Margaret Cho was a comedian even before she knew it.
“As a kid, I was thinking all these things,” Cho, 46, recalls, expounding on her surprising childhood shyness, “and when I would say them, people would laugh. I was really confused by that.”
It makes sense now, of course. Cho, after all, has turned life’s ugly truths – from political injustices to homophobia and the gory details of her colonoscopy – into 20 years of comedic gold. Luckily, for Cho, the world is still insane. Everything happens right in front of us, in real time, and we can’t turn away. And Cho, naturally, has something to say about that. You know, along with gun control, beheadings, the Amy Schumer movie shooting, rape, female comedian sexism and the “systematic slaughter of African Americans.”
Yes, Cho is still fearless. Yes, she is still notorious. And yes, her latest tour, psyCHO, will – like all things Cho – tear down the world’s wrongdoers in the fiercest and funniest of ways.
CA: The first time I interviewed you was while I was in college. And the world, it seemed, was less fucked up then.
MC: (Laughs) It’s still being fucked up. Like, I think it was always this fucked up and we didn’t know about it because we didn’t have Facebook and Twitter to alarm us every single day. I remember when you really had to look for beheading videos… (laughs). You couldn’t just start playing them.
How do you – and how should _we_ – deal with the accessibility of… everything?
I understand that there are a lot of things that need our attention, and I think maybe pick your battles. Which causes do you really want to look at and think about? I just wanna get over police brutality. That, to me, is the most pressing issue, so my thing is dashboard cam. I’m so dashboard cam / body cam; that’s what I watch for hours on end.
Your upcoming show will assess some of the serious issues we’re facing today. How do you balance comedy and sociopolitical issues?
You have to find a truth there. For me, comedy or humor is often a coping mechanism. A lot of what I’m talking about is police brutality and the different sides of it that I’ve encountered and what I see happening in the media. As a comedian, it’s a kind of alchemy that’s really the magic, you know. Something so tragic and terrible as this systematic slaughter of African Americans in this country – how do you find some way to talk about that that isn’t totally depressing?
How do you? And moreover, how do you turn it into comedy?
It’s funny, because whenever white and black people fight, Asians and Mexicans don’t know what to do. ’Cause we’re like, “Are we white? Or are we black? We just wanna pick the winning side.” (Laughs) For me the joke here is the gradations of how we view racism. Everybody’s a human being, so it’s very hard to figure out how to talk about it, so that’s my take on it. And I have a lot of different things that I’m talking about in the show: gun control, and also different kinds of police brutality that I’ve witnessed.
Another comedian, Amy Schumer, whose movie was playing when a gunman opened fire in a Louisiana theater, is taking on gun control as well.
How do you think comedy can create sociopolitical change?
Comedy now is a major player in politics. A lot of people are responsible for this, but the main ones are Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Hannibal Buress and Stephen Colbert – now Amy Schumer. These are people who are actually changing the way we feel about politics, about who is gonna be president, about race. Comedy can really shift the way we view everything.
Comedy’s a really big part of politics, whether it seems obvious or not. Amy’s been doing it with feminism, and now she’s been thrust into gun control because she’s forced to. This is something that happened at the showing of her film. The most non-violent thing you could want to do is go see a comedy with her in it. Her perspective and her voice is so needed and so fresh, and it’s so not a shoot-’em action experience. For me, that’s very heartbreaking, because her success is so important to me. I consider her like my daughter in comedy.
Comedy’s a mentoring art form, so you have your mentors – that’s another part of the show. My mentors are dead, which is very strange. Joan Rivers and Robin Williams and Taylor Negron – they all passed away last year. So for me, this tour – this is the first time I’m going out without a mentor, without my teachers. They’re all gone, and that’s a really weird feeling.
Regarding Joan: You call her your comedy “mother.” What parts of her life and career do you connect with most?
Just her love of show business, her love of comedy, her love of comedians. Her constantly trying to get me to see the value of my life, and to have gratitude for everything that I receive and to know that I would be safe. She always felt that comedians live the longest in terms of career; we’ll never have to worry; we’ll always have steady work, which is different from actors, especially women who are only able to work for a short period of time in their lives.
And she was fearless, but actually full of fears because she was very, very anxious about whether jokes worked. She put forward this space like (imitating Joan), “I don’t care! I’m a funny person! It’s a joke!” But she was seriously scared about what people would think, and she was always scared people were gonna kick her ass. So that was funny about her. But I really admire her because she challenged the status quo in comedy. When she was performing comedy in the ’60s and ’70s and she was pregnant, she couldn’t even talk about that. She had to use euphemisms to talk about her pregnancy while doing comedy. So that’s how far we’ve come in terms of censorship: what we allow women to talk about.
How do you think the landscape for female comedians has shifted? Are we at a place now where they’re fully accepted by the comedy community and the public?
