Nothing’s Changed with Margaret Cho :: Still Raw & Queer & Progressive
Margaret Cho’s resume is extensive: her versatile career, which began over two decades ago, boasts experience in acting, singing/song-writing, fashion designing, political activism, and of course, comedy.
And yet, despite her notable success, she remains incredibly down to earth. Openly bi-sexual, Cho has been phenomenally popular with queer audiences from the outset of her career. Her enduring popularity is doubtlessly a consequence of her painfully funny comedic routines; gigs that are often saturated with sardonic social critique.
She is also renowned on an international scale for her outspoken LGBT activism. As an actress fans will recognize Cho from her roles on the Lifetime comedy, "Drop Dead Diva," and the cult action movie "Face/Off," in which she starred alongside the likes of John Travolta and Nicholas Cage.
For Cho, however, everything else is second to comedy, which is invariably her superior passion. Her love for stand-up was ignited in childhood, and has since been inspired by comedic stalwarts such as the legendary Joan Rivers. EDGE caught up with Cho ahead of her performance at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, on November 6th, which is a part of her ’MOTHER’ tour.
She heads to DC this weekend. For the full list of tour visit her website.
We discussed LGBT activism, open marriages and ’gay’ plastic surgery...
Obsessed with gay plastic surgery
EDGE: How did you first break into comedy, and what motivated that decision?
Margaret Cho: I was really young and I wanted some control over my life, and comedy was just really what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing. I was very young, probably around 14, and I always had this desire to be older - I was just really impatient and I wanted to get started on my career!
EDGE: You have a show at the Wilbur Theatre, which is part of your ’Mother’ tour, in Boston on Wednesday November 6th. What highlights can audiences look forward to? And what topics will you be tackling? Are you excited to be in New England?
Margaret Cho: Oh definitely, I love Boston! I have spent a lot of my summers in Provincetown, and I have a lot of friends in Boston. For me, Boston is a great place of friendships and fun.
As for the topics I am tackling, well, right now I am kind of obsessed with the idea of gay plastic surgery! And this is because some of my friends are getting older, and they’re getting this thing that I call permanent ’gay face’- they look like they are being kind of permanently queer and cunty and they also look surprised! (Laughs) So it’s kind of like ’queer in the headlights’, you know! So I’ll be touching on that (Laughs)
Raw, queer and progressive
EDGE: How has the tour treated you thus far?
Margaret Cho: It has been great, and so much fun! It is something I do a lot of, but I have had so much fun on this tour.
EDGE: You are an outspoken social critic, especially when it comes to queer issues and racial issues in America, and this criticism is often interwoven into your comedy. Have there been any occasions when your audience hasn’t responded favorably? Is it more difficult for your comedy to take off in socially conservative places?
Margaret Cho: Well it isn’t really a specific place, because I think that sort of thing can happen anywhere really- and that has always been a part of my performance, you never quite know what to expect! That said, a lot of people, nowadays at least, know what I do, and know what I am about. And a lot of the audiences expect that from me now. My audiences are prepared for the show to be raw, and queer and progressive. And honestly, I think in more conservative places they get even more excited about it, because they perhaps don’t hear those discussions and ideas as often.
EDGE: You identify as bi-sexual or ’queer’, and you are an Asian-American woman, so have you ever felt that sexual orientation, gender and race have held you back in your career? Or have those intersections of identity enhanced it in some ways?
Margaret Cho: I think for me, my identity has definitely enriched my career as an artist, because it gives me so much inspiration, and so much material to draw from. In terms of holding me back, well I remember that early in my career I had a manager that was really concerned about me being bi-sexual. He really wanted me to be perceived as straight. He wanted to make sure that I was never photographed with women, and this was in the early ’90s - probably around ’94. But that didn’t mean much later, because it all kind of suddenly changed. I think the person that really changed that type of thinking was Sandra Bernhard, because she was really queer, and really open about it, and that led me to think that I should really be honest. She was a great inspiration!
Metaphor for social acceptance
EDGE: Would you argue that your comedy act is something that can be viewed as politically transformative? You have dedicated a lot of your career to activism, can you speak more to that and why you think it is so important?
Margaret Cho: I hope so! I hope that it is, and I hope that it inspires people to feel good about who they are, and where they are. I’d like to think that I can help people feel good about certain things. I have tackled topics like body image and self-esteem and stuff like that, and I like to think I may have helped in some way.
EDGE: What are your thoughts on the current situation of the LGBT movement? There is a huge emphasis on marriage, which is important, but there are many in our community that feel it is trivial in light of things like hate crime legislation and queer homelessness etc.
Margaret Cho: I think marriage equality is a wider symbol of equality and that it’s a symbol of where we are and how we are perceived. It is definitely about more than relationships and family.
I think it has more to do with how we are treated by the government, and how we are treated equally, and I think everything else kind of rests on that in a sense- whether it is gay adoption or hate crime legislation. I would argue that marriage is almost a metaphor for societal acceptance.
EDGE: You have spoken openly about your successful open marriage - and this is something which unfortunately unsettles a lot of people. What would you say to your critics on this issue? Do you believe that monogamy is impractical?
Margaret Cho: I think, honestly, it is more of a personal issue, and what suits the individual. For me and my partner it is a great set up. We have been through a lot, and we have laughed through a lot and for many, many years now, and it just really works for us. However, obviously it doesn’t work for everyone. I think it boils down to feeling secure, and understanding each other, and the dynamic of the situation.
EDGE: You are amazing on ’Drop Dead Diva,’ and you recently released a web series over the summer entitled ’In Transition’. Is acting second to your comedy, or can’t you compare them?
Margaret Cho: I think they are different, but I really enjoy the comedy more than anything. That said, I do love acting! It is a lot of fun, and it is always a very interesting project to be involved in somebody else’s writing and seeing it come alive. However, I will always be a stand-up comedienne; with acting you are dependent on others writing and funding, and who is getting paid, whereas with comedy I am in control. It’s down to me.
EDGE: You starred in ’Face Off’, which is something of a cult movie, what was that experience like?
Margaret Cho: Oh my god it was so much fun! There were an army of extras that act as your stunt doubles and they were very elite athletes, and they are also your doppelgangers, which is so weird! And there was a weird thing where you would do a scene and then your double would do a scene, which was really surreal. So yeah, action movies are certainly an experience, they are very cool.
EDGE: Returning to comedy, can you list some comedians or comediennes that have really inspired you? There are a number of strong female comediennes, like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who paved the way for women in comedy...
Margaret Cho: I definitely get a lot of inspiration and support from Joan Rivers. She is such a loving person, and she is actually very maternal, which I think some people might not realize! And I think that’s because her comedy is so raw and raunchy, and she really gives it to you in a sense- she’s simply not afraid of anything. But she’s such a generous and loving person, and she’s a mom to everyone. She’s a great friend to me, but also a great inspiration.
EDGE: And finally, do you have a favorite member of One Direction?
Margaret Cho: (Laughs) I don’t know! Is that the group with Harry Styles? Yes? Well then I think it definitely has to be him!
Margaret Cho appears on Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at the Wilbur Theater, 246 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information about this date, upcoming dates on her ’Mother’ tour and about what’s going on in Cho’s career and life, visit her website.