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Comedy Interview: Margaret Cho

Grant Walters Grant Walters Comedy Interview: Margaret ChoPhoto by Sergio Garcia.
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The celebrated comedian and advocate extends her 'Fresh Off the Bloat Tour' to Columbus this weekend

I owe a lot to Margaret Cho’s 2000 one-woman show, I’m The One That I Want, as an integral part of both my evolving comedy and cultural education. It’s a magnificent, powerful work in which she evokes humor, anger, advocacy, and optimism in one fell swoop, delivered with comedic cadence that is unflinching and physical. For those who opine that comedy can’t effectively illuminate tough issues like ethnic stereotyping, body image, sexuality, and LGBTQ rights and still be raucously funny, Cho’s hour is case-in-point that such an intersection is possible – and necessary.

Cho, who was born and raised in San Francisco, has been a working comedian since she was a teenager. “It was different than any other place on Earth,” she explains in her press bio. “I grew up and went to grammar school on Haight Street during the ’70s. There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts, drag queens, and Chinese people. To say it was a melting pot – that’s the least of it. It was a really confusing, enlightening, wonderful time.” Her Korean immigrant parents, who have been frequently discussed and impersonated in her act, ran a bookstore tucked in between the city’s Nob Hill and Polk Gulch neighborhoods.

At the age of seventeen, Cho won a comedy contest where first prize was opening for Jerry Seinfeld. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s and, still in her early twenties, hit the college circuit and immediately became the most booked act in the market and garnered a nomination for “Campus Comedian of The Year.” She performed over 300 shows within two years, and her rising cachet landed her appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show, and on the 1992 prime-time special Bob Hope Presents the Ladies of Laughter.

Cho soon received a break to cross over to television in 1994 when she was chosen to star in the ABC sitcom All American Girl. While the show was on air for just one season, it has been widely regarded and acclaimed as a groundbreaking vehicle for Asian-American representation in mainstream media. Cho’s personal sacrifices behind-the-scenes as the series’ lead to accomplish this, however, were significant. She received pressure from network execs to lose weight, leading her to starve her body for weeks to make herself thinner for the series’ pilot – ultimately resulting in her kidneys failing. Ongoing conflicts regarding the show’s creative direction also persisted during production, with Cho – despite her Executive Producer credential – being asked by higher-ups to both exaggerate and stifle her ethnic identity at different points to satiate critics and audiences.

Cho would return to the small screen in 2008 with her own reality sitcom, The Cho Show on VH1, followed by six seasons on the Lifetime series Drop Dead Diva, one season of TLC’s late night show All About SEX, a seat at the table as a special guest host of E!’s Fashion Police, and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress for her portrayal of Korean dictator Kim Jong II on NBC’s 30 Rock.

Her unwavering stand-up career has been a veritable parade of sold-out shows and tours, many of which have been brought to theatres as feature films – including Notorious C.H.O. (2001), Revolution (2003), Assassin (2005), Beautiful (2009), Cho Dependent (2011) and psyCHO (2015).

Cho is also a five-time Grammy Award nominee, two of which were for music albums, Cho Dependent and American Myth. In 2017, Rolling Stone named her one of their 50 Best Stand-Up Comics, calling her “the sort of funny, sex-positive feminist and LGBT activist younger comics continue to look up to.”

This weekend, Cho extends her latest tour, Flesh Off the Bloat, to Columbus for a two-night, four-show engagement at the Columbus Funny Bone. We sat down earlier this week to talk about her three-decades-long comedy career.

You began performing stand-up at age sixteen. I think about my life at that age, and I just don’t know that I would’ve been able to evoke enough audacity to get in front of a crowd and talk about my life in any sort of meaningful way. What were those formative years in your career like?

“Well, I don’t think I knew what I was doing, and when you’re that young, the stakes aren’t that high, you know? It doesn’t really matter – nothing really matters. You’re kind of just doing anything because you feel kind of immortal and you feel like you’re able to do whatever. Your age is sort of your excuse behind anything. So, there’s a complete lack of fear or failure, or fear of embarrassment. I just didn’t have that. I was lucky – I was at a school where the teacher was signing me up for open mic nights with Sam Rockwell, who was my comedy partner at the time. He ended up stopping doing stand-up and went on to do a number of great things, obviously.

I had a lot of support from my school and around our art program, and then I was able to jump into a comedy career in my late teens pretty fast because I’d been working on it for so long. I really am grateful to my teacher and to Sam, and to all the great people that I got to perform for when I was starting out. It was great.”

I’ve always appreciated how you’ve given voice to underrepresented people and subjects that haven’t always been discussed in mainstream comedy. You’ve been through a lot of personal adversity – how do you find a way to expose trauma’s underbelly while still making it funny and consumable for an audience that likely hasn’t experienced what you have?

“There’s a way to do it, and, you know, what’s really magical about laughter is that it’s very healing. If you can find a way to laugh about something, it’s likely that you’ll find a way to get through it. That to me is important in every aspect of life – if you can get to a place of being able to laugh about your experience, then you can learn from it and grow from it. It’s just finding what’s funny.

Often what is funny about something is kind of a coping mechanism – to cope with the suffering by making it funny and making it tolerable for yourself. It’s a process and it’s something, I guess, that’s learned over time. But, I think it’s trying to figure out how to present something to an audience that can be a taboo subject, a difficult subject, that’s really the challenge. And that’s where mastery comes in kind of knowing how to be a performer and how to write. So, that takes time.”

