The theater of the body that Cho's live show campily stages also ghosts the abstract public sphere and its modes of ratiocination and political rectitude. For Cho, the abstract public sphere is best staged or apprehended not in the courtroom, nor in the halls of government, nor in the refinement of (both political and artistic) representation, but on the snowy white mountaintop of a ski slope, where a certain positioning of the body is itself abjected:
I was skiing in Deer Valley and there's no people of color up there, and I'm up there, skiing, trying to fit in like an asshole, and I have an instructor and he goes [lowers her voice an octave] "Heyyy, don't take this the wrong way, but you have a tendency to booowww [her mouth opens hugely, her lips contorting over the word] into your skis."
Notably, Cho does not bow in this routine. Aside from one exception, she delivers this anecdote verbally not bodily, even as this vocal reference to the bow conjures up the many bodily postures she has inhabited throughout the performance. Here, the bow is both glaringly absent and present. But what's the nature of the "something racial," here?
For a brief moment on that mountain top, the Asian American performer appears to be enjoying the liberal promise of an abstract body (even though in the retrospective telling of the story, the absence of people of color in Deer Valley is upfront, hence, there is never really an abstract body for Cho on the hill). The bit seems to be offered as a critique of the way in which the recognition of race prevents Cho's entitlement to an unconscious and shared investment in whiteness. However, it is important to note that the ski instructor doesn't merely mark Cho by telling her that she bows, but marks the white space of the mountain top as segregated, as a space sealed off from minorities' - but not white persons' - discourse on race (the raising of/seeing of race, the practice of using race as informal or formal selection). Only Cho's pedgagogy of the oppressed, her sensitization to historical relations of racial uneveness, is not allowed, or is framed as the noise in this communicative exchange between the white instructor and colored (exchange) student. In order to ski down and among snowy white surfaces, then, Cho will have to partition this knowledge - this racial education/testimony (diva citizenship) - off; she will have to laugh/smile more universally.
Still dramatizing the scene on the mountain top, Cho switches to an unhumorous face, brow furrowed, face pulled in close to the chin, lips pressed together firmly - holds this face, reminiscent of the one she mugs while impersonating her mother, and says, "Fuck you." Loud applause and whistles come from the audience. The tag line is delivered, "And then I fell," as Cho lifts one leg and arm up, gesturing her fall backward onto the powder.
Prone (flat on her back, rather than a bent/bowed forward) on that snowy white hill is where Cho leaves her body in this routine. This is the same position of Cho's body in the hospital with Gwen hovering to "waaarsh" her vagina. In the contest of funny, Cho wins not by bowing more deeply, but by talking back in ire, and risking that subsequent ignoble position of specular (di)splay. This act of heroic pedagogy enacted by Cho operates through the juxtaposition of moral outrage (racial justice), and slippage into camp, with Cho showing us not that only angry, testimonial pedgagogy deserves our wonder but that in the camp of funny (in an anger that falls, but reveals historical and political knowledge in that splayed pratfall) there are many lessons to mine.[Return to text]
1. See Mintz, Bushman, Watkins, and Stebbins. Another antecedent, suggested by one critic, are the prologues to the Greek dramas, which though not traditionally in the mode of jest, anticipate the standup comedian's role as an entertainer who "speaks to and for the common people" (Stebbins 6). [Return to text]
2. Phil Berger describes the comedy chain's emergence in a restaurant in suburban New Jersey, after a promoter, Jerry Stanley, approached the restaurant's owner with the idea of booking a comedian in the restaurant's entertainment room (Stebbins 12). These "restaurants that had separate rooms for entertainment" evolved into the comedy rooms that flourished in the 1980s; "In 1980 there were ten such places in the United States. By 1987, they numbered somewhere between 250 and 300" (qtd. in Stebbins, 13). Betsy Borns gives an alternative account of "the road's" origins: "until about 1978, the road, as we know it today, didn't exist. In that year, a comic named Ron Richards began booking comedians from Manhattan's showcase clubs into several Ground Round restaurants in New Jersey. Six months later, he helped out an ex-comedian friend, Jerry Stanley, to set up similar shows in other New Jersey restaurants. By 1979, Ron Richards was out of the business, and Jerry Stanley was getting very rich very fast" (Borns 57). [Return to text]
3. Robert Stebbins discounts the explanation of tension release as not rigorous enough for "life has been as tense, if not more so, at other periods in recent history" (16), and concludes that "comedy as affordable entertainment is a more plausible explanation," arguing that comedy clubs "filled the gap left by a decline in public taste for discotheques and rock bars" (16). Less concerned with the social history of contemporary standup comedy, Lawrence Mintz frames "modern American standup" as providing some of our "most vauable" social and cultural analysis (77). Following Stephanie Koziski, Mintz nominates the standup comedian as "contemporary anthropologist" (75). See also Kozinski. [Return to text]
