The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women
www.barnard.edu/sfonline


Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

'Where's My Parade?': On Asian American Diva-Nation
by Rachel C. Lee

[Note: This essay is excerpted from a longer article, which will appear in TDR in 2004.]

I almost married this Irish-American guy. . .
I even went down to meet his family, and they lived in Sarasota, Florida. . . .
Like I love his family but they were kinda too nice to me. So the whole time I felt really like "Oh, this is my host family [starts bowing]. I come from Asia [bows from the waist three times, slowly.] America is numbah one [bows again]. Sank you mistah Eddy's faddah." [bows and stays low]

If one had to pantomime Oriental deference on the Western stage, one would be hard pressed to find a gesture better suited to this work than the bow. A pose so iconically Asian, the bow appears only to enhance the yellowface persona that the comedienne, Margaret Cho, throws on with her other accessories - the affected accent, the mincing steps, and the reference to a "host family" - all to suggest that the domestic civility of her prospective in-laws - their being overly "nice" - casts her own relationship to them in a global light, one of international exchange following a particular model, that of white-ethnic families' sponsoring Asian foreign students.

As Cho deploys it, the bow - a civil gesture - hides an aggression, or more accurately, it makes apparent an aggression, an uneven relation of racialized power between whites and yellows, between races defined by distinct interpellation in relations of production (labor) and exchange (capitalist consumption). Prior to her actual visit to Sarasota, Cho anticipates another kind of social interaction more transparently revelatory of the racial disjunctures and spatial segregation operating historically between people of color and whites in the United States: "I asked [my boyfriend], 'Are there gonna be any Asian people there [in Sarasota]?' And he was like, 'No.' And I said, 'Okay. . . . Could you just drop me off at the dry cleaner then? [beat] Cause I don't want to be the only one.'" Through such historical references, Cho pokes fun at those who would view the bow as merely an Oriental flourish. To see Cho's mimicry of Asian obedience as the mere staging of quaint international differences - bowing versus hand-shaking - rather than historical racial relations is to adopt a view that the artist would surely call "too nice," made possible only through the repression of historical memory, and a deliberate ignorance of prior performative references.

As Cho bends and holds her upper half parallel to the floor, one cannot but help see in this body position a citation to an earlier bit on the Chippendale dancers:

The Chippendale dancers are gay. [beat] They're gay. You know why? Because there is no such thing as a straight man with a visible abdominal muscle. Doesn't exist. You need to suck cock [Cho bends slowly over] to get that kind of muscle definition.

Cho speaks these last lines to the floor. Her body is engaged in a prostration, in a (homo)erotics, in a social ritual of bowing, and in a geopolitically inflected movement, all at once. The repositioning of the body, or parts of the body repositioning themselves, occurs in both a visual register (the spectacle of the bow) and in a verbal register (the reference to traveling to Sarasota signifies a repositioning of the body, as does the reference to raised abdominals). I will be taking this repositioning of the body as a starting point to inquire into how the Asian American performer, Margaret Cho, intervenes in public space through the stand-up comedy concert and how her theatrical and literary seizing of public space interarticulates with the condition of already possessing a publicized body. Through the sensate body and its leakiness - its inadequate partitioning according to geopolitical, gendered, or domestic(ating) principles of space - Cho both stages her own ambiguous body and comments on the political compulsion to disavow the erotics and slippage of the body in order to speak publicly, rationally, and abstractly. In essence, Cho returns this fully sensate body to the audience, rendering political knowledge through affect, critiquing the boundaries that set apart historical knowledge from bodily pleasure, and mocking not just the alienation of racially and sexually marked bodies from the proper (civilized) representational field, but also of the mechanism of this alienation itself.

