Don’t come after Margaret Cho unless she comes for you
By Nelson Branco
“Just because you are blind and unable to see my beauty doesn’t mean it does not exist.”—Margaret Cho
If there was a time to catch the amazing life force that is Margaret Cho intersect with her groundbreaking journey at the corner of zeitgeist and WTF, it’s now.
The irreverent and fearless comedian will be offering her trademark shits and giggles—with a heavy dose of gravitas—during Just For Laughs 42: Toronto’s Comedy Festival on September 23-24.
With America currently embroiled in a constitutional meltdown, an insane presidential election that harkens back to the days of Hitler Lite, and the world at a horrific crossroads, you can expect Cho to murder her material. (Run out and buy tickets; your abs and senses will thank you.)
Born into a Korean family in gay and racially diverse mecca San Francisco, California, during the influential Harvey Milk era, Cho has been challenging the status quo for the disenfranchised ever since she can remember. (April 30 was declared Margaret Cho Day in San Fran in 2008.)
It’s no secret Cho was bullied as a child—long before public abuse became an elastic social niche term. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the openly bisexual star recalled, “I was hurt because I was different, and so sharing my experience of being beaten and hated and called ugly and fat and queer and foreign and perverse and gluttonous and lazy and filthy and dishonest and yet all the while remaining invisible heals me, and heals others when they hear it—those who are suffering right now.”
The 47-year-old is an unapologetic provocateur—whether it be as a controversial comic; ironic singer; indie film actress; star of TV’s first East Asian comedy, ABC’s All American Girl (which was cancelled after its first season due to low ratings and severe critical and Asian backlash); supporting actress with an Emmy-nominated turn as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 30 Rock and supporting roles in Drop Dead Diva and season four of Sex and the City; edgy fashion designer; talk show host; or author. Yet she has somehow impressively navigated the hills and valleys of fame and scandal when most of her peers have failed.
Today, the Grammy and Emmy nominee is enjoying yet another career reinvention. To the delight of fashionistas and fans of insult comedy, Cho was named co-host of E!’s Fashion Police. Like Kathy Griffin before her, Cho stole the once-troubled show from her first punchline. Somewhere in heaven, former Fashion Police icon Joan Rivers is smirking, ‘Bitch stole my job.’
Her second album, American Myth, is receiving critical and audience accolades for its ’90s references while tackling the current state of U.S. politics and culture.
And her tour-de-force PsyCHO comedy tour is bringing laughter around the world as she performs her favourite songs.
Depending on the country or city she’s headlining in, her routine changes. “My act is constantly evolving. It depends on the news cycle. I try to make it unique to the place I’m playing.” So expect to witness parts of PsyCHO in her Toronto Just For Laughs gig.
With songs like “Fat Pussy” and “I Wanna Kill My Rapist,” Cho shows she isn’t afraid of tackling any subject. “Homophobia, racism, sexism, Hollywood whitewashing, it’s all game,” she says. “There’s comedy in everything—that’s the key to surviving anything.”
IN Magazine was thrilled to speak with the dynamic Cho to dish the tea without the crumpets.
Let’s get the important question out of the way: How’s your mother, Young-Hie Cho? Your impersonation of her will always remain classic and hilarious.
She’s good. Yes, she’s staying out of trouble.
Is there a difference between Canadian and American audiences?
Of course there is. I love performing in Canada. I have friends in Toronto. In fact, I have family there, too. A quarter of my family migrated to Canada and America from Korea. Or something like that!
Is it easy to write material given the state of the world to- day? Or is it overwhelming to deconstruct the context into a two-hour show?
No. I’ve got some really good things to talk about. There’s so much happening in the world. So much to talk about, from the presidential election to terrorism. The world is out of control! When it comes to America, there’s this urgency from gay, black and women’s rights. It’s now or never for us.
For me, I’ve reached my saturation point even though I cover the American election professionally. Do you even find this election funny anymore?
Definitely. [Laughs] Listen, it’s disgusting! It’s so gross. The fact that [Republican presidential nominee] Donald Trump got as far as he’s gotten is very alarming. It’s scary when you think about it.
I agree with your peer Bill Maher: The reason racism has climaxed in your country is because it never really dealt with the root cause of slavery until a black man became president. My hope for your country is that this conflict will finally climax and America will move forward. Having said that, I don’t know if that’ll happen in my lifetime because racism is so engrained in your nation’s DNA.