4. While predominantly blurring the line between anthropologist and standup comedian, Kozinski does underscore this remaining distinction, "the anthropologist is - by training - a sympathetic outsider, while the comedian is, in most cases - by temperament - a cynical insider. [Most anthropologists] hold hope for the possibilities available to human society, in contrast to standup comedians who are informed by anger and despair at the inherent weak, stupid and evil tendencies in human nature. The comedian's pessimism goads him or her into looking for society's flaws and broadcasting those revelations through a special kind of enacted social drama to a select public" (63). Though somewhat overstated, Koziski's comments have suggestive implications both for thinking Western anthropologies of other (usually dubbed more "primitive") cultures as nostalgic interventions into the "First World's" public sphere and for theorizing the comic as an ethnotainer or self-ethnographer whose "pessimism" might be directed not just toward the society in which the comedian walks but toward the limits and possibilities of delivery such a message in a rational, rather than serio-comic, manner; that is, the comedian eschews naïve faith in non-duplicitous modes of both signification and knowledge acquisition (itself a ploy for power in the comic's view). The political or social critique the comic delivers grapples in both form and content with that pessimism toward an innocent knowledge. [Return to text]
5. My argument, to be sure, is not that stand-up performance takes the place of the rational public sphere but rather that in addition to psychological and economic explanations for its popularity, we might also consider political explanations as well. In his introduction to The Phantom Public Sphere, Bruce Robbins notes the dominant story told in various writings from the 1960s onwards that the public is in decline: "Publicness, we are told again and again and again, is a quality that we once had but have now lost, and that we must somehow retrieve" (viii). The contributors to Robbins' volume contest the simplistic terms in which the public (state administration) has been opposed to the private (market forces), noting that in the "'republican virtue' model . . . the public means community and citizenship, as distinct both from state sovereignty on the one side and from the economy on the other" (xiii). Elaborating on how "the lines between public and private are perpetually shifting" (xv), the contributors to Robbins' volume "try . . . to detect and evaluate publicness that is already there in diverse forms, not a single norm or hypothesis set against contemporary people, places, and instutions but a multitudinous presence among the conditions of postmodern life" (xii, emphasis added). In the same spirit, I turn to the comedy stage as an alternate public sphere already there. [Return to text]
6. The child sequestered in the attic or cellar is a tried and true convention of foundling fiction, where typically the orphan, who often doesn't know he's an orphan, eventually discovers that the cruel guardians looking after him are not his parents afterall. The usual trajectory of this fiction moves from the rejection of the false, unloving caretaker(s) - false because overrun by "aberrant forms of desire" (Armstrong, 184) whether excessive appetite, greed, prejudice, or political aspiration - to the restoration or adoption of a new family coincident with the recovery of a well-ordered household (c.f. Dickens' Oliver Twist). Cho alludes to this restoration narrative even as she takes it in a different direction, especially in her stand-up performance. [Return to text]
7. For Chaudhuri, home encompasses the sensibilities and discourses of both belonging and exile: "The spatiality of modern drama involves a complex figuration of its favorite setting, the domestic interior. The idea of home . . . can be imagined as a semantic spectrum whose two poles are occupied by the tropes of belonging and exile. . . . In whatever quests, revolts, contest, and ambitions the heroes of this drama get involved, they invariably encounter and engage the issue of home, that is, of belonging and exile" (27). [Return to text]
8. In a more extended version of this paper, I elaborate on the airplane as both a public, rationalized as well as a private, domestic space, one that immediately historicizes the narrator's subjection formation. [Return to text]
9. With regard to this leakiness, the written memoir offers an account of a childhood incident that results in Cho's being taunted as the "Pee Girl" (13). The astonishing part of this story is that the young Margaret feels simply a lack of horror at wetting her pants. She is not bothered by this leakage, though terribly bothered by her classmates' reaction: they shun her (in an act of urinary segregation). [Return to text]
Armstrong, Nancy. 1987. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. NY: Oxford UP.
Borns, Betsy. 1987. Comic Lives: Inside the World of American Standup Comedy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Bushman, David. 1996. Standup Comedians on Television. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers.
Cho, Margaret. 2000. Margaret Cho, Filmed Live in Concert: I'm the One that I Want. Prod. by Lorene Machado. Cho Taussig Productions. NY: Winstar TV & Video, 2001.
---. 2001a. I'm the One that I Want. NY: Ballantine Books.
---. 2001b. "Notorious C.H.O." Live performance at the Universal Ampitheater, September 13.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. NY: Vintage.
Koziski, Stephanie. 1984. "The Standup Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional Culture Critic." Journal of Popular Culture 18.2 (Fall): 57-75.
Limon, John. 2000. Standup Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC : Duke UP.
Mintz, Lawrence E. 1985. "Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation." American Quarterly 37.1 (Spring): 71-80.
Stebbins, Robert. 1990. The Laugh-Makers: Standup Comedy as Art, Business, and Life-Style. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP.
Turner, Victor. 1982. From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. N.p.: PAJ (Performing Arts Journal) Publications.
Watkins, Mel. 1994. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying - The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor. NY: Simon and Schuster.