[Editor’s Note: The following post is part of American Masters’ #InspiringWomanPBS campaign, which highlights the powerful, creative, and innovative women in our lives. Visit the Inspiring Woman page to join the campaign and submit the story of a woman who inspires you.]
In this new interview, comedian Margaret Cho talks about her career and the role comedy plays in dealing with the current social climate. An outspoken advocate for LGBT, Asian-American and women’s rights, Cho created the first primetime sitcom featuring an Asian-American cast, and currently she can be seen performing stand-up on her “Fresh Off The Bloat” comedy tour.
Anna Drezen: If you don't know who Margaret Cho is I forgive you this one time but after this you're really going to want to know who she is. She's been working for decades and has earned the nickname “Patron Saint for Outsiders.” She dealt with a lot of bullying growing up, and in reaction to that she began writing jokes at the age of 14, and she was performing at 16. What were you doing at 16? Apart from being a comedy genius Margaret Cho has been incredibly active in anti-racism and anti-bullying campaigns and has been an advocate for homeless and gay rights. She has been recognized by countless organizations for her efforts including the ACLU, GLAAD and the National Organization for Women. She's been the star of a network sitcom, performed sold out performances of stand up, and has toured the country with her groundbreaking, off-Broadway, one woman show, I'm the One That I Want. She's been nominated for three Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award, and most recently she released American Myth, an album of music that Cho describes as her quote “glamorous and glittering tribute to family, comedy, anger, fame, gayness, grief, fat pride, love, and hate,” which if that doesn't get you interested I truly don't know what will. American Masters executive producer Michael Kantor was lucky enough to have full-on sit-down interview with Margaret Cho, and I'm so jealous I could just scream.
Michael Kantor: So this is so great. We're in L.A., and we're with Margaret Cho and you've, you grew up in San Francisco, you worked a lot in New York. Is L.A. now your home?
Margaret Cho: Yeah. I've been in Los Angeles since 1991. I've lived in New York for brief periods but never a permanent New Yorker. I've always worked there for several months doing a show and then left. So my permanent residence is in Los Angeles. I've been in this particular neighborhood for quite a long time. I'm a real Angelino and a real Hollywood person so I love it.
Michael Kantor: Now this season of the American Masters podcast is about revolutionary writing, and so I want to take you back to when you first started to write like your first joke. Do you remember the first joke you wrote or performed, and did that stick with you?
Margaret Cho: Well when I, I started comedy when I was 14, and so this was in the 80s in San Francisco and there was a lot of comedians doing jokes about Asian drivers. So I'd go on after all this stuff and then I would say my name is Margaret Cho and I drive very well, and that was like my opening joke. And then. But that sort of set up like exactly what I would be talking about for the rest of my career really, is talking about this moment of “Hey racism exists and how do we exist within it? How do we fight it by talking about it?” And that's a theme that I come back to time and time again.
Michael Kantor: And do you feel like the world has dramatically changed since you were first telling those jokes or those same jokes about racism maybe cause bigger laughs now than they ever did?
Margaret Cho: I think it's both. The society has changed, but at the same time certain things remain the same. And Hollywood is actually very slow to catch up with change. You know, when you have this thing where you know you're not even casting Asian actors in Asian roles, it's weird. It's weird when there's like a movie about the Great Wall of China starring Matt Damon. It's a weird kind of an odd thing of like, well why do we still not understand that Asians exist in Hollywood. Asian-Americans exist in Hollywood. It's a weird thing but we're starting to get around it. It's starting to grow.
Michael Kantor: Now I’ve loved a lot of the stuff that, where you've talked or you've imitated your mother. How has that been an important source of comedy for you?
Margaret Cho: Well I think it's really, it goes back to the way that, you know, Asian-American kids try to Americanize themselves by looking at their families as being very foreign. And when you have that sort of weird thing where you're embarrassed by your family because they are so like fresh off the boat, like that to me is a very Asian-American experience. And so, you know, we used to make fun of my mom because she would say, we would go to a store called Montgomery Wards which is like the shopping place and she would say [obscured version of the words ‘Montgomery Wards’]. She couldn't say it, [obscured version of the words ‘Montgomery Wards’]. And we would laugh so hard about it. And so that's the origins of the Asian-American comedy and where my roots are. And that's, I think a lot of Asian-American comedians now refer to that, go back to that experience of differentiating ourselves from our families.