Do you ever find yourself feeling conflicted between what you want to talk about and what you think – or other people think – you should talk about on stage? How do you decide what makes the cut in your material in that respect?

“It’s kind of clear, because you really always have to go with what’s funny. You know, we’re still entertainers, and we still have to be funny. That’s the thing. If there’s no way to make it really funny, then it’s too hard to deal with. That’s the main challenge. Usually the audience kind of lets you know, and that’s really where you have to try it out and see if it works – and try different ways. Sometimes, it’s really meaningful and great, and sometimes you kind of just have to move on and not go that route to get to where you want to go. Because it’s not about you – it’s about the audience.”

I remember watching All American Girl when it debuted, and all the complexity from an identity standpoint was probably lost on me. PBS named you as one of their ‘Pioneers of Television’ for your work on the show. I know it caused you a lot of harm and was difficult for you on a number of levels. Are you comfortable with being connected to it so fundamentally given the circumstances?

“Oh, yes! I’m very happy that it was such a groundbreaking show. And I think it’s amazing that we got to do it. And it was twenty-five years ago, which was a really incredible thing. I look back on it with a lot of great memories and a lot of fondness and pride. We did something really special. It didn’t go on as long as we would’ve wanted it to, and it was a very difficult process because we were learning so much.

But, I’m really glad that it happened, and I’m really glad that people remember it. In a lot of ways, it really brought forth this era we have now of so many talented Asian-American people – writers, artists, creatives, and comedians, in particular – and that’s really awesome.”

Beyond your own material, to what kinds of comedy are you most drawn? What comedians do you watch or follow when you need to be fulfilled as a consumer of art?

“I just love real silliness, and I love commitment to something. I love when you take something that’s real and make it very surreal. Some of my favorites are Key and Peele – I love, love those guys. And I love Weird Al Yankovic because he just really appeals to my silly side. I love Tig Notaro, who really makes me laugh a lot. A lot. Wanda Sykes, who’s a very close friend and who’s just an amazing comedian. I love Sarah Silverman – she and I laugh together a lot and we have a really good time. And Karen Kilgariff, who most people will know from the My Favorite Murder podcast. She’s an amazing, amazing comedian, and is also an amazing writer and a good friend.

I’m lucky to have people in my life who really make me laugh a lot. Those are the people I look to when I need a laugh, and it’s the best. And, of course, Ali Wong is up there, too – she really makes me laugh and makes me feel so much excitement. And Awkwafina and Ken Jeong. I have a lot of people I really look up to that are having a huge moment right now, and that’s great.”

You’ve had a lot of success in producing music during your career. What was the first record you heard when you were younger that proverbially grabbed you by the ear and made you listen intently?

“I think the Go-Go’s, because they were an all-female band. I went to go see them when I was, I think, thirteen or fourteen, and it was really life-changing. They were all girls and they were all playing – they were just a little bit older than me, but not much. And they were rocking. The crowds that were going to see them were all young women and young girls who were just experiencing this incredible shift of, like, ‘wow – we can do this!’ And then it would be Joan Jett – another person who was really, really influential there, you know? It was just incredible for young women to see Joan in her formative years – so inspiring.

But, the Go-Go’s, for sure – all the rockabilly roots and that kind of punk rock esthetic was so important. It was the first time I thought of punk rock, or people who identified as punk rock, as being mainstream.”

You often describe yourself as an incredibly ambitious person who really loves the process of always working toward the ‘next thing.’ What are you seeing for yourself on the horizon in the near future?

“I’m working on a lot of television projects and trying to figure out what that’s going to look like. And that’s an ongoing process, you know? It’s a work in progress trying to figure out what my life is as a producer, and also as somebody that’s behind the camera. That’s kind of the start of something – I have a production company and I’m working on different things, but mostly focusing on things for queer content creators, Asian-American talent, and different people that I’m inspired by. That’s part of what I’m doing.

I’m also looking to try and create projects for myself. Things are really big – there’s been a real shift in the way that Asian-American projects are looked at, and there are so many things happening right now. And that’s good.”

If you were handed an unlimited budget and could create a project with absolutely no creative or logistical constraints, what would you want to do?

“I don’t know! I think I’d love to do a big Pixar thing about my family [laughs]. I was really, really moved by Coco. My best friend has a voice in it, Selene Luna, who plays one of the aunties. I just loved that it was one of these big, very moving, very traditional stories, and I would love to do something like that for my family. I love Pixar and I love all the things they do with such life and such heart. Also, the short…I think they won the Academy Award for Bao, which is an Asian-American story and the first one that I’d seen. So, I would love to do that.”

I read an article recently in which you said you don’t feel like you’ve really ‘broken through’ yet. That seems unfathomable for someone who has a career that’s been as lengthy and successful as yours, but I imagine as a creative person who wants to continually produce new art, that’s a fairly typical mindset.

“Yeah, I think that you’re always looking for what’s going to be the next thing. I feel like that’s the way the world of entertainment is, and that’s the way we’re always kind of judging ‘what are we doing?’ Nothing’s ever good enough, you know? But, I am proud of my accomplishments, for sure.”

Margaret Cho brings her “Fresh Off the Bloat Tour” to the Columbus Funny Bone at Easton Town Center on Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23 (the 7:45 p.m. Friday and 7:00 p.m. Saturday shows are sold out as of press time). Tickets are $25.00, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available here. Learn more about Margaret via her official website, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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