Margaret Cho talks stand up and ‘embracing your true self’ ahead of her San Diego show
Whether poking fun at herself or calling out injustices against Asian and LGBTQ communities, veteran comedian Margaret Cho isn’t afraid to tell it like it is
Margaret Cho has a lot to say these days about a lot of things. Racism, Roe v. Wade, gay rights, women’s rights — all topics she’s delved into in the past. But this time, it’s different.
“There’s so much to say about everything — everything we’re going through right now,” the comedian-actor-activist said by phone from her home in Los Angeles on Aug. 2, two days before hitting the stage in Jamestown, N.Y., for the latest leg of her “Fresh Off the Bloat” tour, which was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The overturn of Roe v. Wade has been devastating,” she said. “Just incredibly shocking, but in a way, not really. You could see it coming. There’s a real sense that our liberties, our democracy are in danger. We are a free country, but things are changing. And I’m going to talk about that. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that we still have free speech.”
For nearly 30 years, Cho has never shied away from saying what she thinks. Her self-deprecating comedic style has long been a hallmark of the Margaret Cho brand. Her stand-up shows, like 2013’s “Mother” tour stop at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre, stand out as much for her ability to hit the punchline as her candor. No stone is left unturned. Not much is off-limits, especially when it’s about herself. Part stand-up, part confessional, if you will — zingers delivered with laser-focus aim.
It’s an approach that’s worked well for Cho, who launched her comedy career at 14 in a club next to her parents’ bookstore on Polk Street in her native San Francisco. In the early 1990s, she won a comedy contest and opened for Jerry Seinfeld. In 1992, she appeared on one episode of the ill-fated “Golden Girls” spin-off “The Golden Palace.” By then, she was a hot ticket on the college comedy circuit.
Two years later, she entered America’s pop-culture consciousness when ABC premiered the groundbreaking show “All-American Girl,” about a Korean American daughter whose values clashed with those of her ultra-traditional parents.
It was groundbreaking because it was promoted as the first prime-time show to feature an Asian American family. But for critics and viewers alike, that didn’t seem to matter. The show, criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Asian families, didn’t make it past the first season. Cho, who was an executive producer on the show, always regretted giving up so much control to executives who were initially attracted to her non-conformist style but later asked her to “tone things down” — the same executives who tossed around possible show titles like “Wok on the Wild Side” and “East Meets West.”
“It was a different time,” she told the New York Times in 2015, right about the same time ABC debuted “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first prime-time show to feature an Asian American family since Cho’s “All-American Girl” two decades earlier. She served as an adviser for Eddie Huang, whose 2013 biography “Fresh Off the Boat” was the inspiration for the TV show.
For Cho, who was 26 at the time, the cancellation of “All-American Girl” initially was a crushing blow to a television career that had so much promise. But true to form, she took that experience and turned it into stand-up material. During the early weeks of the show’s short run, execs at ABC complained about her weight and the “fullness” of her face. They’d asked her to lose 10 pounds.
“I had no idea I was this giant face taking over America!” she said during her show at the Balboa during her “Mother” tour, her ninth comedy tour.
The “All-American Girl” debacle notwithstanding, Cho has had a wide-ranging television career that has included guest appearances on everything from “The Nanny” to “Sex and the City.” From 2009 to 2014, for a total of 72 episodes, she appeared as one of the main characters (Teri Lee) on the Lifetime legal comedy-drama “Drop Dead Diva.”
These days, Cho, 53, may have some more serious material to deal with, but she’s still going for the punchline.
“Humor is hope and finding light in the darkness,” said the five-time Grammy nominee, most recently in the Best Comedy Album category for 2016’s “American Myth.” “It’s finding the courage to keep on continuing on. There’s where the key is, and that’s what’s helping me with all of this. I have to find the humor. That’s what comedians do, and with all that’s going on these days, we’re working overtime.”
‘I didn’t belong anywhere’
Fresh from a two-day engagement in Los Angeles this past spring — at The Wiltern and The Greek Theatre — Cho is now embarked on her 12th tour, one that brings her to San Diego’s Mic Drop Comedy on Aug. 26 and 27. All this comes on the heels of a gratifying experience filming the Jane Austen-inspired, gay-themed rom-com “Fire Island,” which premiered on streaming network Hulu in early June to positive reviews.
Even before she joined the cast of “Fire Island,” Cho knew the film would turn out to be something special. Directed by Andrew Ahn and executive produced by Joel Kim Booster, it was one of the rare gay rom-coms distributed by a major studio (Searchlight Pictures). It broke new ground, too, by casting a predominantly queer cast, including “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang.
In a San Diego Union-Tribune interview in May, Booster said: “Having Bowen be a part of it is special, and having Margaret Cho wanting to be a part of it? That’s magical. She’s an icon and a legend, and it’s very surreal for her to be a part of this. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it were not for her.”
