Well-known Asian American comedienne Margaret Cho, 42, is known for her raunchy, in-your-face comedy, covering topics as broad as her career. Nothing gets passed the Korean American from San Francisco, who espouses LGBT rights and pro-choice perspectives. She even pokes fun at her traditional Korean mom whose English proficiency means she’ll always be misinterpreted — but provides gleeful fodder for Cho’s material.
Cho’s career is a manual on what not to do, but what to fight for. In the early 1990s, Cho pioneered the first sitcom starring an all-Asian American family. But major creative differences and low ratings meant the show was short-lived. Cho endured addiction to drugs and a struggling self-esteem due to media pressure to fit into their image of a “star”. Ultimately, after much soul-searching, a powerhouse emerged. Cho embraced who she was in all her perfect imperfections: as an Asian American, bi-sexual, tattooed, artistic, and loud. Her stand-up act evolved to parallel her journey. Her comedic activism opposed the former Bush administration and promoted gay rights — resulting in her being embraced by the LGBT community, while shunned by others.
But, as Cho would describe, she’s a full and complex person and while wouldn’t judge others for their complexities – some things are just wrong, in her opinion. And while she has a microphone, she’ll continue to say so.
Cho is scheduled to appear on Friday, Oct. 28 at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma. For our annual Fall Arts Guide issue, we chat with Margaret Cho — who has as much to say off-stage as on.
IE: What was your up-bringing like? How did that affect your sense of self and ultimately, your emergence into a comedy career?
Cho: My family emigrated from Korea in the early ‘60s and worked all of the time so I didn’t have a lot of supervision. You had to fend for yourself. In Korean culture, parents don’t support the girls too much, so I don’t think they expected much from me. And although I’ve had many accomplishments, the biggest one to them was when I got married.
IE: What was the worst or most controversial joke you think you ever told? And what was the audience reaction?
Cho: When I talk about abortion, people freak out. In the south, people get immediately defensive, because it’s something they just don’t talk about. Comedy is such a male-dominated field, so it doesn’t go into areas like abortion.
IE: How do you respond when people ask you about being a role model? How do you think you’re an example to young API women?
Cho: One thing I have is I’m strong and very brave. If only we could all get into the field we want and not to worry about family. There are all these women in their 30s and 40s that are [expletive] doing what they don’t want. For me, I’m more driven now than I’ve ever been. That’s a real triumph. My major accomplishment is freeing myself from a heritage that’s tough to break.
IE: The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was recently revoked – what are your thoughts on that?
Cho: I think it’s great. It was a really disrespectful policy to begin with. You’re giving up your life to serve this country, but to be denied your identity is demoralizing. I was offended when it was first introduced: ‘We’ll take your life but won’t take who you are.’ That’s so sick and [expletive]. And that it kept going on for so long and is still debated is insane. It’s another expression of hatred.
IE: Does comedy and activism cross paths for you? Why is that important to you?
Cho: I don’t want to go into politics – that serious, real work! I’m an entertainer, which is an honorable profession but is adolescent, too, because you get to make fun of stuff. However, there is a way you can change people’s minds in a humorous way.
IE: What do you think about the current roles APIs are playing in the media – in reality shows, network TV, and film?
Cho: A little more visibility is great but I’d like to see more. It’s still minimal and doesn’t reflect what our society is. It doesn’t help in terms of being invisible. When I started, there was nobody. Now there’s a few. It’s great to see more inclusive writing on TV but it’s not where it should be.
Our IE reader’s Facebook questions:
Reader: Do you think Pres. Obama should get another term in office?
Cho: Yes, he definitely should get another term. There’s so much to undo since the last administration that there needs to be much more time. I think he has so much more to offer. I’m still so into him.
I heard your TV show “Drop Dead Diva” was recently approved for a fourth season. A reader asks: How do you like working on TV as opposed to doing stand-up comedy? Also, was the episode your idea that involved a Korean male character being deported? Do you have a lot of creative input into the show’s script?
Cho: My father was deported when I was really young – that was a true story. The writers do take a little from my life and add to their work. And I love the people I work with. It’s fulfilled me a lot to work with other Asian American actors.
IE: We remember a battle you previously had with your image – at least the image the media industry expected you to have – but that you ultimately refused to fit in to. As the only well-known Asian American female comedian, what barriers did you face working in the media? How did you eventually overcome that?
Cho: The most difficult thing is invisibility. When I first started out, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me – it was like an existential crisis. It wasn’t about racism or facing racial slurs — although I have faced that. But invisibility is more of a problem – it’s hard to get jobs. You’re not represented at all. But try to give yourself an empowered voice to have courage to step forward and not be afraid. Validate yourself.
Margaret Cho will be in town for one of her signature, crass, in-your-face shows on Friday, October 28, 2011 at the Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, WA 98402. 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (253) 591- 5890.