It’s gotten a lot better. I think we’re way past that weird Christopher Hitchens’ thing that women aren’t funny. Now that thinking seems very old fashioned. It’s very Jerry Lewis to go there. (Laughs) It’s odd that Jerry Lewis even felt that, because I worked with a lot of his contemporaries ’cause I’ve been around forever. I was, like, discovered by Bob Hope and worked with Alan King and Robert Klein and they always really accepted me. Milton Berle too! Very, very accepting of my presence in comedy.
Do you still write a joke a day?
I try to. It takes different forms, but I try to write either a joke or some kind of observation. I’m also working on a book and trying to bring forth this idea that sexual abuse survivors should come forward and stop thinking of themselves as victims and think of themselves as survivors instead. (Cho recently revealed to Billboard that she was raped as a teenager.) So, it’s either a joke or an idea or a song or some type of artistic endeavor that would benefit me creatively. I try.
Is the book only focused on rape victimization?
That’s part of it. Part of it is a memoir – the history of my work in comedy and the people that I have known. There’s a lot of different kinds of stories in there, but one of them is just trying to talk about this idea of victimization. That if we got rid of that word and really focused on the survivor part of it, it would be maybe easier to handle.
When you were young, your father wrote joke books. What was his influence on you when it came to comedy?
He still has an influence; he’s a funny guy. My parents are both really funny people, and they’re also very respectful of the creative life – they think it’s the highest kind of life you can aspire to. And they love writers and writing, so they’re very proud of that aspect of my work. So, it’s good. My dad’s still always telling me what I should be writing and what he wants me to discuss, so he’s very alive in my creative world.
And your mom, of course, is as well. How often do people come up to you and ask you about her?
Oh, all the time. She’s a genius! She really is. She’s a guitarist, and she’s much better than I am. She plays flamenco guitar. She’s a very, very beautiful singer. She’s a seamstress; she taught me how to sew, which is where I get my design side. I do a little bit of fashion design on the side still. But that’s where I get my inspiration – she’s inspired me to do a lot of different things.
Your tour name is a play on the word “psycho.” What is your definition of a psycho?
I think it’s allowing your rage to consume you, allowing your insanity to consume you, allowing other people’s insanity to consume you. I think psycho is often a very feminizing term. “Oh, she’s a psycho bitch.” “She’s fucking psycho.” That’s the worst thing you can say about a woman. Even the movie Psycho – Anthony Perkins is trying to be his mother, so that’s a psycho. It’s a feminized kind of experience. It’s almost hysterical. Women are always hysterical or psycho. So that’s why I like it.
Do you have any psychotic tendencies?
I’m actually more OCD than psycho. There’s a drought in California, so you’re always checking – I’m always checking the tap. I’m always going online when I’m away to check the water meter. First of all, I shut off the water when I leave. Not only shut it off in the house – I shut it off in the water main! Everything is shut down! (Laughs)
We are currently, and thankfully, experiencing increased trans visibility. As someone who identifies as bisexual, where do you see the bisexual movement headed?
I think it’s different. Bisexuality is considered one foot out, one foot in. You don’t qualify as gay all the time. There’s this element of distrust. Visibility is very important for the trans community because of the suicide rate of teenagers and the violence that goes underreported and the disappearance of trans women all over the place. There’s not been a lot of rage about that because people didn’t know.
Now, there’s more of an understanding and it’s not acceptable anymore, so I think that’s wonderful. I would love to see that for the bisexual community, but I also have an understanding too. I get it because I started as a lesbian and then realized that there was more to my sexuality than I realized. I thought I was being very free and very out, but there was more to the story. It’s hard; I felt like, “Am I going through a phase?” You always question yourself in the bisexual community. You don’t really know.
When did you first know you were funny?
It took a while to figure out how to be a standup comedian. And this is when I met Robin Williams. I actually met him when I was much younger, but I met him again as a comedian. He had become very famous doing Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), and he was doing movies at that point and he had been the doorman at a comedy club that I lived across the street from called the Holy City Zoo (in San Francisco). I would perform there and he would always come in and do surprise performances, but this was, like, every night, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise. He was there every day, and I would always have to perform after him. I don’t know why he got it in his head, “I have to go before her all the time,” but I learned how to do comedy by going after him and bombing for years. (Laughs)
When you eventually did launch your professional comedy career, why was it important to you to be as open about your life as possible?
That style became very cool. When I started I was just trying to figure it out, but when I was in my early 20s, talking about things in great obsessive details was really brought on by doing comedy in bookstores and people like Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron, who were in more of the alternative scene. Which is Colin Quinn, which is actually Ben Stiller. We would do these weird midnight writing sessions with Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow at this coffeehouse on La Brea and you would see all these comics. Now they’re very famous people, of course. But they would get together to write at midnight. It was this thing that was very powerful and very alive, and the more you could make yourself look bad as a person, you looked better as a comic.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).