In my examination of Cho's comedy act and her memoir, both entitled I'm the One that I Want, I take up the literal site of performance (the bare stage) as a space of assemblages, as a platform for revealing the body's leakage - its infirm boundaries and borders as well as its embeddedness in histories of migration. I use migration, here, to refer both to expulsions across national borders (for instance, Cho's father is deported from America just three days after his wife gives birth) as well as to the more mundane vagrancy of stand-up performers who, with the rise of comedy chains in the 1980s, travel the national circuit as "road warriors" (Borns, Stebbins). Relief from the life on the road prompts Cho to develop a situation comedy for television broadcast, a comedy not only sporting the ubiquitous living room interior (carry-over from naturalist theater) but also incapable, ultimately, of simulating a homespace for "alien" Asians within the white world of television. My argument, however, is not that Cho is unable to find a home through Hollywood development but that home, itself, has become unsettled, revealed as a spatial arrangement whose ideality rests on imprisonment.

Theorizing Standup Comedy

Contemporary standup comedy has various chronotopic antecedents, for instance, in the tradition of "fools, jesters, clowns and comics, which can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages," to that of popular minstrel theater in nineteenth-century America, to that of the transatlantic lecture circuit supported by humorists such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.
[1] In the early twentieth century, standup comedy was the backbone of vaudeville, burlesque, and variety theater; and, in the post-war period, nightclubs, resorts, coffeehouses, as well as contemporary comedy clubs all emerged as venues for the stand-alone comic, the sketch ensemble, and the two-person comedy team. Those who try to account for the particular type of popularity standup comedy has enjoyed since the mid-1960s (characterized, for instance, by the emergence of the comedy club[2], and by the influence of comics in four televisional genres: the comedy/variety show, the situation comedy, the talk show, and game show) often turn to psychological and economic explanations, noting that comedy functions as an entertaining form of tension release, at an affordable cost.[3] However, a political explanation for the popularity of comedy clubs might be offered as well. The erosion of faith in a "rational" public sphere gives rise to an alternative public forum where observations on the politics not just of government but of everyday life can be aired via entertainment.

Elaborating on the standup comic as contemporary anthropologist, Stephanie Koziski credits these entertainers with making "visible to an audience tacit areas of unacknowledged human attitudes and behaviors, residing in private unofficial realms" (59).[4] Stand-up comics make political knowledge evident in everyday life amusing to ponder, and also render political aggression - expressions of desire for power - both palpable and palatable. There is always the risk, of course, that an audience will refuse to engage the comic's aggression disguised as humor. The most notable manifestation of this refusal is dead silence - an indication that the audience has not been moved. Comics typically respond to such lack of engagement by making a joke of the audience's refusal to laugh (basically, a pity joke where the comic cajoles the audience into laughing at their lack of laughter). However, the point to be registered, here, is not that the affectual public sphere ceases to exist if the comedien(ne) fails to engage the audience - they don't laugh, or laugh at parts not intended to be funny - but that an alternative forum of collective political knowledge emerges through this medium of pathos and sensation (the body shaking with laughter) that challenges classical notions of propriety and dignity, as well as (modern notions of) rationality as preconditions for a proper (communicative) public sphere. This channeling of the public sphere through entertainment suggests a notion of public dialogue being more forceful (effectual) when it is affectual as well. In other words, it's not that the notion of a rational public sphere ceases to exist, but that the tenability of this rational public sphere - resting on a notion of abstract citizenship, or requiring abstraction as precondition of voice - has been called into question.[5] Moreover, just as the "rational" public sphere does not cease to exist because there are those who cannot participate in it (e.g., the mentally infirm), the affectual public sphere, similarly, does not evaporate because there are those who refuse to be shaken. However, more and more, the rational public sphere is revealed as a phantasm; standup comedy as both commentator on and alternative to that rational public sphere underscores the phantasmatic qualities of the rational public sphere itself.

In his theory of standup comedy, John Limon casts a more formalist light on how this popular entertainment functions: "What is stood up in stand-up comedy is abjection. Stand-up makes vertical (or ventral) what should be horizontal (or dorsal)" (4). His thesis turns on a double meaning of abjection, as well as a double meaning of "standup":

By abjection . . . I mean [first] . . . what everybody means: abasement, groveling prostration. Second, I mean by it what Julia Kristeva means: a psychic worrying of those aspects of oneself that one cannot be rid of, that seem, but are not quite, alienable for example, blood, urine, feces, nails, and the corpse. The 'abject,' in Kristeva's term of art, indicates what cannot be subject or object to you. . . .