Michael Kantor: In one of your shows you talked about your given Korean name. What's that?
Margaret Cho: It's Moran. Moran. Which it's Korean for peony, which is a very nice, poetic name, but it's hard to grow up as a kid in the 70s with a name like moron. You know, you just hear it time and time again, the like, and it's really weird. I mean, I adopted my stage name very early. I actually kind of, like, think that a lot of Korean-Americans have that experience of having a Korean name and then also having this American name, and that we almost have different personas that are attached to each name. Like it's a different thing of like how you are at home versus how you are at school. And how our lives are kind of like, we're trying to almost mask our foreignness in a way which is, I think, the most sort of accurate portrayal of assimilation is that you're trying to mask your origins. But that's not completely the answer. It's really about figuring out how to celebrate where we are from and also realize that we're not foreign, that we actually are American.
Michael Kantor: I mean, do you think you could do a joke about your mother that if somebody else did it, it wouldn't work?
Margaret Cho: I don’t know. I mean, I think she's really funny. I think that she's very astute, and I mean it's about this voice in this character, but at the same time it's also about her observations and what she thinks and so I don't know. You know I think that when you're talking about kind of characters that come from your origin, your family of origin, it's hard for, would be hard for a person of any other race to do a Korean voice, an accent, without being judged as whether or not this is like caricatures. Is this stereotyping, is this racism? I think that's a very particular kind of experience like where people can can't really sort of quote what you do. Maybe it's similar to like when in hip hop music the N-word is used in a song and then nobody can sing the song. I just went to a big rap festival and it was like mostly white audience and this, like, everybody sing along to everything except that word and that just nobody says it. And it's just this, it's a place of honoring that people cannot say the word unless they're from that culture, from that heritage. And, but there's a lot of fear around it too. So I think that, you know, when you're talking about race and you're talking about your race there is a lot of validity to that experience. But when somebody else talking about it, it becomes a little bit sketchy.
Michael Kantor: One last question about your mom, which is, did – I don't know, I didn't check to see if both your parents are still alive – did they watch your shows and what's their reaction? Not so much the ethnic material but like you go way over in terms of things that like my parents.
Margaret Cho: They don’t understand a lot of it. They really, really don't. And then they do. You know, my parents also bought a gay bookstore in the 70s, so they were around the gay community and all the tattoo'd community. People were getting full body suits. In the 80s, 70s and 80s, it was a very, very, very edgy time and my parents were right in the middle of it. So they do have a real understanding of diversity and gay issues, gay life. They get that. And so it's not hard for them to get their minds around what I do as a performer. It's totally fine for them, but they also just are some things they don't understand. I don't know this. I'm glad everybody is like it. I'm glad somebody like it. So they're happy that somebody likes it.
Michael Kantor: And you, you felt somehow an outsider in that San Francisco community growing up, right? Like your jokes about how your mom would put fish, fish in a snacks.
Margaret Cho: That's growing up. I mean, you know, when you're growing up and all the kids have like what Twinkies and coke wrapped in foil, like you know, like a Coca-Cola wrapped in tin foil or like whatever they're bringing to school, and then I have like dried squid. It's so embarrassing, like you really don't, when you're a kid you don't want to be different from your peers. You want to be the same. And it's not that my peers were all white. They weren’t. They were all very diverse. But we were so Asian, like we were so fresh off the boat in that regard, and their food, which I guess nobody really liked it until Anthony Bourdain said it was OK. It's weird how culturally food can be embarrassing. And then you go back and go, “Well, actually it's pretty gourmet and really exciting.” You know, and that's what our food culture is now, it’s all about these flavors. And yet, then it was just appalling. So embarrassing.
Michael Kantor: Here's the big question I posed to everyone for this season, which is “Why do you write?” Why is that – I know you also sing and, you know, you act, but you could just make a living acting. And what is it about, what does writing do for you?
