined that this sort of unexpected metamorphosis is the key to her uncanny power over an audience. The funniest part of a Cho gag is neither the setup nor the punch line, but that in-between moment when the audience is left in suspension, wondering what kind of character will emerge to take over her voice and body.

With each successive tour, Cho extends the length of these liminal moments, and a viewer new to her comedy will no doubt think, “Jeez, this woman’s timing is really off.” But watch the way her face and body slowly contort to take the shape of whatever rough beast is struggling its way to the surface: a scowling samurai? A simpering priss? The rictus of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il? Cho is a great mime; like Buster Keaton, her body has invented a language all its own. As much as her shows depend on a nonstop stream of (often obscene) verbiage, she can also crack up an audience with no sound at all.

Revolution’s flagship riff is a manic, scatological set piece whose content I will not disclose here but which will nail you to your seat in horrified laughter, even if you’re not a poop-joke person. A disquisition on the paucity of role models available to Asian-American women treads familiar ground (“Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond”) but ends in a hilarious impression of a Japanimation character: “I don’t want to model myself after Hello Kitty,” Cho pouts. “She has no mouth. Hello Kitty can’t even say hi back to you after you say ‘Hello, Kitty!’ “

See? No dice. Cho’s humor is not about jokes per se, and quoting her out of context, you lose the blank, puckered kitten face that makes this moment work. At times, Cho’s expressiveness is almost too big for the television screen. This is a show scaled for the theater, and the tight close-ups and static angles chosen by director Lorene Machado seem too constrictive to capture the sweaty, outsized immediacy of live performance. There’s something polite about Machado’s camera, and there’s nothing polite about Cho’s comedy: Racially, sexually, and politically, she’s perfectly cozy in places most of us wouldn’t dare set foot. True, Cho is increasingly subject to random bursts of hyper-sincere political monologuing (“How dare they ask you to die for your country, yet not allow you to be who you are?”) that some viewers will find offensive, others courageous, and many, just plain dull. But the odd soapbox rant seems a fair price to pay for 75 minutes in the company of this uniquely gifted and exceptionally honest performer, who appears to have been born to stand in front of thousands of people and speak the unspeakable: “I look at children and feel nothing,” she deadpans in a subversive bit about her lack of maternal instincts. “I ovulate sand.”

At one point, late in the show, Cho mimics a prim dinner party guest cracking up at her outrageous humor, even as, palm outstretched, she begs Cho to stop: “Don’t go there!” After a beat, Cho protests: “I live there. I bought a house there.” In Revolution, Cho opens that house up and invites us in.