At the beginning of the week, tickets were still available for comedienne Margaret Cho’s April 22 performance at Dillon Gym. “The hard part is getting students motivated to pick up tickets and check this event out,” said Class of 2005 President Azalea Kim, who helped organize the event.
Considering the nature of Cho’s comedy, perhaps it is not surprising that Princeton students—reputed to be the most conservative in the Ivy League—have been less than enthusiastic about her visit to campus. In her 2000 concert DVD “I’m The One That I Want,” Cho describes a trip to the hospital after rapid weight loss caused her kidney to fail. Cho remembers her nurse’s greeting: “Hello my name is Gwen, I’m here to wawwwwwsh your vagina.” Cho repeats this salutation over and over before commenting, “You know, I complain far too much about my job.” Later in the show, Cho tells the audience that the scent that reminds her the most of high school is the smell of testicles in pantyhose. In 2002’s “Notorious C.H.O.”, she describes her role in the post-September 11 relief effort: “giving blow jobs to rescue workers.”
Margaret Cho does not think her work is shocking. “That’s what’s shocking about it, I suppose. I don’t think it’s shocking in the least,” she said in a telephone interview. She sees no reason why Princeton students should shy away from her performance. “I’ve performed at Princeton before, and I was received warmly,” she says. “The people that go to the school are talented and incredibly elite.”
And for the most part, Cho is right. While her shows include some eyebrow-raising content, much of her work addresses relatively mundane topics: her frustrations with men, her struggles to lose weight, her experiences with racism.
In fact, Cho’s funniest work is about one of the tamest subjects imaginable: her parents. Immigrants from South Korea, the Cho’s owned a bookstore in San Francisco that sold art books and gay literature: “things you wouldn’t associate with an immigrant family,” says Cho. The Cho’s were not so liberal, however, in envisioning their daughter’s future. “They were very conservative when it came to me.”
While they did not dream that Cho would attend law school (according to Cho, her parents thought that becoming a lawyer would be “dangerous”) or medical school (“They see doctors as an unclean profession.”), the Cho’s had a particular future in mind for Margaret: marriage and stability. Performing was not part of that plan. Cho’s parents did not even know that she was an entertainer until many years after she started performing. “I felt I needed to gain some modicum of success before they would respect what I was doing,” Cho explains.
Despite their initial misgivings about her career choice, Cho’s parents are now very proud of her work. Cho’s 2002 performance DVD “Notorious C.H.O.” features an interview with her parents. Beaming, her father exclaims, “She has a platform to tell her stories to everyone.”
Of these stories, the ones about her mother are the most touching and hilarious. In “I’m The One That I Want,” Cho describes her mother’s reaction to her daughter’s first sexual encounter with a female. She leaves a message on Cho’s answering machine: “Pick up the phone! If you don’t pick up the phone, you gay. Only gays screen calls.” In “Notorious C.H.O.,” Cho reveals her mother’s advice about responding to a friend who is gay: “If a gay friend says ‘I love you,’ don’t punch! Say ‘thank you.’”
Cho’s imitation of her mother’s Korean accent and broken English has elicited accusations of racism, to which Cho responds, “How am I to speak of my family honestly? My mother does not have a British accent.” In fact, Cho’s imitation of her mother expresses more reverence than derision. Cho attributes that fact that she is a “girl’s girl” to her relationship with her mother. She sees women as “strong, loyal, enduring, honest, and real,” all qualities that her mother possesses.
Mrs. Cho herself is not offended by her daughter’s impression. In “Notorious C.H.O.,” Mrs. Cho speaks of going into the bathroom at one of her daughter’s shows to thank everyone for coming. “My mother adores my impression of her. It’s a fun and really exciting thing to be a part of the show. She enjoys the benefits of being a sort of minor celebrity.”
Cho’s political beliefs may prove to be controversial to the conservative Princeton audience. Over the years, Cho’s work has become increasingly political; Cho calls her performances a combination of “political rally” and “entertainment”: “a traveling 9-11 commission.” Cho’s Princeton show will be a part of the developmental process for her next tour, tentatively called “State of Emergency.” In the fall, this show will travel through the swing states to encourage citizens to vote against George W. Bush in the presidential election. “George Bush is ignorant and selfish, and he has caused a terrifying situation,” says Cho, referring to the war in Iraq. “We are being lied to by our government, and we need some relief from it.” According to a Daily Princetonian poll last spring, 60% of Princeton undergraduates support the war in Iraq (compared with 47% at Columbia and 35% at Harvard).
How will the politically conservative Princeton student body react to such a liberal voice? Cho answers that her message is non-partisan: “Whether you are conservative or liberal, lies are lies, not matter what party you’re a part of.”