Sitting backstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last Saturday night, the comedian Margaret Cho went through a short but ambitious agenda. Cho planned to perform at two sold-out shows that night and then, the following morning, to be arrested. She had never been arrested.
"It seems like it will be pretty easy," she said brightly. "I am just going to walk down the street toward Madison Square Garden and see how far I get."
In her professional life, Cho has prospered by finding the edge and taking a few steps beyond it. Her transgressiveness derives from who she is -- a bisexual Korean-American -- and what she says. Among other topical political items on Saturday, she compared US First Lady Laura Bush to a bomb-sniffing dog.
Cho will say anything, not so much for a laugh, but because it is in her nature, a kind of social Tourette's syndrome not unlike that of Lenny Bruce that compels her to say unspeakable things. Her State of Emergency tour began over the weekend to coincide with the Republican National Convention; in the next month it will travel through what she describes as swing states in the coming election.
"It's nice to be here in uptown, away from all of the crazy Republicans," Cho said by way of introduction, adding that she was worried that there would not be enough doughnuts to feed the heavy police presence in the city.
Of the Republicans, she said, "We have to show them that it's not OK, that we want our country back," which was met with shouts of approval from the already persuaded in attendance.
Of course she is in New York because those Republicans are, and she says the city is being used as a prop. Her willingness to pursue a political agenda -- advocating abortion rights and gay rights, opposing war -- has made her a significant target. She was recently disinvited from an appearance at a Human Rights Campaign fund-raiser at the Democratic convention after Whoopi Goldberg's barbed remarks about the administration at another event were thought to have damaged John Kerry's campaign.
Goldberg sent Cho a note of encouragement before her performance on Saturday. Cho's backstage presence -- measured and demure -- bears little resemblance to her buck-wild onstage persona. But her political sentiments, the reasoning behind a self-declared political emergency, remain in plain sight.
"It is an emergency about the obliteration of democracy, a complete disregard for human rights all over the world, a government which is corrupt and a media that has been infected by the same thing," she said in an interview before the first of two shows. "There is a real lack of information about what is actually going on."
Cho has responded with a kind of whistle-stop tour, a rolling comedy sketch that will morph and elide to allow her to annotate current events. Cho is particularly concerned about post-9/11 racial profiling, in part because she has been attacked because of her race. When she was in the news for her opposition to the president, she received hundreds of racially oriented e-mail messages. Among other things, the authors variously suggested that she looked like a dog, was fond of eating dogs or should have sex with one.
"Who knew?" she said, smiling. "The first stone is always racial. I have to deal with the racial thing regardless of the situation. In a way it is a wonderful discovery to know that all of this kind of thing is bubbling beneath the surface. And now you see it. It's like finding proof of the Loch Ness monster."
Among other perceived sins, she got in trouble for suggesting that US President George W. "Bush is not Hitler," then adding, "He would be if he applied himself, but he's just lazy," a joke she repeated on Saturday.
When Cho goes onstage, a quiet, chatty start is followed by a series of characters who seem to possess her and before long she is screaming at the top of her lungs about how Christians should quit hassling others and get about the business of preparing for the rapture. "The true face of Satan is intolerance," she shouted, and then added in a much more prissy, schoolmarm voice, "Whenever there is injustice, another demon gets his wings."