An Interview with Margaret Cho
People often tell me that I remind them of Margaret Cho. There are similarities: I’m an Asian American female comedian with a dry sense of humor, a fondness for tattoos, and a proclivity toward impersonating my Asian mother in my stand-up, as Cho often does. I am in the beginning of my work as a comedian, but Cho became known in the ’90s as one of the handful of female stand-up comedians of color, and despite the years of tolerance and diversity-awareness since Cho began, a career as an Asian comedian remains, in the best cases, a niche—and in the worse cases, a ghetto.
Cho’s early success eventually led to the short-lived ABC sitcom All-American Girl. Executives quickly asked her to “tone down” her liberal comedy, thinking it too much for network television, and so the show was canceled and Cho returned to stand-up. In recent years, she has released music tinged with comedy but not overwhelmed by it. Her Grammy-nominated 2010 album, Cho Dependent, presented her collaborations with many of her favorite musicians, including Fiona Apple, Tegan and Sara, and Jon Brion.
Over the years, Cho’s comedic voice has also advocated social activism and self-worth. Her anger, bluntness, and fearlessness have won for her a leadership role among women and the LGBT community. Cho currently stars in the Lifetime television series Drop Dead Diva (a legal comedy/reincarnation fantasy now in its fifth season), and her current stand-up tour, “Mother,” heads to Europe this winter. I spoke with Cho in her hotel room at the New York Hilton on a humid June day.
I. THE LUMBER AISLE IN HOME DEPOT
THE BELIEVER: Your current tour is called “Mother.” Do you still talk a lot about your mom in your shows?
MARGARET CHO: Yeah, I talk about my mom, and I also talk about the idea of being a mother figure to people. I’ve been around comedy for so long that I’m at the age where people regard me as a maternal figure, and that’s a really enjoyable thing. So I don’t actually have children, but I’d like to make everybody sort of my child. Everybody in the world can be your child—parenting the world, I like that idea.
BLVR: Do you think about having kids?
MC: I do. You know, it’s something that I’d like to do. I don’t know if it’s something that is physically possible for me, but it’s certainly something that’s important. I think that there are so many children that need parenting and that need a mom, and so I’m certainly happy to do that.
BLVR: Does your mom love your comedy?
MC: Yeah, my mom really loves my comedy. She’s really into it. My mother was really, really beautiful, and then, as she got older, she sort of lost her power in the world. I think a lot of women go through that, where they slowly start to become invisible, and I think that’s really hard for her. So what is great is, when I talk about her in my comedy, it really makes her feel special, like a celebrity, and it gives her that feeling that she had when she was younger. That’s why I want to encourage women to talk about their experience of getting older and to feel good about themselves as they get older.
BLVR: Was she always supportive?
MC: Not at the beginning, because she didn’t understand it. My parents didn’t understand what comedy was. They always pushed me to be artistic and to be around a lot of gay people, too, and tattooed people and a lot of really interesting art stuff. But stand-up comedy was something that they didn’t really get, so it was hard for them to accept it. But I became successful really quickly so they didn’t have to worry about me for too long.
BLVR: Do you get to hang out with them?
MC: Mm-hm, they come to my shows all the time. I see them a lot. I see them more and more. I am also becoming very fluent in Korean, so I’m able to speak to them in Korean, which is a new thing, and they really love that. So it’s a wonderful relationship. It was all English for many years, and for the last year we’ve been speaking Korean and that’s really made a difference.
BLVR: Have you ever been to Korea?
MC: I haven’t been there since I was very young, maybe twelve, thirteen. So it’s been a long time but I really want to go. I want to do shows in Korea. I also like Korean music, so there are different things in Korea I’d like to do there, creatively. South Korea is such a major culture in terms of art and music and culture and movies and TV, and I want to get involved in that.
BLVR: Do you think your projects might be bilingual?
MC: Yes, I would do stand-up comedy in Korea. There’s some music on this record that’s Korean music, in the Korean language. There’s Korean lyrics and Korean singing. My new album is a concept album from the perspective of a young girl working in a factory in North Korea who ends up being abandoned by her family. I recorded half in Austin and half in El Paso. I think that North Korea is really country music. I mean, if you thought about what North Korea would sound like, it would probably sound like the Carter Family or like some really rootsy, old-timey music. Country music in America is full of pain and poverty and struggle, and I think that’s really what North Korea is about, too. Another part of the record is me as Yoko Ono; I am the one and Ono. It’s all these different Asian archetypes. There’s some dubstep in there.
BLVR: But it’s still comedic.
MC: It’s still comedic and it’s still ridiculous, but there is a different motivation behind it. It’s still humorous but it’s not as jokey. But there are still really fun hip-hop songs. I just love making music and becoming a better musician. Actually, this album is the first time that I’ve written songs entirely by myself.
BLVR: I see that you have a guitar here in your hotel room.