To 'stand-up' abjection is simultaneously to erect it and miss one's date with it: comedy is a way of avowing and disavowing abjection, as fetishism is a way of avowing and disavowing castration. Fetishism is a way of standing up the inevitability of loss; stand-up is a way of standing up the inevitability of return. (4-5)

To clarify the geometry that Limon offers, standup comedy both makes erect what is abased and, by doing so, staves off a kind of boundary- or category- crisis between subject and object, embodied in the liminal category of the "abject" that threatens always to return, to undo the alienation one intends for it. The erection of the abased is, in a sense, a spatial tactic of verticality that allows one (through its geometric distractions) to miss one's (temporal) date with blood, urine, feces, nails, and the corpse, precisely the elements much of standup performance employs to comic effect. I would note that vertical axis is often overlooked in spatial analysis. This vertical movement is, in fact, not only how standup operates but a principal of architecture that Cho maps as the bourgeois home.

The Parlor, the Airplane, and the Prison

In her memoir, Cho portrays the writer of her short-lived television show, All-American Girl, as a "really nice . . . man" who nevertheless fails to transform her stand-up routine into an amusing, family sitcom:

Gary . . . cranked out a pilot from five minutes of my standup, a sunny expose on what it was like to grow up a rebellious daughter in a conservative Korean household. I spared him the real story. The truth was that I lived in my parents' basement when I was twenty because my father couldn't stand the sight of me, and therefore banned me from the rest of the house. . . . I was unemployed and trying to kick a sick crystal meth habit by smoking huge bags of paraquat-laced marijuana and watching Nick at Night for six hours at a time. Now that's a sitcom. (105)

Though it is unclear whether the Chos' house in San Francisco is a Victorian by builder's design, certainly its segregation of spaces establishes its resemblance to the Victorian household publicized in fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, a "partitioned and hierarchical space," whose governing principle of division is designed to contain aberrant desires in prison-like spaces - e.g., the basement (Armstrong 185).[6] The efficiency of the well-ordered household turns gothic, with the parlor in fact requiring the prison.

Interestingly, these vertical levels of the Victorian household do not appear as the earliest memories the comedienne holds toward something called "home." In the opening pages of her memoir, Cho offers a portrait of exile, that while seemingly the antithesis of home, actually constitutes one of the poles of home as Una Chaudhuri construes it.[7]

My parents had a talent for leaving me places when I was very young. This had to do with immigration difficulties. . . . My father didn't know how to break it to my mother that he was to be deported three days after I was born, so he conveniently avoided the subject. . . .

In my parents' colorfully woven mythology, that was the one corner of the tapestry they carefully concealed. Knowing I probably wouldn't remember, they kept it to themselves. But I did remember, perhaps not actual events but colors and shapes and feelings. The insides of planes, the smell of fuel, unfamiliar arms, crying and crying. (2)

One doesn't normally construe the airplane as a home space. Cho, nevertheless, brings our attention to her primary attachments formed through this confusing space, experienced as a series of sensations, "the insides of planes, the smell of fuel, unfamiliar arms, crying and crying" (2). These objects outside of mother and father, as well as spaces outside of both the parlor and the cellar, populate the landscape of home - defined now as vehicle of transit.[8]

Cold War politics as much as the intervention of the Law of the Father, then, leads to the young Margaret's sense of maternal theft. If the Cold War hysteria to protect the nation's boundaries (and ideological integrity) is at least partly responsible for the sense of fragility the young Margaret feels in her relation to her primal (erotic) attachments, it also leads to a kind of promiscuous, excessive, and indiscriminate attachment: "in the spirit of my birthplace, I learned that if I couldn't be with the one I loved, I would love the one I was with. I was one [year old], and already somewhat of a slut. I loved lots of stewardesses, and lots of old people" (2). In short, this airplane space - that space which carries one across borders and territories - forms a shadow home to that other site of the Victorian household, each radically distinct with respect to their partitions and segregated spaces.

