Margaret Cho said something on Watch What Happens with Andy Cohen a few weeks ago that offended a lot of people.
I can almost hear you thinking it: “And?” Such an assertion would ordinarily be unnewsworthy. I might as well have said “Everybody poops.” You’d look at me funny, and then go about your day, perhaps wondering why I felt the need to share such an obvious and uncomfortable truth. Cho says and does things that would offend a lot of people. This time, however, there was widespread, very public backlash. I have been wondering why this time, of all times, the response to her offensiveness has been so spirited. Through this faux pas, my eyes have opened to the reality of the profound distance between the stage performer and the person performing on the stage. I think this misstep is a pivotal event for humor studies because it provides a teachable moment in which this distance shockingly reveals itself.
Cho appeared on Watch What Happens to promote her upcoming tour: Mother. She revealed to host Andy Cohen that she wants to be a mother, but at the age of 43, she is concerned about the health of any children she might have: “My eggs are jumping ship. They’re like, ‘Last one out is a retard.’ I get worried about that, like as an older woman, I don’t necessarily want to have a retard.”
The audience doesn’t even laugh uncomfortably. I could feel the tension in my bedroom as I watched this video, three frames removed from the actual event.
I only became aware of this clip because I “Like” Margaret Cho on Facebook, and her wall had exploded with some very hateful and hurt posts. I saved a sample of the comments appearing on her page:
“Ms. Cho, speaking as an adult who is different, I found your comments insensitive, at best. And that’s being kind. I have been a fan of your humor for a good while, but this crossed the line. Rethink your words.”
“With your outlook on people with special needs you don’t deserve to be a mother. Your eggs are probably jumping ship because you are a dumb bitch who doesn’t deserve children. Go to hell!”
“I’d like to have children, but at my age I might pop out an Asian lesbian……how do u like that?”
Compare the audience response and the written comments to this video where Cho throws around the hate word “faggot” like it’s a rose petal and she’s a flower girl at a Disney princess’ wedding.
The audience response is wildly positive and the comments are mixed. What is the difference?
I think there are a few differences at play here. First, Cho’s audiences are largely queer and queer-friendly. It’s a self-selecting group that buys tickets to a famous comedian’s show. Cho’s audience on cable television is not self-selecting and not expecting to be entertained by her signature offensive humor. Secondly, I think that people are more inclined to be defensive of differently-abled people than of queer people because there is a perceived element of choice with queers. Thirdly, Cho is a woman, and she is expected to be innately maternal and accepting of any child she may have, even when in reality many mothers face a great amount of emotional difficulty when their children are born differently abled. Fourthly, and what I want to discuss most here, is the difference I alluded to in the first paragraph: Cho is not on stage. Cho is not a comedian or a performer when she appears in front of a television audience, she is a guest: a 42 year old woman with a career in comedy who just said something extremely insensitive.
I found myself thinking that should I ever choose to pursue a career in standup-comedy, I would adapt a stage persona, clearly demarcating my self from my performance. There seems to be a scale of performance and self separation among comedians, and the scale runs from performers like Margaret Cho to performers like Larry the Cable Guy. Then there are those where it is difficult to tell, like Russell Brand (who I sincerely hope is like that in everyday life).
Performers like Cho who do not demarcate their selves from their performance selves open themselves up to backlash, backlash that can be felt personally because it can be taken personally. I rest my case with this bit by Larry the Cable Guy. The audience howls with laughter at this ableist bit absent all of the criterion that opened Cho up to such harsh criticisms listed above.
The audience is receptive, and I don’t recall any Fox News stories about Larry the Cable Guy’s use of the word “retard,” nor his impression.
Cho has addressed her relationship to her offensive material before. In the introduction of her stand-up DVD Assasin, Cho directly addresses her offensive humor and intent: “…Because I’m a member of so many minorities, it kind of gives me carte blanche. Because I’m a woman, because I’m an Asian American, because I’m so entrenched in gay culture in so many ways. That sort of gives me a lot of freedom to move about. To comment on things and not worry so much about any kind of repercussions, like oh you’re not supposed to say that because you’re not one of us, but I am. You know because I’m always gonna be one of ‘us.’ I just have that kind of membership, in every club.”
Cho wrote a very moving apology on her blog a few days after the backlash, which I highly recommend you read, here. I don’t know of many comedians who would respond with such humility and guilt. She reflects on herself a great deal in her blog and in her standup material. I wonder now how she would reflect on the statement made at the beginning of Assassin. I think that she, like me, is probably reflecting on what it means to be funny on stage and be funny elsewhere. Because I still have a great deal of respect for Cho, I’d like to leave you with a statement that I think she would benefit from remembering now:
“I’m not going to die because I failed as someone else. I’m going to succeed as myself.”
― Margaret Cho
For a related discussion of Cho and humor, see:
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