The scary, important, relevant role of comedy during Trumplandia and #MeTooism,
according to Margaret Cho
If you live long enough, it’s said, the venerability factor creeps in. First, you get accused of things you never did, and later, you get credit for virtues you never had. That’s ultimately true for politicians, poets … and even standup comedians.
Margaret Cho should know something about it. In the early ’90s, she was the young, disarmingly cuddly comic whose family-centric one-liners — especially about her traditional Korean mom — led the way for her to headline the first-ever American TV sitcom built around an Asian family.
But the series, All-American Girl, lasted only one season (1994–95). It would be another 20 years until the next Asian-centric sitcom debuted, Fresh Off the Boat in 2015, which is still on the air. And the title of Cho’s newest comedy tour, which she brings to the Addison Improv later this month for three nights, was clearly inspired by that.
Cho began her own Fresh Off the Bloat Tour last fall, and that nicely bookends the progression of her career. A protégé of the legendary Joan Rivers, Cho is now herself one of the world’s most famous female comedians; one of the most famous Asian comedians; one of the most famous queer comedians. But the labels don’t diminish her real accomplishment: Being one of the best comedians in the world, full-stop.
We chatted with Cho recently about comedic activism, the #MeToo Movement and her brilliant friend Kathy Griffin.
Dallas Voice: Your tour is called Fresh Off the Bloat, an obvious reference to the sitcom, which I assume you have a great deal of affection for. Margaret Cho: Yes, I think it’s great and I also love a good pun. I’m so excited about [the show’s] success. It means a lot. Things have started to change in terms of a sense of diversity and multiculturalism in television. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s encouraging.
I mean, it only took 20 years, right? But do you see things getting better in terms of representation? I would like it to be faster and be more significant. But things are very different [with television now]. All the media platforms, especially streaming services, are even bigger [than broadcast TV].
You’ve been on tour with Fresh Off the Bloat since last fall; how has the act changed over that time? Yes, it’s been since September, so you’re always going — I don’t even know the end of anything. It’s a constant thing. But [the material] has changed a lot, especially to include all the stuff with the #MeToo movement and Trump, which is a continual nightmare every day. Standup comedy is a living thing — it’s always moving and growing. It changes due to the news — that’s always a major factor in what I do.
Is it harder or easier to be a standup in the Trump Era, because a lot of it isn’t funny. It’s not funny— it’s horrifying and really scary. In fact, it’s amazing that we have survived this long through it. But it is the only way we can survive it to find the humor. It’s definitely a scary time and it’s weird when you think back on how George W. Bush wasn’t so bad now — how good we had it for so long!
What are some examples of that change? I think definitely I’m talking more about sexual harassment. For my generation, those who were young in the ’80s and ’90s, that was terrible in terms of sexual harassment and the injustice that we had to deal with day-in and day-out.
So you have your own #MeToo stories? Of course. It’s a big part of my life and something that, when you survive it, is a huge achievement. There’s so much to talk about. It’s something we can share and everybody is relieved we can talk about it openly.
… Even though, as in the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen, the rumors have been around for decades. I know! We are finally taking rape allegations seriously! It’s such a weird thing — why do we excuse the bad behavior of these men because of perceived importance around their work? I wasn’t a fan [of either man] to begin with, so it’s not something that [I had to adjust to].
It also seems like our comedians are the de facto political commentators of the day, akin to the Fool in Shakespeare’s plays. Do you feel that? I do see it [as part of the mission of a comedian]. And it’s been the case since Lenny Bruce. It’s just the people are more aware of it now than before. I think [comedy] is an important job, especially now.
You’ve long been an advocate for LGBT and Asian rights, inclusion, acceptance. Does one speak more to you than the other? I think it’s all important, it’s all really vital. Activism in the way I do it. Every avenue is motivated by my history.
Many Asian stereotypes are ostensibly positive: Industrious, smart. The same is true for many gay stereotypes: Muscular, fashionable, tidy. As a comedian, I’m sure they prove useful, but is there a downside in the real world to these? I don’t know. I think these assumptions that we have are fun to be played with, and used for effect. This is not just a stereotype but actual fact about a community. You could make an actual statement about that in comedy, and I appreciate all stereotypes for [that reason].
You, as well as Kathy Griffin, were once the protégé of Joan Rivers. Now that she’s gone, you and Kathy are sort of the pre-eminent standard-bearers for her style of no-holds-barred comedy that “goes there.” I hope so. I loved her. I aspired to that always. She was really important to me as a good friend and mentor.
Speaking of Kathy Griffin, she got huge blowback last summer for her photo holding the severed head. It bothered me that some people took it as a threat, rather than as a classical reference to Theseus and Medusa. Yes! It wasn’t even a threat, it was just this ridiculous artistic reference, Biblical, also, like to Salome, but I really saw it [allude to] the French Revolution — a Robespierre feeling more than anything else. Why are we suddenly offended by nothing [when] a sexual predator who admits to abusing countless women [is in the White House]? It was meaningless and ridiculous. But Kathy’s great. As much as has been said about Kathy and the unpleasantness she has endured, she’s still incredibly prolific and has found a way to have a voice when people tried to silence her, which I think is phenomenal.
Did you sense the transition from ingénue to grande dame of comedy, or did you just wake up one day and say, “Wait! I’m Margaret Effin’ Cho! I’m revered!” I don’t know! It is amazing — what we all aspired to.
Are there things you still want to do? Will comedy always be an essential part of your public persona? I just love the work itself, whatever it is. All of it is appealing to me creatively. But comedy is what I’ll always do — it’s about trying to figure out what that magical thing is, night after night.
Any interest in pursuing politics one day? I have been interested in politics since I was a kid. I love that Cynthia Nixon is running for governor. I love the idea of politics. But all I know is, when I did Real Time with Bill Maher we smoked pot and started talking about ISIS. You have no idea what it’s like to be incredibly stoned on live television talking about terrorism. I was totally freaked out and I haven’t smoked since.