In the live performance, Cho expressly refers to the vertical space of the household in order to mock her own family's distance from the ideal subjects of the situation comedy. The episode occurs in both the text and in the live performance. In comparison, the written memory of "jet fuel," "crying and crying," and "lov[ing] the one I was with" does not appear in the stage-act. Arguably, however, the lack of a literal transcription of these latter events in the live concert underestimates the gestural and affective translation of them. The promiscuous attachments of the sort spurred on by the deportation episode color the rest of the stand-up act and are amply staged in gesture and movement. Cho doesn't verbally refer to the material on her being sent to Korea at the age of one; and yet, the staging of her "slutty" desires, her proliferating erotic objects, might be construed as the trace of historical memory. The comedienne, therefore, imports her ambulatory sensibility to the stage in an indirect fashion, in order to negotiate between the medium of denotative language and that of bodily pantomime.

Cho uses the stage, the theatrical space, to hold forth on her own monstrous body, a body whose leakiness[9] (inadequate partitioning) is made monstrous by bourgeois codes of respectability and segregation (that view combination as a horror) and relegate such a body to the basement. What this re-segregation of the body tries to do is quite literal: it sends the abased body downward, lowering it. But while the household spatially forges those subjects and body parts nominated as abased or abjected, standup reverses the spatial relation. "Stand-up makes vertical (or ventral) what should be horizontal (or dorsal)" (Limon 4) or, to use the metaphors provided by Cho's text, the basement takes up the space of the aerial, the airplane.

Staging Another Stage

"I'm the One that I Want," the live concert at the Warfield Theater, begins with Margaret Cho running out onto the stage to thunderous applause, sustained through her waving at the crowd, taking a deep bow, and thanking San Francisco for such a profuse welcome. She shouts, "It's so good to be home!" Cho, no doubt, refers to San Francisco, but one might also take the stage, itself, to be her "home." Tellingly, that stage is bare, but for a stool and water. The puns here are deliberate, for no convention mandates the reading of the stage scenery realistically; one can interpret them symbolically and punningly, a kind of set joke. Stool and water, then, are framed by deep red, velvet curtains in the background, and another, more down-stage set of gold mesh-like curtains tied back as lavish window-dressing for the performance space, a performance space that has been set with objects collectively signaling the abject. During the act, Cho never sits on the stool; she uses it as a small table for her water. The only other prop in the act - if it can be called that - is the wireless microphone that Cho wields as she bounces and struts across the stage.

After bowing and thanking the audience for coming, Cho begins her act by talking about another performance on her tour, a benefit for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), where fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, is being protested for including fur in his last show:

I love Karl Lagerfeld and they hate him. . . . They protested his last show. People were chanting, "Karl Lagerfeld is a murderer! Karl Lagerfeld is a murderer!" And I thought, wouldn't it be fabulous if Karl Lagerfeld actually was a murderer? Like what if he just fucking lost it one day, backstage at his show in Milan, and bludgeoned Elsa Klensch to death with a platform shoe. "I hate that blouse!" He would have to go to jail, and they would make him wear the orange jumpsuit. I would call Amnesty International myself if that happened.

The performance, in short, begins with the staging of another stage, more specifically the street spectacle outside the couture show. The PETA organizers' outrage at the fashion designer's encouraging slaughter for fashion becomes a true "crime of fashion" (that orange jumpsuit!) - in essence, turning outrage into camp. Here, and throughout her written memoir, Cho tells stories about the spillage of theater into spaces outside of itself, taking place in rituals of antagonism (Turner) and even in disciplinary spaces through which the knowledge-power nexus of the state exercises its capillary power (Foucault).

For instance, as the routine progresses, Cho imagines, via the fashionista's presence in jail, the prison itself as theater space.

