The Cho-sen

A comedian writes a serious book: Now that's funny

Margaret Cho will be the first to let you know that she's had a long path to success. After the demise of her 1994 ABC sitcom All-American Girl, which lampooned her real-life Korean-American family, the comedienne turned to drugs and alcohol. But like many humorists, she found room for laughs in the cliché of Hollywood crash and burn. Cho is one of those entertainers who divide a room — you either love her or hate her — and I'm firmly in the former camp. Raised in San Francisco, she enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame with self-deprecating sex jokes and quips about her mother selling gay porn on Polk Street. And so what if her post-sitcom, pre-rehab success came largely at the cost of her family's privacy? She still managed to deflect racist and fat-phobic detractors to become celebrated as the Richard Pryor of her generation.

Cho's time these days is largely spent on her impassioned pro-gay, anti-Bush activism — usually in the form of balancing gags about the sordid state of the union against ones about her crummy sex life. Her latest book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, is full of short essays on social justice and righteous rage that all read like codas to a stand-up routine (and include an astonishing abundance of the quasi-word “ignant”). You're as likely to find Cho describing Ann Coulter as a “ho in sheep's clothing” as you are to find her spouting pseudo-Marxist lines like “The incognito of lower class employment is an effective cloak for any dagger one might wish to hide.”

The book is about many things, but mostly oppression — whether in the guise of old white men posing as cultural arbiters or casting agents attempting to land her a gig that complements her slanted eyes. Cho's precise blend of humor and zeal is likely to appeal to her legions of fans. However, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight is sometimes saturated with the kind of pedantic liberalese that has Cho preaching to the choir. Sure, her “fuck the Republicans” attitude is kind of cool, but it's hard to be sanctimonious and funny at the same time.

Luckily, Cho makes up for it by capping her polemics with droll observations of folks like Bill O'Reilly and commentary on cultural oddities such as the popular Korean trend of pubic hair transplants. The impersonal cynicism of pre-political Cho is nowhere present in this volume, and the strongest passages reflect personal growth in a way that's thoughtful rather than cheesy.

Maybe Cho isn't subtle with her politics, but anyone who can post the hate mail she receives on her Web site and use it as fodder for her comedy routines is OK in my book.

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