Margaret Cho: Well writing is really important and it's something that is always happening and always growing. If you're a standup comedian you're always writing in your mind. Whatever it is, there’s something to talk about and there's something to remember. And you know if you perform a lot as I do, you have a lot of chances to get those ideas out there. Also nowadays everything's shifting and growing so crazily, especially in the Trump administration and all that stuff. There's a place to talk about all of this change.
Michael Kantor: This season's about revolutionary writing. One of your albums and tours and so on was called Revolution. What was the thinking behind that one?
Margaret Cho: There is always this kind of need to talk about power and talk about politics and look at it from a very revolutionary standpoint. I think when you're talking about the body and weight and feminism and racism and all of these identities that we get locked into, there's so much of a need for a kind of a manifesto, of a kind of an uprising, and I love the imagery of revolution. I love the idea of it. So for me like all of that stuff like politics and, and comedy go hand in hand. And now more than ever I think it's really necessary. I mean I, it's terrible when you're like looking back fondly at the Bush administration and going you know maybe it wasn't so bad after all. Like George W. Bush was like that hideous acts that doesn't seem so bad compared to your current situation. So you know it's, it's like I was always very critical of politics and politicians and now I'm like, I almost have no words. Like I'm almost like how could we have realized that, or thought that this was coming? And it's very strange.
Michael Kantor: Do you think as a comic writer you can step over the line, like I'm thinking about, you know, Kathy Griffin? And in terms of your own work has there ever been stuff that you put out there and you're like, “you know maybe I should have dialed that back a little”?
Margaret Cho: Oh all the time. And I think that's what you want to do is you really want to, you want to just keep on testing and trying to go farther and always failing. It's really part of comedy. And that whole thing with Cathy was about holding his decapitated head which I think, I felt like it was just a TBT French Revolution. It was just a hash tag #JohnTheBaptist moment. It's something very, it's that startling imagery which is really from the Bible, you know, that we get all of this sort of like bloody stuff, and people don't or, or like they think of the origin story about it. But I love it when Cathy gets fired from anything because I'm next in line for whatever job that is. I always get her sloppy seconds and I can't wait to host New Year’s Eve with, on CNN with Anderson Cooper. I'm really excited. But she is a good friend of mine and I think that she's really always on the cutting edge and always out there, and it's amazing. I mean, I'm always in awe of her and what she's able to do. You know we've got to just do what we can. I think it's got to be funny because we're going to, you know we might die. It's like a serious situation, like he may blow up the planet. So we’ll see.
Michael Kantor: Sitcom writing is sort of another classic American thing, and you were a pioneer in that field. Tell us about your experience in the early 90s doing a sitcom.
Margaret Cho: It was crazy. It was so crazy because it's, well television was a totally different thing then because you had four networks and Fox had just started. So it was very, like the programming was such a big deal. Like when you had a TV show on one of the networks, it was huge. Like it was really this huge, huge, huge entity that was beyond anything that I could even compare to what's happening now because now like even three networks, it's like when there is something on nobody really cares. Actually they're dwarfed by giants like, you know, all of these online streaming formats and stuff so it's not, it's not the same. But then it was a very, very big deal, and during this Asian-American show, then, it was so hard to get the networks and everybody to understand that the audience for the show wasn't going to exclusively be Asian-Americans. That was their fault. Like they were, they’re thinking was this is only going to appeal to this particular community when in truth all of the people who watch television don't share the same ethnicity of the people who are on the show. So it's like this weird thing that they kind of thought so narrow, narrow-mindedly about all of it. But you know it was a hard show to do. I'm glad, well I'm glad I experienced it. It certainly created a legacy. And now we have shows like Fresh Off the Boat, which are incredibly successful. And it's exciting to me because this is, this is my heritage and this is what I have given to television, so I'm very proud of that.
Michael Kantor: And you were part of Dr. Ken, right?
Margaret Cho: Yes I was his sister. We all, all of us are Asian-American actors. We all have played, every different, and like B.D. Wong especially, he and I have played brother and sister. He and I have been newlyweds. We've been boyfriend girlfriend. We've been bitter enemies. we've been everything and I love that.
Michael Kantor: That's great. I loved your joke about what you were called by the creator of Fresh Off the Boat.