[The jailers] would take away his fan. He would be on the pay phone to André Leon Talley, "André, could you send me a fan? Could you bake it in a cake? Or stick it up your ass or zomething? I need a fan, right away." He has to make one out of spoons. [Cho purses her lips and fans herself frenetically]

The comedic force, here, emerges from staging the absurd incongruities between the limitations of prison life and the extravagances of the fashion world (having to design a fan out of spoons!). Outright, she performs, in absurd fashion, the consequences of Karl Lagerfeld's criminalization by PETA - he might end up in jail, due to using beaver-skin trim in his next line. But implied, as well, is another unspoken, but historically more likely, criminalization of the designer, not due to his use of fur, but because - as Cho states unapologetically - "Karl Lagerfeld is such a faggot." By putting Karl Lagerfeld ludicrously in jail (in the basement/prison), Cho dramatizes what happens legally through anti-sodomy laws. She makes the law ludicrous for its criminalizing of a minority identity, that of the homosexual. Moreover, her "faggot" in jail foreshadows her own imprisonment in the family's basement, with Cho making explicit the cross-identifications between herself and the profanity, "fag." She mimics him, "I am fanning the flames of my faggotry," but then qualifies her terminology, "I love the word faggot, because it describes my kind of guy. I [beat] am a fag hag. Fag hags [beat] are the backbone of the gay community." Her prison schtick establishes another claim of interdependence: fag and fag hags are the backbone of the straight community. Their abasement, the punishment and sequestering of these subjectivities, elevates heternormativity to the parlor.

Cho's talent is to theatricalize or see the performative and spectatorial exchanges in everyday life, but especially in mass settings of consumption and leisure (e.g., the Haagen-Daaz ice cream parlor where two of her drag-queen friends stage guerilla theater, and Korean Methodist Youth Camp where a psychological and physical wrestling match between Margaret and the rest of the campers ensues). In her book as well as in her subsequent live concert, "The Notorious C.H.O," the comedienne tells of actual theater spaces - theaters of cruelty (e.g., an S & M performance in New York) where actors surround the audience, making them the live bait of their sadistic acts (77-80). As these experiments in environmental theater become more life-like (defying the set boundaries between performers and spectators, occupying quotidian settings), so does life resemble theater, or perhaps the stage of the stand-up performance becomes a way to redirect the everyday theaters of cruelty (e.g., Youth Camp) and to retard collision with their degrading force, by simultaneously erecting and missing them.

Cho performs this simulatenous erecting and missing of degradation in her own rumination over her sexual identity and, more significantly, the leakiness of the categories gay and straight. Cho stages her own liminal position between sexual identity categories: "Am I gay? Am I straight? I'm just slutty. [beat] Where's my parade?" These lines query not only how we might make the space of Asian American queer citizenship, but in what registers and styles - through what performative rituals, carnivalesque spectacles, and collective walks through town - will the full citizenship of a "Korean American, fag hag, shit starter, girl comic, trash talker" be entertained?

Cho's book and performance, in short, point us not to a telos to her temporal narrative (the sex act/social act [lesbian intercourse or the wedding] that will decide her identity once and for all) but to spaces of social process that reveal identificatory categories of the body as leaky. She directs our attention to the gay life of Polk Street (in San Francisco) that doubles as a site for staging guerilla theater; the performative space of drag queen wrestling contests and the (similarly agonistic) space of Korean (Christian youth) "camp;" the travelogue of seedy hotels marking the entertainer's touring schedule, and the taxidermic (ethnographic, exotic and decidedly, non-contemporary) set of Hollywood's first Asian American family sit-com; and finally, the spaces of bodily excess and breakdown: the hospital, the gym, the wet bed, the death bed - all sites Cho recalls in her comedy act. Through these various spaces, Cho constructs bodily excess as a kind of spatial allegory for the contact zones between First World and Third World, between normative versus abject citizenship and sexuality, and between the modern subject of history (whom Cho constructs as both boring and salvific) and a primitive, promiscuous yet also rejected savage who wavers between being locked in an uncivilized past and being the best survivor in a postmodern jungle of guerilla performances. In other words, Cho is not showing the primitive as the subject and space who must give way to the future (i.e., the postmodern, urbane subject who can make it in America); rather, the force of her art emerges from this confusion of times and spaces, and ultimately the throwing into question of both the U.S.'s mythic separateness from primitive time and space, and of the nation as an adequate containment of such diva-spaces - of high drama and excess, and of the abject stood up.

Conclusion

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]

Endnotes

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]

Works Cited

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.

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