What's the difference between the Paul Wellstone funeral and a performance by Margaret Cho, comedian?
In parts, the Wellstone funeral was funny.
And no, I don't say that because I'm a conservative and Cho is a... well, what? Calling her a communist implies that there is a coherent ideology in her routine -- that she has a plan, a vision that propels her rage. But Cho is the absolute final, exhausted point of liberalism, its cold, bitter dead end -- a resentful, repetitive death rattle. Cho is fueled by hatred of everything conservative. It's a mystery what she actually believes in. Oh yeah -- being gay isn't a choice, and George Bush and the pope are evil hypocrites. Aside from that, who knows?
I just endured the film Margaret Cho: Assassin, which captures her in full flower at a performance in Washington, D.C. I rented the video because funny is funny, even if it comes from liberals. George Carlin is desperately weak when he launches into a tirade about Republicans, but five minutes later can have me on the floor talking about dogs or gas-producing diets. In the 1970s Robert Klein (more on him later) did brilliant routines lampooning the establishment during Watergate. Even -- dare I say it -- nightmare Al Franken has the cadence of a comic, the ability to punch up a line and get a laugh. Moreover, these comedians tell stories, do imitations, even have acting chops: Richard Pryor's bit about the poor black dude named Mudbone was as brilliant as anything Robert De Niro has ever done.
Here's Margaret Cho's routine: say something nasty about a conservative. Wait for applause and "woo-woos" from partisan crowd. Make declarative statement about a liberal orthodoxy ("You don't choose to be gay"). Wait for more applause. Repeat. Imagine a less funny, more sour, double whiny Maureen Dowd, and you've got it.
Cho's jokes are all bile-soaked grenades, most too vicious to repeat. But even worse is her timing. The classic joke formation calls for a few beats between setup and joke. The late master Robin Harris was a genius at this: "My friend Tiny needs two tickets when he goes to the zoo" -- beat, beat, beat -- "one to get in, one to get out." With Cho it's like this: "Does the pope look like a transvestite or what?" Pause. Applause and woo-woos. Pause. Pause. Pause. Look around. Wait. Pause. "I mean, what's with that dress he wears?" Woo-woos, applause, etc.
CHO USES A sledgehammer where good comedy demands a screwdriver. Growing up in the 1970s my favorite comic was Robert Klein. Klein poked holes in the establishment, but came at them as someone who was reasonable -- indeed, his sharp sense of reason versus the absurd drove the routines. There was his take on 1950s civil defense paranoia: "They told us the air raid siren meant disaster, then had the foresight to blow the siren every day at twelve o'clock...I used to think, What if the Russians BOMBED at twelve o'clock? They're not stupid - [Russian accent] 'We bomb at twelve o'clock, Ivan. They don't know. They think it's lunch.'" Klein was -- is -- much more than a joke machine. His performance of an entire episode of Little Rascals is a brilliant combination of mimicry, one-liners, and social satire.
Klein, who has a new HBO special (his 8th) coming up, is no conservative, but he's a vanished breed: the common sense liberal. His recent memoir The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue proves this. While in his early 20s he dated a German woman, and describes one night in the late 1960s where his leftist pals were touting the glories of socialism in front of her. Klein was proud as she demurred: "I felt a certain pride as she charmed them and parried their ideology at the same time. It so happened that she lived in a country that was divided by electronic fences and machine guns. These middle-class City College Trotskyites seemed oblivious to the pragmatic side of the issue, the fact that this woman risked death to visit relatives in the eastern sector of her country."
The Amorous Busboy is aptly named, because the most common theme is Klein's conquests of women. Actually, conquests is not the right word. Klein is a romantic, in love with love and passionate about sex. Yet unlike Cho he never becomes vulgar or hateful, even when talking about his political enemies. Like all great comics he understands the inherent dignity and the noble aspirations of the human person -- which is in conflict with capricious fate, which is why someone slipping on a banana peel is still funny. Klein knows that anger mixed with a certain empathy and self-deprecation brings the funny, and simple rage does not. After Cho made a hateful, incredible vulgar sexual joke about Laura Bush, I recalled how wonderful Klein's routines about adolescent sexuality were. Klein himself was the brunt of most of the jokes ("I was so awkward and so stupid") and he never dehumanized his love interests. In fact, one of the most touching passages in his book reveals his appreciation of the girls in high school he knew and made out with (and nothing more):
Let me say that even though these events happened well before a more permissive, enlightened time, it was not some amorphous person I was attempting to fondle in the dark. It was Susan Gilbert and Susan Billitzer and Leona Fleigner and Flo Bierman, girls in my class, friends, whose gender did not make them automatic adversaries or depersonalized objects. They were wonderfully intelligent, positive, spirited girls with the highest self-esteem. The fact that they were mature for their age and in charge of themselves made my intimacy with them, such as it was, all the more exciting. The juxtaposition of a cool, public exterior and those primitive, private, intimate moments on top of the coats in the bedroom was very erotic. The girls, model citizens and first-rate brains, from good families, yet rubbing against me with a passion and loss of inhibition that they exhibited nowhere else in their lives -- this was one of the enigmas of sexuality, but I felt no need to figure it out.
KLEIN DOESN'T say it, but the implication is that in the "repressive" days before Margaret Cho and the sexual revolution, lust was a more complete package -- a woman's bearing, her pride and dignity, made her a full person, and thus more attractive. In elevating them, Klein does what Cho will not -- puts himself at a disadvantage. And that makes funny. Another of my favorite comedy albums is Richard Pryor's "Is it Something I Said?", which is a staggeringly rich performance of routines that more often than not make Pryor the fool (although he does go after preachers and politicians). He describes going to trial for a drug bust. The judge asks what he wants to do with his life. "I'll be working to help small children," Pryor replies. It gets a huge laugh. He's obviously guilty, and obviously trying to save his bacon. It gets a laugh because we've all been there -- not in front of a judge, but attempting to worm out of a mistake by making ourselves a saint. For Cho, there can be no such culpability or commonality of basic human weakness. The Right is evil, the Left is saintly, and that's all there is to it.
At the end of his book Klein encounters the enemy: an uptight elder Republican lady. Klein has just been bumped by the Tonight Show before his first appearance. He and the woman have a bitter political argument, and the abuse continues as things take a romantic turn. Klein does not hector the reader about the evils of this right-wing harlot; he knows it's much funnier to admit his own foibles. It's also one of the few times he uses foul language, which he refers to as "a garnish" to be used sparingly by comics. "That's how my show business career began," he writes, "[screwed] twice in the same day." The same experience for Cho would have been quite different. "Are Republican ladies evil or what?" Pause...pause...pause....
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