Margaret Cho: He, he, he wanted to talk to me because I was the only person in the world who understood what it was like to create an Asian-American family show with ABC. So he called me like “Chobi wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.” And so we talked about it, and, you know, like the network didn't want to call the show Fresh Off the Boat because they thought it was racist, and we love it when white people tell us what's racist. That's just really cute. And then I think white people like to tell Asian people how to feel about race because they're too scared to tell black people. So this is a big statement about race because race is always brought up but only in the situation we're talking about black and white. But there is a much larger topic when talking about race.
Michael Kantor: It feels like, you know, in the last couple of weeks Jerry Lewis died, Shelley Berman died, sort of these, this generation of older Jewish guys who pioneered stand up and so on. You're at the center of the world now. How does it feel in terms of diversity?
Margaret Cho: It feels good. I mean I think that there is a lot of diversity. I have a lot of great respect for all of those comedians. You know I was kind of around the Friars Club in the late 80s and early 90s, and so you could never park in Milton Berle’s parking space. He had a very special parking space right in front, and I think that they still keep it out there like to honor him. But all of that history of comedy is very important. But now we have such a diverse kind of like way of looking at the world, and comedians like Wanda Sykes, who's a very good friend of mine, and, and all of these different voices out there which are so important and so vital, and I'm really proud to be part of that.
Michael Kantor: What do you think of when you think of your mentor Joan Rivers?
Margaret Cho: Well I think about what she has always really, really tried to impart to me was that they’re always going to want you, they’re always going to want your voice, that you're never going to be too old, that they will always need you in Hollywood. And and in fact when you get older they'll need you more because actresses they throw away. And that's very true from like, I look at my, my, the actresses that I kind of came up around. You know people that were kind of getting everything like Mira Sorvino, and she was sort of my nemesis you know because she I dated Quentin and then she dated Quentin, and it's like this weird thing where she was, she won the Academy Award and all this stuff and then, and now I'm like where is she? Like it's weird. Like actresses that are incredibly talented, incredibly important for the time, suddenly are aged out of the system. It's odd, you know, and I think that Joan was always trying to make sure that I understood that would never happen to us, that we would always be able to work, that we would always be able to express ourselves and that comedy was always going to be there. And I found that to be very true.
Michael Kantor: What brought you guys together? Was there some moment of crisis or?
Margaret Cho: We were, in the 90s – this was such a long time ago – so she had come to see my show and she really loved it. And so she, I won an award and she would, she wanted to present it to me. So we had this event and so we had dinner together and she presented me with this award. It was really great. And she had just started her jewelry line for QVC and she's like “I’ll send you all, I’ll send you everything. Just tell me where to send it.” And I said I actually don't wear jewelry. And then she turned her back to me and didn't speak to me again for two years. And after she got over the fact that I didn't wear jewelry, we became friends. And I saw all the jewelry. It was great. She is great. I mean she was so funny and I miss her, you know. I think, “how strange,” you know? I was talking to Melissa about this – her daughter, Melissa Rivers – and it's been three years and it still feels so weird. But it's, I mean she has an incredible legacy. And it's, you know, it's incredible to have known her and to know all of her stories and her experience and to have learned from it.
Michael Kantor: So when it comes to writing, how do you get stuff to come out of you? Do you get high? Do you talk into your phone? Do you go for a walk? What is it?
Margaret Cho: All those things. I mean I don't, I think getting high is a little bit, it's a little counterproductive. I mean, George Carlin always said “Well, when I go punch something up then that's the time.” And I agree with that. I think that that's true. You want to think about things from different perspectives. But I also know that I always forget everything. So it's not the best thing for me, the best state of mind for me to remember retain what I'm doing. So but yeah it is a little bit linked to physical activity. I like to ride my bike and kind of get out there and do that. That helps. Also I love the fact that we all have phones and that's a huge repository of material and jokes and ideas and that's all there whether it's voice memos or just writing things down. There is a lot of space there. I actually do write on paper, like just so, so weird I know, but there's all sorts of ways. But you have to find a way to like remember everything. You don't want anything to get away. So writing is always happening, it's always there.
Michael Kantor: You've gotten all these amazing awards – the GLAAD award, the Liberty Award, NOW, ACLU. What, how, how do you go out now and sort of feel like you're making a difference in this crazy world we're living in?
