In our first-ever re-view of a stand-up comedy film, Brian Malone looks into the time capsule of queer culture that is The Notorious C.H.O. and asks: When does “sex” drop out of homosexuality? When does a joke stop being funny? And why watch a stand-up film in the first place?
When I volunteered to re-view The Notorious C.H.O., your humble editor, Marcus, noted that this would be the first stand-up comedy review on 10YA. And after perusing a list of recent stand-up comedy movies, I am confident that you probably won’t see another stand-up re-view here until the second coming of Sara Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic in 2015. But contemplating the comparative rarity of stand-up comedy films led me to think more about this curious little genre. If you think about it, it is a very strange thing to make a stand-up performance into a film. Stand-up comedy, for all its entertainment value, is a fundamentally un-cinematic activity. There is no action, no dialogue, no plot, no visual effects. There are very few comedians who look better on a big screen than on a small one. And the production value of your typical stand-up movie makes My Dinner with Andre look like Moulin Rouge.
So why would anyone make a stand-up movie? In the age of HBO, Comedy Central, and Bravo, it seems like an oddly antiquated notion to require a fan to leave her living room to see your comedy show. As far as I can tell (and to riff on Cho’s awkward titular homage to the late Christopher Wallace), the primary motivation here seems to be mo’ money. The Notorious C.H.O. grossed about $1.03 million (on only 26 screens). If you subtract the cost of the production, that would mean a net profit of somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.03 million. So I guess that’s a pretty good reason for Margaret Cho to want to make this film.
But why would anyone go to see it? This is a more vexing question. As I already noted, there is nothing particularly interesting about seeing a stand-up routine on a big screen. Nor is there any good reason not to wait for DVD. If you don’t see the new Batman movie in its first week this summer, you will be left out of conversations; if you wait to see Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie until it comes out on Blu-Ray, there are unlikely to be any consequences. Even if you are a big fan of a particular comedian, why would you spend ten dollars to see a movie that will look the same on television and that will be in a video store in four months? And yet there I was, ten years ago this summer, sitting alone in one of the twenty-six theaters in the US that were showing this movie.
I went, of course, because I’m gay and gays like Margaret Cho. She is one in a series of women comedians who intentionally courted a gay audience (her precursors include Bette Midler and Sandra Bernhard). I would suggest, however, that Cho was more deliberately accessible than her predecessors – part of her project was to bring gay-themed comedy into the mainstream. In this, she created the role that Kathy Griffin would jump into with relish several years later: America’s Most Famous Fag Hag. (Although I think Cho went far beyond Griffin by complicating her “mainstream” persona as she became increasingly comfortable talking about her own sexuality. Indeed, Cho may have been the most famous queer person in the ‘00s.)
And that’s exactly the kind of thing that I was especially vulnerable to in 2002. At the time, I was still only recently out and was trying to assimilate to some version of gay culture. I really wanted to be a good gay, so I was trying it all: foam parties, strip clubs, drag, Bea Arthur concerts (seriously). Margaret Cho was part of the package, and that meant going to see stand-up comedy movies. And what did I think of The Notorious C.H.O.? I loved it, of course. I laughed and laughed. I told all my friends to go see it. Heck, I even bought it when it came out on DVD. I was a good gay.
Ten years later, I’m still gay, but I’ve settled into an identity that is less dependent on hags, divas, and tragic icons. I am weary of Kathy Griffin and I don’t swoon over Adele. I also don’t remember a thing about The Notorious C.H.O. (although that may well be a consequence of the film’s inherent lack of narrative – it’s hard to remember anything that can’t be summarized in a story). So I was very curious as I dug out my DVD from my closet (where else?) last week. How would The Notorious C.H.O. age?
Maybe it’s better to start with a general question: how does any stand-up comedy age? Not well, I would argue. A stand-up routine, perhaps more than most entertainment, is embedded in a specific cultural moment. Stand-up tends to provide a snapshot of what a culture is like right now. Most jokes are not written to become epigrams and timelessness is rarely the intention onstage at Caroline’s. So why should we expect the routines of our best contemporary comics to be funny a decade later? Listening to old Jerry Seinfeld routines is painful these days, and there’s no reason why Louis C.K. won’t make us cringe in ten years.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Notorious C.H.O. is, ten years later, not very funny. Not very funny at all. So not funny that the film felt twice as long as its 95 minute running time. So not funny that it made me sad. So not funny that there is only one joke in the whole movie that made me laugh this time around (more on this later).
