Reading the liner notes on the Margaret Cho "Assassin" DVD, I was prepared for a Michael Moore-style attack on the Bush administration—a witty, clever, research-based, and, yes, laugh-out-loud funny assault on the greatest divider this nation has seen since Abraham Lincoln. Though left-leaning, rational people think that almost everything George W. Bush does is already a joke, I was curious to watch her version of what I suspected would be a late-night comic's carving up of W.—a target so easy that he's hard to miss. Like Bart Simpson's "I didn't do it," Bush's straight-faced denials are already the stuff of great comedy, so that a writer doesn't have to do much of anything to the material. I mean, a recent news story has him and his cohorts responding to the latest report of secret CIA torture chambers by chiding a certain Mid-East government for using torture and saying "We do not torture anybody." Which, of course, leaves anyone who saw photos or read the report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal holding their sides. Who needs David Letterman with material like this?
I hadn't seen Cho perform before, but imagine my surprise when I saw, instead, a slender female stand-up version of the rotund and pompous Rush Limbaugh—a man whose rants show zero evidence of his having any knowledge of a topic, and who seems incapable of speaking without spouting venomous personal attacks. To Limbaugh, and others like him, name-calling and overgeneralizations constitute an argument. Well, they don't. Nor do they constitute a comedy routine.
Cho's humor—at least in this stand-up routine—isn't terribly penetrating or insightful. To make jokes about Condi Rice's dominatrix outfit? It's already been done, and by anybody and everybody who saw her splashed in the news in that all-black outfit with spiked heels. You didn't even have to be a comic to make that comparison. And United Nations' critic John Bolton's appointment to the U.N.? "It's like sending Eminem to f__ing marshall the Gay Pride Parade," Cho says. That's one of her funnier lines, and it's also, unfortunately, another obvious one. As she rants against red-state voters, invective often overpowers the humor, to where she's saying the red-blue map is convenient because now we know where "all the stupid people" are. When she goes off on Christians, the humor all but disappears: "They have no right to call themselves Christians," she says, then proceeds to talk about the "Bible-thumping, cousin-humping, monster truck enthusiasts" who put Bush in office. I have a problem with fundamentalist Christians, but their antics in the political arena are certainly worthy of better jokes than this.
Maybe it's just me, but I also didn't see the humor in Cho's attacks against Laura and Barbara Bush, either. To say things like "I know Laura Bush is pretty, but you know her pussy tastes like Lysol" just isn't funny because it's not based in reality. For a joke to work, an audience has to recognize a germ of reality in the gag. But what's the point of the joke? And why follow up with an even worse remark about the Silver Fox's being "straight-up mothballs"? Even worse were her jokes about Reagan's death, which she said, by her description, was an in-your-face event for blue-staters: "They dragged Reagan everywhere—it was Weekend at Bernie's." Nothing about Reagan's trickle-down economics, Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, or his rep as "The Great Communicator," and no comparisons between W. and Reagan, a man he said he idolized. No, that would have required a little research.
Cho, who has a huge fan base among gays and lesbians, also includes a number of lines that you can only "get" if you're a member of that community. I have a brother who's gay, but it wasn't enough to clue me in on any of the inside jokes. And after watching this 85-minute performance with its testimonial intro of fans talking about her as they flock to her show in Washington, D.C. (where this was filmed live), almost all of them seemed to come from the alternative lifestyle community.
As far as Cho's delivery goes, maybe this is another inside joke, but I found myself wondering why she has an odd habit of launching into the voice of a black woman and talking about "mens"—as if she were suddenly possessed by Oprah-as-Sofia from "The Color Purple." And the puffy faces she constantly makes? What the Fugu is that all about? Her energy level seems low, and her timing seems off, especially when she draws out a funny face and waits for an audience reaction following a not-particularly-funny joke. It's like fishing for compliments, and it's not a flattering thing to watch.
Even when she got off politics and got on gay issues, she stretched out lines with polite laughter by relying on quasi-comic gestures to solicit laughs. But that darned Oprah voice keeps intruding, even when she wants to make a point about gay marriages: "Let's make ALL the wedding planners go on strike. (Oprah kicks in) If Ah can't get married, YOU can't get married. Go ahead. Try and do your own make-up."
Maybe I would have had a different response to Cho had I seen more of her material, but I doubt it. I recently saw writer and stand-up comic Sherman Alexie, and his routine was just as political, just as filled with the "F" word and raw material, but with considerably more depth and laugh-out-loud humor. This routine of Cho's was shallow as a saucer, and just as catty. If it's helpful to an audience to know where a reviewer is coming from, it ought to speak volumes that someone who thinks George Bush is the worst president of the last half-century (even beating out the ineffectual Gerald Ford and the clueless Jimmy Carter) couldn't find enough in Cho's routine to make him laugh.
Video: "Assassin" is presented in 16x9 "enhanced" widescreen, and the quality is decent—especially given the challenge of stage lighting. Cho is presented against a darkened background, and while there's slight graininess to the dark areas, the brightly lit areas of focus are so sharp that you can see the paramecium all over Cho's belt.
Audio: The sound (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround) is also quite good, though with all talking you get the surround effects mostly from the audience's response.
Extras: A curious collection of extras includes "The Making of an Assassin: Inside the Mind of Margaret Cho," a belly dancing segment, an animated rap video by MCMC, a photo gallery, two short films ("Ode to Margaret Cho" and "Invisible Son"), and the opening act for the show, Bruce Daniels. The latter is particularly great to see, because too often those up-and-coming comics have to jump for the ladder when those who've reached the top seem to try to pull it up with them. Daniels is a Chicago-born, gay African American who, like Cho, takes aim at Bush and Republicans. But he also mixes it up a bit more, and, frankly, his material seems sharper. "Gay Republicans makes as much sense to me as Jewish Nazis," he says. And on Condi Rice, another shared topic, he also comes up with something more original than Cho: "It's like Roots, and Condi Rice works in the Big House and wants nothin' to do with us field hands. She's just a house nigger with a really good 401-K plan." Likewise, in the area of personal relationships, where Cho is simply crass and unfunny, Daniels tells how the favorite brush-off line of the people he wants to date goes something like this: "You're good looking and nice and you've got a great body, but I just can't bring you home to meet my parents," to which he responds, "I don't want to meet your family. I just want you to suck my ____. Do they have to be there for that?"
The belly-dancing segment shows Cho with her tattooed teacher in a self-serving bit that just explains how dance is important to her and, like her routine, stays right on the surface. Cho says, "It's really not a dance for men at all, as far as I can tell," but doesn't explain what leads her to believe this. And her guru says that the origins aren't certain, but never speculates in any detail. Of the two films, the "Invisible Son" short is the best. It's a very good production about coming out of the closet, with some interesting angles and handling of testimonies. The other looked to be a fan-produced short that hit the jackpot of DVD infamy. The making-of feature is average, the photo gallery isn't anything special, but the animated rap video by MCMC is entertaining. Trouble is, there's no explanation for those of us who have no idea what's going on, or why Cho is depicted as an emergency room nurse in a peace-rap that has a gang-banger with a 49¢ tattoo and another with a Playa tattoo who'd tried to knock each other off. So is Cho a rapper as well as belly dancer and Bush-basher? There's no way of knowing, unless you already know.
Bottom Line: Cho fans are going to like this DVD, and red-state voters are going to hate it. But if you separate loyalty and politics and just consider the humor and the comedian's technique, "Assassin" isn't the killer it pretends to be.