She’s irreverent, outspoken and comically brilliant. And Margaret Cho continues to tell it like it is in her latest concert film, Notorious C.H.O. A self-described “Korean-American fag-hag, shit-starter, girl comic, trash talker,” Margaret Cho is nothing if not straightforward, and this forthright approach to her material made her one of the more compulsively entertaining — and startling — comedians to gain an audience in the 1990s.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Cho was born in San Francisco on December 5, 1968. Partially raised by her parents, who owned a bookstore, and partially raised by a motley crew of gay men and drag queens, Cho’s upbringing in the city’s Haight district made for a colourful childhood and adolescence. She began doing stand-up at 16, performing in a comedy club above her parents’ store. A short time later, she won a comedy contest, first prize being the chance to open for Jerry Seinfeld.
After moving to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, Cho found her audience growing, and, after appearing on shows hosted by Arsenio Hall and Bob Hope and winning the 1994 American Comedy Award for Female Comedian, she was approached to be the star of her own sitcom, All-American Girl. Billed by the network as a ground-breaking show thanks to its status as the first network series about Asian-Americans, All-American Girl proved to be controversial, attacked by some for not being Asian enough even as others criticized it for being too Asian.
For her part, Cho found herself in the center of the controversy, and the pressures surrounding her — many of which were manifested in the network’s orders to her to lose weight — lent themselves to the comedian’s addiction to diet pills and alcohol, a struggle she would later detail in her one-woman show I’m the One That I Want. Following the short-lived sitcom’s cancellation, Cho continued to deal with drug and alcohol problems. She eventually kicked her addictions and became visible again, appearing in supporting roles in films ranging from The Doom Generation (1995) to John Woo’s Face/Off (1997) and performing sold-out shows across the country.
In the late ’90s, Cho used her experiences with All-American Girl as the basis for her off-Broadway show I’m the One That I Want. The show became a huge success among critics and audiences alike, and subsequently toured the U.S. for over two years. In 2000 it was adapted for the screen; that same year Cho kept busy with a number of other projects, including Spent, an independent drama about addiction and dysfunction among a group of twenty-somethings and now her latest concert brought to the screen, as Cho, once again, goes down and dirty about her remarkable life and times. Cho talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: You’re very brave the way you bear yourself on stage. Where does that come from?
Answer: I think that it really comes from the way that I am with my friends and the way that I speak to my friends or the way that I speak about my life in general with other people. When I’m talking, I don’t like to small talk. I don’t like to maybe say things just for the sake of conversation that if I’m talking about something, I want to talk about something that means something to me or that it’s real or that, that has emotional weight to it, but every interaction has to be valuable and so maybe that’s what it is. My friends always tell me that I’m so direct, I really cut to the chase, and that’s how I would like to be perceived.
Question: Is humour a way of hiding your own insecurities? When you first started out did you use humour as a kind of a shield?
Answer: Yeah. Certainly a defence. Absolutely, but maybe less so than some of my other traits that I have that I use defensively. But humour was a great way for me to deflect criticism; it was a great way for me to feel better about myself when things were not going my way or a way to comfort myself. Also, I could deal with a situation, which could be horrible, and then I could actually turn it around for myself and story tell it later, edit it, and hang on a happy ending for whoever might be listening. So it was always a way for me to rewrite history and, and retell the story from a better perspective, a more flattering angle.
Question: Is your life now a happy ending? I mean are you in a happier state?
Answer: I think so.
Question: And do you think the film reflects that?
Answer: Yeah. I think the film does. The film and the writing of the film probably took place in the time of where I’m most happy, you know, when I’ve never felt so good in all of my life. So and I think the writing reflects that.
Question: At which point did you feel that your life was turning around ?
Answer: Oh, it was, well it was a long process. I mean it was probably along the same time when I was doing my last show.
Question: One of the reasons you filmed your previous show because it was a return to a Richard Pryor form of filmmaking. Pryor was a considerable influence on you, wasn’t he?
Answer: Yeah. He’s great and I’m such a fan and he was really incredible in combining such really raw, really raunchy and most funny comedy with heart, with depth, with resonance and so I really loved him.
Question: You, seem to go out of your way to shock, but not for the sake of shocking. Is that what you enjoy?
