The Alchemist – Margaret Cho mixes comedy and music and the result is more than shocking
by Michael Dumas
The Press Register
BILOXI, Miss. — It just got even harder to stereotype Margaret Cho.
For two decades, the comedienne has stood on stage, screen and page, spouting some of the raunchiest, wittiest and most socially charged humor around. Her skin is a map of tattoo art and you never know what sort of fashion she’ll be wearing, or for that matter, designing.
Cho even weaves stereotypes into her comedy, using a stark, gravelly voice and facial contortions to produce caricatures of her Korean mother so personal, it would almost shame us to laugh if we didn’t hear her describing situations that could have come out of the Southern Sass Handbook.
And now, years after her first primetime sitcom was cancelled by ABC and days after her newest com-dram on Lifetime, “Drop Dead Diva,” began its second season, Cho is coming to Biloxi in support of … a comedy rock album?
It shouldn’t be as surprising as it sounds. After all, Cho describes herself as an “intense music geek” and, during a recent phone interview, admitted a passionate love for seminal parodist Weird Al Yankovic.
“He’s my all-time favorite,” Cho said in the somewhat sweet, thoughtful tone that is leagues from the crescendos of her on-stage persona. “I love what he does and I wanted to do songs that matched his scale of production but at the same time were not song parodies.”
That’s how “Cho Dependent,” to be released on Aug. 24, came to be.
That’s not to say her show at 8 p.m. Saturday at Hard Rock Live will be one big concert. Cho says her act is still primarily stand up, only now infused with lyrics she wrote, combined with melodies she elicited from a mélange of musician friends including Grant Lee Phillips, The Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson and Ani DiFranco.
“(The album) was about finding these great collaborations with people I really love,” she said.
Even with a striking diversity and production value to the 14 tracks on the album, the result is pure Cho.
“Cho Dependent” starts off with an “Intervention” and ends with a send-up of her vagina, pausing in-between to get high with Tommy Chong, lambaste her enemies and former lovers and sing a languid R&B ode to male genitalia.
The album succeeds along the lines of Yankovic’s and those of Cho’s other contemporaries — like Tenacious D and the Bloodhound Gang — with first-rate music combined with laugh lines worthy of a spit take via milk, beer or an internal organ.
Take, for example, the raucous near-country tune “Eat Sh— and Die” with Grant Lee Phillips, who co-founded the band Grant Lee Buffalo in the ’90s. It’s almost like Weird Al doing Jeff Tweedy, except there’s only one parody on “Cho Dependent.” She calls that song, “My Puss,” a “perfect cover” and the only officially sanctioned parody of Mickey Avalon’s “My D—ck.”
No matter how good the sound gets, Cho still considers what she’s doing to be in the medium of stand-up comedy. It’s just that she’s driven to evolve her skill set to the absolute brim.
“To me, it’s still about jokes,” she said. “There’s a long-standing tradition of guitar comics (and) I always had a great respect for that.”
Like any great artist, Cho uses her work as a catharsis for her fear, frustration and pain, and even when all three imbue one piece, the result can shed a hilarious light on an otherwise dismal darkness.
The song “I’m Sorry,” co-written with Andrew Bird, sums this up best, having gestated from a shocking revelation in Cho’s life.
A “country murder ballad” set to perky slide and electric guitar, the track was two decades in the making, the length of a particular love Cho had for a man who did not share her feelings. She avoided looking him up for fear she would discover his blissful happiness, but finally broke down and checked his Wikipedia page one day after turning 40.
“It said in 2007 he was convicted of the murder of his wife,” Cho said. “He had bludgeoned her to death and then stuffed her body in the attic and left it there for a month until it had partially mummified.”
That’s heady stuff to process, but it’s no surprise considering Cho’s catalog. Her entire career, she’s been an outspoken proponent of human rights — most notably women’s rights and those of gays and lesbians — and wields a sharp political commentary, all of which are sure to emerge during Saturday night’s show.
Cho said her material will also include the 800-pound sticky gorilla sitting on the Gulf Coast.
“I think it’s such an important thing to focus our attention on,” Cho said of the oil spill. “It’s horrific, and it’s not really talked about that much in the press, how terrible it really is.”
And yet, considering how much material the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is feeding comics around the world, Cho sees the inclusion of it in her act as therapeutic, as well. In fact, she said she plans on donating an as-yet-unknown portion of the proceeds from her tour to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
“Through laughter, there should be some way of coping with whatever’s going on,” she said.
“It is kind of an alchemy, when you can actually turn something that’s very tragic into something that is funny. It’s not making fun of it, but finding a way to find the light in it, which is I think what great comedians do, and what I try to do.”