MC: Yes, my friend lent me this for the week so I didn’t have to bring one. I’m practicing. I was trying to write a song about him. It’s also just to keep calluses on my hands ’cause they go away fast.
BLVR: You’re shooting Drop Dead Diva in Georgia. Is there an LGBT scene there?
MC: Yeah. Not in Peachtree City, where we have our set. There’s no actual gay bar, and it’s kind of weird because there’s this other bar that is unofficially the gay bar, where all of the gays have agreed to go, but it’s not a gay bar. They say the real gay bar is the lumber aisle in Home Depot, because that’s where all the cruising happens. But I haven’t checked that out myself, so I don’t really know. There is a huge queer scene in Atlanta, and that’s very major and it’s made up of a lot of different kinds of people. There’s the lesbians down in Decatur, there’s the cotillion sort of people, there’s the bears, there’s leather—I mean, it’s a lot like San Francisco in that you have these different cultures coming together under the blanket of Q. I feel very fortunate to have Atlanta as one of my homes. Certainly it’s given me a lot of comfort and joy and love and support.
II. THE COMEDY CONTRACT
BLVR: I’m a stand-up comedian myself, and I think that now there’s a more ethnically diverse scene out there, and females are more encouraged to do comedy. What was it like when you were coming up?
MC: Well, I was the only Asian American woman. There was an Asian American guy, Kevin Kataoka, and he and I are good friends, but there have been relatively few Asian Americans along the way. It’s something I try to encourage, but I think we battle the culture a lot because Asian American families or Asian families don’t want their American-born kids to go into show business, because it’s something they don’t understand. So it’s very hard to convince people to defy their parental guidance, or whatever. There haven’t been enough Asian Americans in comedy. It seems to be that things are changing a little bit, and I hope that there’s more and more. I want to see more.
BLVR: It still feels sort of like a white boys’ world.
MC: Yeah. And I think it always has been, traditionally. Yet the outsider voice is so important in comedy, so it’s something that will always endure.
BLVR: Does the sassy persona you have developed stem from that sort of oppression?
MC: I think it’s more that I had to find a way to get audiences to respect me and listen, and also know that I was in control of things. When you’re a woman of color it’s hard to get people to see you other than as a maid or somebody that is subordinate. People don’t even understand the racism that happens internally when they look at people and formulate ideas about them. They’re not even conscious of it. We also have this collective unconscious that breeds these ideas about sexism and racism and homophobia that we don’t even know we’re doing. So it’s fighting all of that.
BLVR: As a comic, I always have a fear of performing to a low-energy crowd. How do you deal with that?
MC: I think the best way is to go into questioning. You drop the jokes and instead you get into “What’s happening here?” and you engage people. Gaze right there into their eyes, and then their body, because people can be really complacent and zone out. I get really mad if I see texting. I’ll immediately go, “What are you doing?” And sometimes they’re actually just tweeting about the show or about me, or taking pictures. But it’s like, you’re robbing yourself of the experience of even being here, because you’ve gotta show other people you’ve got a Facebook status—you’re here or check in that you’re here—and that’s a weird symptom of the disease of our society, that we’re constantly distracted. I come from a time from before cell phones. My youth—all of my twenties, some of my thirties—came before we had texting or email, even. So that, to me, is a relatively new development in society, and I’m still a little bit not used to it.
BLVR: And do you change your delivery vocally, to wake up a crowd?
MC: I guess it would change. You have to get really into the moment and get into what’s going on. Then maybe you can put jokes in there. It’s more like, can you make jokes in the moment of what’s happening? It’s the best thing if you can. Most comics want to perform and get it over with. But the better solution is to really find out what’s happening, because otherwise it can really drain you. Plus, you’re doing them a great favor by performing. People don’t understand you’re doing them a huge favor by being there and bringing some joy into their lives. It’s a social contract. When we enter this comedy place, the audience is supposed to sit there and enjoy it, to the best of their ability, and the comic has to perform to the best of their ability—and then we come together in this social contract as soon as we enter this thing that’s called comedy. I always hold up my end of the bargain and I expect the audience to, too. And if they don’t, they’re really going to know this is a problem, that they are violating the social contract of what we have decided when we come to the show. Even if you don’t like it, you have to laugh. I’ve sat at comedy shows and not thought anything was funny but I’ve laughed just to be polite. I’ve been rudely offended and really disgusted but I will laugh because I’ve agreed to come here. So in a sense it’s like, I don’t care if you don’t like it. You have agreed to come here and therefore you have to endure this because that’s what we do here. Once you can get used to that—being in the moment—you get a lot of power and control. One guy who’s great at that—I learned it from Greg Proops, who’s one of the greatest comedians of all time and my good friend. Another guy who’s very good at that is Louis C.K. The ultimate master of that is Paula Poundstone. She is just a genius at engaging people in the moment. Marc Maron is great, too. And about this social contract of what comedy is: I’ll get into full-on fights with people about it, because they get really angry. They think that if you’re a comedian you’re there to please them, and you have to be self-deprecating. Especially if you’re a woman. That idea—“I’m not here to serve them, they’re actually here to serve me, and we’re all here together to serve a higher purpose”—takes a little bit of responsibility off of it. I don’t know if you get really nervous, but I used to get really, really nervous when I was starting, but now I’m like, “We’re here together.” They should be nervous.