The lack of humor here is not all Cho’s fault, though. For one thing, as I suggest above about stand-up comedy in general, many jokes have an expiration date, including most of Cho’s jokes about current events. A joke about anthrax? Girl, please. A second problem is that Margaret Cho is a victim of her own success. Her impression of her mother was quite funny the first few times she did it. But at this point, we’ve heard it for more than ten years – most recently on several episodes of 30 Rock. Indeed, we’ve even spent some time with Mrs. Cho herself (on episodes of Margaret’s VH1 reality series). The novelty, alas, has worn off. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that I no longer feel entirely comfortable, in 2012, laughing at an accent.
But in addition to these reasons, there are still some real problems with Cho’s comedy. She can tell a moving story (more on this later), but she has a weakness for lazy punchlines. After talking about her high school friends who were fierce teenage drag queens (and who died of AIDS years later), she settles for a spectacularly unfunny line about “Crouching Drag Queen, Hidden Faggot.” This not only unfunny, but sloppy – if you must make that joke, it makes more sense to say “Crouching Faggot, Hidden Drag Queen,” to play on the similarity between “drag queen” and “dragon.” Cho also tends to fall back on stand-up comedy clichés. The whole “one social group is like this, but another social group is like this” contrast is hoary, regardless of whether the social groups in question are men vs. women, white people vs. black people, or (in Cho’s case) straights vs. gays. So when Cho does a bit about the difference between straight vs. gay personal ads, she’s reaching for some very ancient, very low-hanging fruit. (Not to mention that she gets it wrong. Real gay personal ads are neither colorful nor funny – they are mostly a string of numbers: age, height, weight, penis size.)
I mentioned that there is one joke in this film that made me laugh in my re-viewing. More accurately, it made me gasp. It occurs in the first two minutes, as Cho begins by talking about the 9/11 attacks (her performance in the film was taped in November of 2001). Here’s the joke with the full lead-in:
“It’s really been an interesting time for our country–a very tragic time, very difficult time. These last several months certainly have been very hard. And I have been in New York a lot. And I actually got a chance to go down to Ground Zero. And I was there, day after day, giving blowjobs to rescue workers. [pause] Yeah. Because we all have to do our part.”
What I love about this joke is that it seems like it’s going to be a sincere and serious acknowledgement of tragic events – which, in a way, it is. But it’s also a joke about how entertainers in 2001 felt that they had to make such an acknowledgement in performances after 9/11. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, and it fits Cho’s persona well. It also works because she’s articulating a fantasy that many people in her audience had (and may well have felt ashamed of). Let’s face it: those FDNY firemen are hot.
But Cho’s ambitions for this film go beyond comedy (fortunately). There is a way in which she conceives of her stand-up act as building community. It is not by accident that the opening credits for the film are a series of testimonials from fans at the show, interspersed with clips from an interview with Cho in which she discusses her audience. The fans talk about how important she has been in their lives. They quote her best punchlines. They are mostly queer (it seems). And while it may be easy to dismiss as simplistic her exhortation from the stage that self-esteem (in queer people, in people of size, in people of color) is revolutionary, I believe her stand-up act does positive political work. There is real power, for example, in the story (told in her mother’s voice) about how Margaret’s father’s youthful homophobia cost him his best friend and how he has regretted it all of his life. Even when told in broken English, there is clear tragedy in the deformations of homophobia – even for straight people like Cho’s father. Homophobia doesn’t just constrict gay lives, it also forecloses certain relationships for straight people. And this is something we don’t talk about enough.
What intrigues me most about the film ten year later, however, is its status as a historical document. Cho’s comedy routine is a time capsule of what the gay community was saying to itself a decade ago – it presents a gay self-image from 2001. And what was being said in 2001 seems a little surprising to our contemporary sensibilities. The current state of gay discourse in the U.S. in 2012 centers around two issues: marriage and bullying. These are the things we talk about when we talk about gays. The message discipline on these topics sometimes makes it seem like the gay community is running a PR campaign (which, I guess, we are). But this means that certain things don’t get talked about in public anymore – like AIDS or gay sex. Indeed, in all the talk about weddings and adoption and parenting, we’ve somehow managed to desexualize homosexuality (so much so that Newsweek can call Barack Obama our “first gay president” and be taken seriously).
Of course, marriage and bullying are not absent from The Notorious C.H.O. She talks about the bullying her drag queen friends experienced in high school and she invokes the rhetoric of equality to support same-sex marriage. But she spends a lot more time talking about queer sex: about guys getting fucked in the ass, about renting gay porn, about S/M, about tops and bottoms, and about getting fisted by a dyke (“I felt like one of the Muppets”). In this film, being gay is mostly about sex. It’s about (and I love Cho’s phrase here) being “hated for who you like to fuck.” And while I think it’s important for us to talk about love and pride and families and bullying, it feels refreshing (and perhaps a little shocking) to hear a queer person talk publicly and unapologetically about fucking. In the last decade, gays have done a pretty good job of becoming lovable. But maybe it’s time to take a cue from 2002 and to become notorious again.