Margaret Cho: I don't know. I don't know. I mean you just kind of get out there and work and you know. And it's great to have all of these accolades, you know, it's really incredible to receive them and what a great honor. It’s so great. I don't know. I don't, I think you just have to get out there and do it. You know especially now like there is a lot of, Resist March was really big and I did that with Chris Rock which is really cool. The, all of the Women's Marches, all that kind of stuff like that to me has been really profound. And just being also to witness of like how crazy it can get too. Like I was in that riots in Portland on the week of election, the whole election, and all of these people were like so angry and out in the street and protesting and the police were like, you know, shooting beanbag guns into the crowd, and it was so crazy. So seeing it from all these different angles and also being able to participate with things like the Resist March, I think that's where there's a lot of making sense of what's going on.
Michael Kantor: So you've, you've imitated Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, and you've done it to great effect. Do you feel like, you know Mel Brooks has pointed out that the only way to take Hitler down was with comedy, sarcasm. Do you think there's a way right now to somehow defuse this intense?
Margaret Cho: I don’t know. I think it's so crazy. I don't know why you would want to pick a fight with the most insane country like that. That's the weird part. But yet to be able to lampoon it I think is, is really healing ultimately. But it's very strange. I mean I don't know, I don't know what's going to happen. But yeah, Mel Brooks is right. I think that that's true. It’s like the only way to kind of get through it or make sense of it is to make fun of it. To take it down you have to really like laugh about it. I think that's good.
Michael Kantor: I just think that in the way that Melissa McCarthy was, you know, sort of exploded as Sean Spicer last year that they should bring it to SNL every weekend.
Margaret Cho: I know I would love it. That would be great.
Michael Kantor: That would be awesome. You are seriously inked. What does that mean to you? Why?
Margaret Cho: Well it's kind of my, well my upbringing, now when I was growing up in my family they – all of the people that worked for my father – were all getting very heavily tattooed. And they were getting full bodysuits from Ed Hardy who, so I always knew that I would be tattooed and so. And I never anticipated that tattooing would explode in popularity the way that it has. I didn't realize that that was possible but that's sort of like, I think it's died down a little bit but it's still a very kind of prevalent thing in the way that we think about tattooed people as different. But I, I love it. I mean I I've got a lot of them. I got my first big ones from Ed Hardy. I've had many amazing tattooers work on me. Just incredible artists. It's a social thing. They are my friends and people I love and you know so I was around tattooers or a lot and painters. But yeah it's just, it's something that I really love. I think I've kind of stopped. Yeah, I haven't gotten one in a couple of years because it's just hurt. And I’ve got so many.
Michael Kantor: But in Korean culture you said early on there is the issue of sort of gang tattoos.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. Well when Korea was, was decimated by the Korean War and then built back up, and most of the, the kind of the recreation of modern day Korea was in sort of gangsters and Yakuza and all of their kind of stuff was they were, they were like you could only know them from their tattoos which they all had and was part of their initiation. And so there is that stigma in Korea about criminals and gangsters having tattoos, and you’re even banned from bathhouses which is a very big part of Korean culture. And I've had my own issues in bathhouses here where they're very alarmed by tattoos and you know it's, it's hard, it's hard to get past that you know. And so I've talked about it a lot of my work about how you get discriminated against in Korean communities for having tattoos. But I think that's changing. I think it's really, really changing.
Michael Kantor: How did you come up with the ones on your knees?
Margaret Cho: Oh this is so stupid. It's Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on my knees from the dollar bill and a five dollar bill. It's just, it’s stupid. After like a certain point you just get tattoos to be stupid, and that's definitely one. They're not finished. It's just dumb.
Michael Kantor: You said in one interview that eating disorders is that for you has been the source of substance abuse and so much of your work and so on. How does that how do you turn that into something funny?