Cho, upon hearing this, humbly tried to push attention away from herself.
“We had such a great time making that movie,” she said. “Filming ‘Fire Island,’ from beginning to end, was a phenomenal experience. Spending time around the pool at the end of the day after we wrapped. Having dinner and enjoying each other’s company. We became very close. We laughed a lot, and really it got to the heart of the movie: We were living the story.”
Asked again about how her fellow Asian American comedians, especially Booster, feel about her, she said: “That’s really incredible. It’s marvelous. I’m happy I was able to pave the way. That makes everything that I went through worth it. I felt very isolated when I started. Very alone. I didn’t know where it was going to go or what was going to happen. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. So now, it’s exciting to find that people saw what I was doing — that it somehow made things better for them.”
In the early days, Cho felt alone because there weren’t really a lot of people like her: an Asian American comic who incorporated Asian American stories into her material, often at her own expense. She was doing “representation” before it became a trendy buzz word. Through the years, her platform and reach went beyond the stage or the screen. She became an author, launched a fashion brand and dove into the world of podcasts. Amid all of that, she took on advocacy, using her fame and her voice to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
That sense of belonging — or, in her case, not belonging — is a theme that runs through much of her work.
“I always felt like an outsider growing up,” she once said. “In school, I felt like I never fit in. But it didn’t help when my mother, instead of buying me glue for school projects, would tell me to just use rice. Soooooooo Asian.
“In America, I’m a foreigner because of my Korean heritage. In Asia, because I was born in America, I’m a foreigner. I’m always a foreigner.”
Juggling aspects of her self
During an interview on a recent Tuesday, Cho sounded uncharacteristically serious, philosophical even — a stark departure from her usual loud, animated and often bombastic persona onstage.
Never has she been more afraid, she said, of being Asian American.
“There’s been so much talk about anti-Asian hate in the last couple of years, and we’re still seeing that daily. That’s a big part of it. I understand that being a gay person and being a woman, historically there has always been violence there. But now add to that racism. And I know it always has been there, but now it’s way more out in the open.”
It’s a struggle, but somehow “you have to find hope,” said Cho, who has recorded dozens of podcasts examining the historical background of the onslaught of violence against Asian Americans.
The intersection of identities — as a woman, as an Asian American, as someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community (“I’m the B in LGBT”) — used to bother her. Juggling all aspects of her self and presenting the right version to the appropriate audience? That proved exhausting.
“You reach a point where you are comfortable with who you are and don’t care what people think of you or expect of you,” said Cho, whose social media posts are peppered with declarations of support for women’s and gay rights. “There is real power in embracing your true self — all of it — and meeting everyone at those intersections. I used to meet all that with a lot of frustration.
“Now, I’ve realized that gives me a wealth of stories and experiences to share.”
That realization, she said, is a gift in and of itself.
“That I’m still able to do all this — to do what I love,” said Cho, whose San Diego shows are a homecoming of sorts — her parents have been longtime San Diego County residents since relocating to North County from San Francisco years ago. “It’s a wonderful progression that I’ve been able to do this for so long and continue to.”
But she’s not done. She’d like to do more acting. The “Fire Island” experience, she said, reminded her it’s an aspect of the industry she enjoys.
“I’ll always do stand-up comedy, though,” she once said in a Union-Tribune interview. “It’s very invigorating. It’s mine, and it’s my voice.”
For now, though, there are things to be addressed, like “the mainstream expressions of hate. People flying the Nazi flag. All this is somehow acceptable. That this is a point of view that people are OK with, that’s really shocking. It goes beyond liberals and conservatives. It’s about who we are as a country, and that’s a problem.”
If she can help it, Cho will offer up some solutions — with a side serving of humor, of course.
10 things you need to know
- Her first one-woman show, 1999’s “I’m the One That I Want,” was so successful it spawned a film in 2000 and an autobiography of the same name in 2002.
- She often imitates her Korean-born mother onstage.
- In 2012, she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her portrayal of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il on “30 Rock.”
- She grew up in San Francisco, where her parents (now residents of North County) ran a bookstore on Polk Street called Paperback Traffic.
- In 2008, when same-sex marriage became legal in California, she was deputized by the city of San Francisco to be able to perform marriages in the city.
- In 2003, she married artist Al Ridenour. They divorced in 2015.
- She dated Quentin Tarantino in the early 1990s.
- San Francisco declared April 30, 2008, as “Margaret Cho Day.”
- From 2013 to 2017, she co-hosted “Fashion Police” on E!
- Her character in the 2022 movie “Fire Island,” Erin, is based on Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
When: 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Aug. 26 and 27
Where: Mic Drop Comedy, 8878 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., San Diego
Phone: (858) 225-2100
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