BLVR: I think you just blew a bunch of young comedians’ minds.
MC: Oh, good, because I think comedians are really the most necessary aspect of show business. We’re the most necessary, hardworking factory workers—we’re like the working class of show business. We’re the ones that endure and keep going. All of this is in your hands and you have a lot of power. It is a scary thing. People say how scary it is to go up in front of people and expect to get laughs or try to get laughs, but you can try to turn it around and go, “I know I can get laughs, I’ve done that before, I’m not looking for proof of that. What I am looking for proof of is, can I connect with them and can they connect with me?”
BLVR: I’m glad you brought up self-deprecation. Do you try not to go that route?
MC: I think we all get to a point where we’re honest and we feel self-deprecating things and then we explain them. I definitely do, and sometimes those observations can be funny, but it can’t be what we’re feeling all the time. We’re already so negative to ourselves all the time. Let’s have a different take on it. I’ve gone through so many self-destructive things and I’d rather just serve myself so I don’t have to continue destroying myself—it’s just a dumb struggle. I think, traditionally, women are much more self-destructive. We’re insecure, or we’re not good enough or not pretty enough or whatever it is. We’re comparing ourselves to other people all the time. ’Cause I think the culture supports this kind of looking at other women and saying, “Oh, they have what I’ll never have; I’ll never be that.” And that’s not the case. All women are beautiful, we all have this potential to be amazing and great, nobody has more than anyone else—but the legend is perpetuated by a consumerist culture so that we’ll buy more.
BLVR: Do you try to hang out with people outside of comedy to maintain your sanity?
MC: Oh, no. I love comedians; most of my friends are comedians and actors and writers and musicians and creative types. I have friends from all different walks of life, but I generally stick with comics or comic actors or people that understand the language of it. What’s funny is that a lot of comedians are not funny in life. They’re kind of serious, sometimes angry people. But, you know, it’s always fun, ’cause comics just understand.
III. “BATTLE IT OUT ON MY LEGS”
BLVR: I read somewhere that 15 to 20 percent of your body is covered in tattoos.
MC: I think it’s more, because now it’s my whole stomach and my whole back and my legs and my arms. I think it’s more than 70 percent. I have a lot. But I try to keep them covered if I can. It’s a personal thing. It’s something that I do for my family, oddly enough, for the people that I grew up with who were very tattooed. It’s sort of a living memoriam to them. I also have a lot of very close friends who are tattoo artists. It’s a body-acceptance thing and a joyful thing.
BLVR: Do you think you’ll keep getting them?
MC: I don’t think so. I don’t know how much space I have. There’s a contest happening between my left leg and my right leg. My friend Chris O’Donnell, who’s at Saved in Brooklyn, is doing my left leg and then this other amazing tattoo artist, Grime, is doing my right leg. One is representing the queen of heaven and one is the king of hell. They’re gonna battle it out on my legs.
BLVR: Do you design everything?
MC: No, no. I actually have no input on any of it. I kind of go, “Yeah, that space is all right.” Then they would just commandeer the space. I always trust the artist to know what would look good there and I’m just kind of going along for the ride. I think any decision I would make I would somehow regret later. And so, if I give that responsibility to somebody else who knows me and knows what I’m trusting them to do, then I think it’s better. But that’s my own attitude toward tattooing. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that to anyone, because I don’t know if people are willing to trust their bodies in somebody else’s hands, but I’ve been OK so far.
BLVR: So you love that people think you’re sassy and vocal?
MC: Yeah, I like that. That’s good. But what I would prefer is if they were just scared. They should be scared, because I’m not afraid to verbally go for it, attack people if they deserve it or whatever. I’m not a mean person, but I’m definitely somebody who can be very defensive, and so I think, Yeah, sassy’s fun, I like that. But it would be better if they were just afraid.
BLVR: It seems like you love what you do. Do you feel fulfilled in life?
MC: Totally fulfilled. It’s really brilliant and it’s really wonderful. And I’m glad that you do comedy, ’cause it’s a really great life. It’s the best thing you could do. It’s the best profession. It has its hardships, but it gets better as you get older. You look at somebody like Joan Rivers and you go, wow, you can just keep going, and she’s, like, eighty. You can still rock it just as hard and be totally dirty or whatever, and offend people, and be really amazing and brilliant. And, you know, she’s really my hero when it comes to endurance and longevity. So I wanna keep doing it like her.