After a politically tumultuous couple of days, many Madison fans of the comedian Margaret Cho probably were seeking catharsis from her Thursday night performance at the Orpheum Theatre. She delivered, starting with the midterm-election recap that was her opening line: "The Democrats won!" This provoked cheers as loud as the jeers that later came when she acknowledged the passing, in Wisconsin, of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Indeed, the crowd was so politically savvy that it gave an ovation when she name-checked James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who is openly gay, and who is likely not a household name in many Wisconsin households. A gifted visual comic, Cho got one of the evening's biggest laughs as she mimicked McGreevey in the act of trying to govern amid a miasma of male genitals.
The gag combined the two most prominent motifs of Cho's act: Hilarious, gleefully smutty riffing on gay themes, and political riffing that was pointed but, at moments, altogether less funny. Indeed, the show's least comedically satisfying moments came as Cho served up shrill, humor-free barbs that, in drastically tempered form, could have been delivered by a pandering liberal politician. On President Bush: "I don't know why he hasn't been impeached yet." On Benedict XVI: "The new pope fucking sucks." On right-to-lifers: "Anti-abortion people are fucking idiots, and they're wrong."
Happily, Cho provided far fewer applause lines than laugh lines. Some of the latter were quips, as when she explained how gays could exact revenge on heterosexuals who voted for the marriage ban: "I think we should hit them where they live, and all the wedding planners should go on strike."
But the night's funniest moments came as she acted out brief skits. Some of these featured a caricatured version of Cho herself, while for others she contorted her body and face into marvelously rendered personas -- including her own mother, "Mommy," a character with a thick Korean accent who is familiar to fans from Cho's 2002 concert film Notorious C.H.O. The Orpheum audience responded loudly and adoringly as Cho turned herself into Mommy, then reproduced a scene from the film in which Mommy peruses gay pornography.
In that sketch Mommy was ridiculous and a little mean, but Cho later reprised the character in a moment that showed off the comic's great gift for perfectly balancing humor and pathos. She described her hurt when, as a child, her father made appallingly insensitive remarks about her weight. Told of them, her mother responded, "Nobody hate Daddy like Mommy hate Daddy." The crowd roared and roared at the line, a model of plain-spoken grace and wit in the face of baffling hostility.
Preceding Cho was the hip-hop duo of Lisp and Havana, a gay man and a lesbian who rapped a brief set of funny, gay-themed novelty songs. One purported to out famous rappers -- Nelly, Eminem -- while another, "Funky Fag Hag," was a tribute to straight women who love gay men.