It’s insane. I think that’s totally true. President Obama coming into the administration really exposed the racism in our country—it’s come to the forefront and we have to deal with it. It’s important to say: America is a very racist country. I feel it as a person of colour all the time. People make judgments and so does the media. It’s a lot to handle, to be honest. The good news is that social media has given a voice to people who didn’t have one, so the conversation is changing.
Do you find that the Wild Wild West of social and political discourse is so over the top that it’s harder to be irreverent now?
There’s a wonderful opportunity to put all this madness into context and make it right. It’s life or death. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the election, gender pay inequality or whatever. At the same time, I think this moment in time was bound to happen. Like you said, our climax. I’m hoping it is. I’m hoping there isn’t any more death, discrimination and suffering. I hope we can stop it.
Have we lost our sense of humour?
No. We’re gaining more of a darkness to our humour because of all the news of death and terror every day. You can’t escape it. It’s constant. We’re in a gallows humour era right now, which French and Saunders [British comedy TV show by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders] masters brilliantly. Maybe that’s coming through to the mainstream.
Is political correctness hurting humour? Or does social media counter that?
I think it’s kind of a free-for-all now. Political correctness often helps —not hurts—people. I don’t find it to be a problem.
Social media: good or bad?
It’s great. Like I said, it allows people to have a voice who normally wouldn’t have one. You have a free and loud public forum to discuss things. It’s an arena for your opinion so, of course, that’s going to attract Internet trolls and crazy people. That’s okay; I can handle that.
You’ve practically done it all—except split the atom. You’ve even worked as a phone sex operator and dominatrix. How would you like to be remembered professionally?
I’m a comedian. To me, that’s very much what I do, who I am, where I thrive. It’s a very basic part of my existence. I really love comedy. It’s ultimately my art form. Yes, I do really love singing and writing my music, but all those other media have a comic element, too.
Your career trajectory has been a bumpy yet memorable and successful journey. Are you surprised by how it’s all evolved and that you’ve maintained longevity?
I’m really happy and excited with how things have gone. I could never have anticipated this. I’ve had a very long and successful career. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I’m very pleased.
Cultural appropriation, which you’ve been talking about forever, is a major headline right now with Matt Damon starring as the lead in the upcoming Chinese film The Great Wall and Emma Stone playing an Asian role in Aloha. Yet opportunities for Asian actors are more plentiful with hit shows like Fresh off the Boat, which also airs on ABC. Discuss.
It’s very exciting. There are a lot more venues for us, but mainly it’s on TV. We’re starting to see slightly more representation in film. Film is slow, almost backwards. They don’t get it exactly yet. They don’t get diversity. They’re listening now but mostly because of social media. The lack of diversity in media is what I built the foundation of my career on. TV is doing well. Cultural appropriation, I think, is going to stop. Executives are starting to realize they can’t get away with it anymore—especially with the backlash. It’s hurting the film industry. There’s such an outcry for diversity and boycotting films that don’t feature reality. This isn’t new. Entire histories have been whitewashed on screen. There is no more value in casting white actors in diverse roles. And that’s a good thing.
Since you’re bi, what do you think of the modern millennial term ‘sexual fluidity’?
It’s great. Gender fluidity too, for that matter, is complicated. People think gender is binary, but it doesn’t have to be. Gender and sexual fluidity are complex issues, very personal, very unique to the individual. The bisexual term is [antiquated because it’s too black and white for people to understand].
‘Fag hag’: Should the gay community take a cue from the millennials and reinvent the term?
I use it as a historical reference. It’s a term that we, in our community, have always used to define women like me in a community of gay men. Although I do think it would be better if we tried to shift that term. I like ‘Queen Magnet’ or ‘Gay Bae.’ Those are two positive terms. Yes, it’s time for an update.
Do you think the stigma of being a ‘female’ comedian is finally over?
Yes, I do. But you know what? I’ve always felt that women were kicking ass. Women have always been my favourite in comedy, so for me I never saw the stigma. People I love, my friends and heroes, they’ve inspired me throughout the years. It’s nice we’re finally getting our due. I’m a fan of so many brave women. I’ve always put women on a pedestal.
And gay men.
NELSON BRANCO is the editor of 24 Hours Toronto newspaper. As a contributing editor, he’s penned pieces for magazines like Hello Canada, People, TV Guide and online sites like Huffington Post. He’s also worked as a TV producer for Breakfast TV, The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News and Sun News Network.