Answer: Well, I think most of my life is shocking to me. That’s what I’m trying to portray to the audience, in that I surprise myself when I put myself in these situations that I can’t believe that I’m in, you know, and I’m like oh, my God, what am I doing and that’s kind of what I think the audience is doing, too, like, you know, wow, this is so real.
Question: When you talk about your sexuality and your mother is seeing this for the first time, do you think about that at all before you do it?
Answer: No. No. I mean they’re not judgmental or protective in that way. I mean they don’t know how to be. My life is lived so out of their realm. They don’t really understand what I’m doing at all, so they have no claim on it. They can’t really judge me or say oh, don’t do that or I mean I just don’t think about it.
Question: How does, how does your mother react to seeing her impersonated for the first time?
Answer: Oh, she loved it. She loved it.
Question: I mean it’s everyone’s favourite part of your act.
Question: I mean was it easy for you to do?
Answer: Yeah. Well, it was one of the first things I’d ever done. Making fun of your parents is that long-standing tradition of an Asian-American kid because we’re so angry, that our parents are so foreign and you’ve got to find a way to get this aggression out. So we mimic them to each other because we’ve all got foreign parents and so we laugh about it and then have connection with each other over it. So I was doing her when I was like five years old.
Answer: Yeah. So I, I’ve had, I’ve had impressions of her for like years and, and she’s seen it then. She’s known.
Question: Do you still feel that angry about the foreignness of your parents?
Answer: No. No. Not at all. No. I’ve accepted it. I think it’s really great. I mean their challenges and living here in this country have given me the opportunity to have the life, the life that I have now, which is wonderful. So I’m very grateful.
Question: Do you see yourself as particularly Asian these days?
Answer: Um, sometimes. Probably now more because I am in the process of, of rediscovering my culture. Los Angeles has this huge Korean town, so I go and I spend a lot of time there.
Question: Do you go back to Korea?
Answer: Not often. No. I haven’t been there for years, probably about 20 years.
Question: Do you have any desire to take your act to Korea?
Answer: I would love to, but it’s so hard to do comedy in other countries when, you know, comedy is so culturally specific that it’s hard to travel.
Question: But you did take your act to Australia I believe.
Answer: Oh, I did. It was great.
Question: Well, how did that go?
Answer: Oh, it was wonderful. It was really tremendous because I think the Asian community there is so hungry for some kind of like acknowledgment or images of themselves, you know, somewhere and so when they see me, they’re just so ravenous. They’re excited. It’s great, you know, I love working there and my film did really well there and I, I’m gonna, I’m gonna probably go back and do another show there, but I, I think, I think it’s tremendous.
Question: Right. How do you think you matured the most about it in between your two concert films?
Answer: I think I’m just grown up as a person but I think that I’m a better writer and that I probably have better timing now. I’m just more aware of what’s happening on stage. I’m just more conscious of the audience and, and my theory of the show, I mean I’ve been doing this for like 17 years so it’s showing now like I feel like a professional finally.
Question: Let me ask you briefly about your All American Girl TV show. In your act, you do make references to the, to its failure. and you made the rather interesting comment about Asian American actors’ aspirations on television was to be an extra in M*A*S*H. Does that change and do you think that you could do a TV show like that now and that it’s different than it was at that time?
Answer: I think I could do it today but the show would be different and the whole context would be different and, I would have much more control over what was going on or I would hope that I would. But I don’t think that things have gotten better for Asian-Americans in terms of opportunities, in terms of their niche is just not there yet. There are a few people doing good work and a few people doing, uh, stereotypical work and it’s hard. So I think that it’s just got to be about Asian-Americans creating their own projects and working on their own like I’m doing, you know. It’s impossible to work within the system.
Question: Which is another reason why you do these concert films –
Question: And you have a greater control over what you do?
Answer: Yes. I mean that’s what I need to have. It makes the film and it makes my work more acceptable for people and it makes my job a lot easier because then I don’t have to go on tour everywhere. I can just send the film. So much simpler.
Question: What, where would you go from here comedically because you seem to have covered so much ground about your life? Is it very hard now for you to be able to, conceive a third show? Do you think your life is a little bit less complicated now than it might have been?
Answer: I don’t know. I mean I think the new show that I’m working on now for the next film and the next tour is really more political. It’s more outside issues like things that don’t directly relate to my life, but are affecting me, but not so, like events that are happening, you know, day to day.
