Nothing is off limits, rightly so, at ‘Front Row with Margaret Cho and Friends’

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The members of the audience in Zellerbach Hall had barely settled in their red plush seats before comedian Margaret Cho sauntered on stage, unannounced, decked out in a “Front Row” crewneck, leggings and her Comme des Garçons sneakers, to announce that we are living in a monumental era “because men are scared.”

Within about a five-minute span, Cho plunged into an abridged history of the #MeToo movement. She covered the countless sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby — “all (the women) woke up with the same sweater print on their face” — to her own personal history of being raped.

Her set was alarming and unforgiving, and it took a couple minutes to adjust to. Yet by the 10-minute mark, Zellerbach was exploding in raucous applause when she was describing a situation where she was “too fat to kill herself.”

Cho’s motto for the night? “Talk about it.”

This statement infiltrated every aspect of Cal Performances’ “Front Row” show at Zellerbach Hall on Wednesday. Now in its third year, “Front Row” is still almost impossible to define.

Part comedy routine, part interview and part Q&A panel, “Front Row” is as experimental as ever — one doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, because even the comedians have no idea where this thing is going. This makes the show all the more genuine.

Cho brought fellow Asian American comedians Aparna Nancherla, Hari Kondabolu and Ali Wong for a wide-ranging discussion on race, comedy and authenticity.

Nancherla was the first comedian to take the stage after Cho, presenting a comedy routine that was defined by her gawkish wholesomeness. Nancherla’s comedic presence was almost the exact opposite of Cho’s — her first joke was something along the lines of how much she hated when temperatures dropped down into the “teens” because they were “too angsty.”

On paper, that joke probably shouldn’t have landed. It was the type of thing that 9th-grade boys would tell their crush to garner a chuckle. But Nancherla’s self-deprecating schtick sold the hell out of the night’s audience, with an abundance of similarly quirky quips. “Have you ever been late to something because you accidentally sat down?” Nancherla asked halfway through her routine, to a riotous response from the audience.

Kondabolu couldn’t quite keep up to the standards set out by Cho and Nancharla. He floundered between tones, moving too quickly from one joke to the next. He transitioned from a piece on airport security to an overly long segment about how he was mistaken to be Kid Rock by an older white man. The joke lasted three minutes before he realized, “None of you guys even know who Kid Rock is, do you?”

Front Row

Yet Kondabolu’s saving grace was his sheer likability and honesty. He discussed at length with Cho about his place as a South Indian male comedian, both coming from a place of oppression and privilege, in the comedy world and how hard it had been to get there.

This strain of activist discussion magnified once Cho brought out Wong, to the loudest applause of the night. In an hourlong conversation, Cho and Wong, eventually joined by Nancherla and Kondabolu, talked about everything: from the poop that once clogged the escalator at the Civic Center BART station to what it feels like to be some of the only mainstream female Asian American comedians out there.

When asked what steps could be taken to diversify the comedy industry, Wong recommended members of the audience to “write, write, write,” while Kondabolu, in a redeemingly humorous moment, advised that “white people should not be allowed to write — or create — anything for the next 50 years.”

It was a funny quip but, just like the rest of the stand-up acts and conversations of the night, there was truth, hurt and fearlessness behind it.

“We’re phoenixes, rising from the ashes” Wong joked, laughing when asked a question about the increasing numbers of Asian Americans working in Hollywood. There’s a long way to go in terms of Asian American representation in the entertainment industry but, just like a phoenix, they’re rising up and they’re on fire.

Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].