Margaret Cho: I think, I don’t know. It takes a while. Like when you've been through, after you've been through it you go, “Well why was I so destructive over something that doesn't really even mean anything?” Like I think that as I've gotten older that my issues around that have really dissipated. You know when I was younger everything was about how thin I was and how thin I appeared and dieting and everything, and now I'm like I really don't care. Like it's really just about feeling good. But so much of our image is, especially in Hollywood for women, is tied up in how thin we are and how you know this whole machine and Hollywood kind of propagates that. It's, it's, it's this vicious cycle and so it's very hard to get out of. But you know I'm valuing my experience within it. I know I've had some pretty hard time kind of looking at my issues and you know spending time away in places that I needed to figure out how to eat and how I'm going to live. And so now I'm at the other side of it and I'm like very, I'm very happy that I lived through it and you know it's a deadly disorder. Anorexia and bulimia both are very destructive and so it's good to be done.
Michael Kantor: So what's your inspiration for your new, writing your new tour your new work?
Margaret Cho: Trying to make sense of Trump. Trying to make sense of where we are as Asians in Hollywood. We're talking about race and whitewashing and all this kind of stuff. Talking about all of my own past self-destruction and how to kind of look at life in a different way, whether that's kind of coming out of depression and coming out of darkness into someplace very light. And it you know for me it's, it's a lot of stuff. It's my family and everything that I have experienced. And so it's, it's another wave of material that I can't wait to share with people. It's very exciting.
Michael Kantor: It feels like issues regarding immigration couldn't be more important right now.
Margaret Cho: Yeah it's really important. It's really what needs to happen. We need to talk about race. And in an era where we have a president that's making excuses for neo-Nazis and David Duke, it is like very crazy. Like I don't understand why this is happening or why the sort of thinking is out there, but you know we've got to talk about race. It's really important.
Michael Kantor: You've also been a huge advocate for the gay and transgender communities. All these things are an important part of the political conversation right now.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. And you know I think with the victories that we've made and in terms of trans visibility and awareness and also gay marriage, which is a very, very big thing you know, this is a weird thing to have to like fight or try to. We're going backwards and I don't know why.
Michael Kantor: I’ve listened to a lot of your songs – which I've loved – but a lot of your songs I don't think could work in a PBS oriented podcast.
Margaret Cho: Well yeah I did a little, it’s not like Mark Russell. You know I wish I could be a dignified political comedian songwriter like Mark Russell. I always looked at him and like his doing his little songs about Reagan and I was like always thinking well he's got something he's, he's really, he’s really on to something. And so my music is, is not quite as classy. But I do love it. I mean I love to make music. It's something that I don't have as much time for with all my other stuff happening. But I love it. I think songwriting is an incredible pastime. It's an incredible art form. It's, it's, I've written with some of the best in the world. I'm very lucky to have had that. And it's really exciting.
Michael Kantor: You write these great comic songs. How is writing a song different from writing a monologue?
Margaret Cho: Well you have the structure of a song with sort of verse and then the kind of chorus and then you have that middle eight, that bridge that is always very, very important. Sometimes it's so important that I just skip over it altogether. But so you have some of the structure which is sort of has to be pleasing to the ear, has to kind of come across as like, “OK well these jokes are there. But then it has a life beyond the joke, you know that there's more to it.” So I just, I love music. And I'm always sort of a backstage person and like always back there like getting to watch from the behind the scenes which I love. And I love that world.
Michael Kantor: So we're doing this thing called Inspiring Woman PBS where we're asking everybody to tell a quick story about some woman – could be a family member, could be someone you've worked with, anyone who's really inspired you. Is anybody spring to mind?
Margaret Cho: Well I'm really inspired by my mother, who left this very, very kind of rigid family structure where she was arranged to be married to this other guy and then she decided to marry my dad instead, which was a big revolution. This is in the 60s where they just didn't do that kind of stuff, and then coming to America with really nothing and creating this entire world for us – myself and my brother – and it's a great thing. And so I'm incredibly impressed. And that's way braver than anything that I could have done. To sort of blindly to, you know, go against your family and kind of go and get married for love and, and to, you know, be in this new world where you don't have everybody there from your past, you just have yourselves is incredibly self-reliant. You know they didn't have the Internet in the 60s. They were way far away from even being able to like talk on the phone to their relatives. It’s like very, very, very crazy things so I'm very, very grateful for that.
Michael Kantor: Well this has been so amazing thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. Really appreciate it.