Question: In this show, you also talk about and 911. Was that tough?
Answer: Yeah. Well, it’s impossible to do anything without not talking about 911, you know, that it was such a huge thing that happened and, that we couldn’t ignore it at all.
Question: Were you touring at the time when 911 occurred?
Question: So you were in the middle of a tour?
Question: How does an event like that impact on you when doing comedy? What, what was your position and how did you deal with that?
Answer: Well, I just wanted to go back to work so that we could make some shows for different disaster relief organizations and so that the show could be directed at the relief effort, as well as give people a break from the coverage because it was like when you went right back to work, the people were so in need of something, you know, in need of something different other than CNN where everybody was like so overwhelmed by just watching television constantly or the news constantly, that it was really a relief to see something different and, uh, so that’s what I faced, was a lot of people just really anxious to get out of the house and really anxious to see entertainment again.
Question: Did you take a break as soon as 911 occurred?
Answer: No. I went right back on like September 15th. So it was pretty quick.
Question: Was it hard?
Answer: Well, I was really worried about it also because I felt so small compared to everything that happened; you know, you feel so insignificant. You just don’t know how you can possibly heal people or heal what happened and you can’t really. I mean it was just about going back to work.
Question: How did the audiences react to you straight out from 911? I mean was there, were they receptive to you or weary?
Answer: Oh, they were really receptive, really excited, really just so grateful to have something different, you know, something to make them laugh as opposed to all the tragedy that we were immersed in.
Question: Now, apart from your stand up, you did an episode of Sex in the City. Do you ever desire to play more characters outside of yourself?
Answer: Oh, yeah, I love that show and, I would love to go and do something different, you know, like that or, something on a different show,
Question: What about movies?
Answer: Well, I’m working on a film right now that I wrote earlier this year, which I’d like to shoot later this fall and it’s a comedy, very broad and character driven and so I would love for that to be my next thing.
Question: Do you, do you still see yourself as being notorious?
Answer: Oh, I don’t think I ever saw myself as notorious. I just put that as the title because I thought that it was just so funny because I’m so not.
Answer: [Laughter]. I’m really not. So it’s like a joke.
Question: So what do you think the perception of you is outside of your persona?
Answer: I don’t know. I think people think of me like their friend, you know? I hope that people think of me as somebody that they know and that they can listen to and that will always make them laugh and hopefully get some advice.
Question: You’re obviously a friend of the gay community. Was that audience an audience that you wanted to reach from the beginning?
Answer: Yes. Well, it was an audience that was sort of built in for me because I had always had gay friends and I grew up amongst so many gay men and so to kind of, I’m really a product of gay men, you know? If gay men could conceive, I would be that. I mean that’s really what it is and so I mean I’ve been more conscious of becoming more political in that community than doing different kinds of acts with them and different kinds of work within the community.
Question: How would you express that?
Answer: Well, like speaking at and on behalf of different gay organizations at political rallies, going and meeting with gay and lesbian youth and talking to them about what’s happening with their lives and what they are looking for and looking forward to. Um, lots of different types of things.
Question: You’ve written a book. Was that a cathartic experience. Was it more cathartic doing that or doing your stand-up routine?
Answer: I think the book is more cathartic because it’s really about telling my story and not having to actually entertain, yet I hope that wasn’t a by-product of what I’m doing, but I didn’t have to like write punch lines or make things work out so that they would be, uh, acceptable for an audience that I need to write out kind of truth that I’m not really able to do as a performer.
Question: Is there, is there a literary sequel in the works?
Answer: I think so, yeah. Yeah. I mean there is, there has been stuff that I’ve been writing, but I’m not exactly sure where, to write all of this material and some of is basically for shows and some of it is not. So, we’ll see.
Question: Now you look incredible! and, there’s a clear difference in the way you look now against the way you looked when you did the first show. Is that a by-product of your own healthy state of mind?
Answer: I think it’s just healthy living and healthy thinking and a lot of joy.
Question: So what, what advice do you give, would you give to, to young women who want to enter this very foul world of stand-up comedy?
Answer: I think the best thing is to make your opinions count more than anyone else’s, which is very hard for women to do, very hard for anyone to do.