Interview Highlight: Margaret Cho

Photo of Margaret Cho with DJ Velvet Einstein

On March 21st, comedienne Margaret Cho dropped by KALX to have a chat with DJ Velvet Einstein only a few hours prior to her show in Zellerbach Hall, held exclusively for Cal students.

The two discussed everything from the depiction of Asian-Americans in Hollywood, to Cho’s brief time in the pot business. As a true Bay Area native, Cho’s material draws largely upon political and social issues. During her time in the studio, she touched upon her involvement with non-profits such as the Trevor Project, how she feels social media has come to aid the survival of the current administration, and several of her own struggles in making it as an Asian-American comic. Check out her interview below to find out more!

Margaret, you're here today as part of a special program put on by Cal performances on the UC Berkeley campus at Zellerbach Hall; it's entitled Race, Identity, & Power. Can you talk a little bit about how the program got started?

I was asked to bring a show here [in Berkeley] that I would curate. I was trying to think of what would be my ultimate show, and I was really thinking about mostly Ali Wong. I love Ali Wong, and when I first saw her special Baby Cobra on Netflix, it was the first time I'd seen another Asian-American woman do a comedy special. It was such a huge moment for me. It's so incredible that there's only been two Asian American women who have comedy specials in however many years–I've been around comedy 35 years–but it's true. I had not seen that before, so it was an incredibly rewarding and exciting thing for me to watch her. [So,] the ultimate show I would curate would be something with me and Ali. Also, what's wonderful is Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu, who are joining us, are incredibly exciting Asian-American artists I really love to work with. It really is this kind of place where we can come together and talk about what we do as artists, and what we do in this very politicized atmosphere of race and entertainment.

Going back to 1994, like All American Girl, and then fast-forwarding up to Fresh Off The Boat, you've also got a new series that you're working on for TNT. What changes have you seen then, in the representation of Asian-Americans over the years?

Well, I think it's been really incredible. I think it's been a lot of change, although we're still not seeing enough of these Asian faces out there, you know? We have one big show, we have a couple of Asian-American characters on different shows. We're seeing more than ever, but it's still not a lot. But it is better. I think before, like in the 90s when I was doing television, it was just so unimaginable to see Asian-Americans on TV. Now there's definitely more, but there still needs to be a kind of Renaissance there; we haven't had our moment yet.

When you were growing up, there weren't really any Asian American role models. What was the point at which you kind of recognized your own identity as an Asian American?

I grew up in San Francisco where there were a lot of Asian-Americans; I didn't feel as if my race or my identity was sort of anything that set us apart 'cause it was a very Asian-American community. It wasn't until I started to do comedy or do anything entertainment when [that sense of invisibility we had] sort of became like “Wait, this is very strange”.

There were a couple of comedians out there doing stuff. There was Henry Cho, which was so crazy that he was headlining. He's this Korean American guy from Tennessee with this incredibly thick [Southern] accent– I mean, it was this thing where it was so specialized, like I didn't have that kind of an identity. He had a very strong, identified sort of sense of being a Southern boy and that kind of visual joke of being Korean and Southern, that was a whole identity into itself, so I couldn't figure out exactly where I belong there, but I was just determined to do stand-up comedy. I loved the artform and I figured it would take care of itself.

Hari Kondabolu recently had a film out called The Problem with Apu, where he talks about the representation of Indian Americans in television and film. They talk about “patanking”, which is where Indians are asked it to be more Indian. Do you still experience the same thing in your own roles where people are like “Could you be a little bit more Korean? Could you be a little bit more like your character of your mother?”

I don't know. I think that's definitely this feeling that I actually push for representation of my mother, or characters like that, because to me that's very authentic. There's kind of a weird reversal of wanting to secularize people of color in a way that’s like, “Oh, well if you do this sort of character, you talk in this Asian voice, that's racist,” but it's actually not. It's my upbringing, it's my family, and so there's no way to do a character like that and make her sound white. That's just not a possibility, so I think there's definitely different angles you can look at it from. Like what is this sort of idea that we can't actually honestly portray who we are, like where this political correctness actually harms us. It's really confusing.

Is there a line there between what's correct and what isn't? Do you worry sometimes when you talk about stereotypes-issues like Asians being good at math or being bad drivers?

I think that it’s fun to use stereotypes in a kind of a way to skew culture or use stereotypes as a way to kind of make us understand that these ideas exist because we keep on perpetuating them and we don't talk about it directly. Being direct about race and talking about stereotypes in a very direct way also kind of makes fun of that. I think that there's a way to do it that is actually very important and respectful.

We've been talking mostly about ethnicity, but you're also very outspoken about queer identity as well. One of the things that struck me that I've heard you speak about is queer as not just a sexual orientation but as an identity in a culture. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

It's about really where we come from. I think that if you identify as queer, which is actually a very kind of 90s way to identify queer, with Queer Nation, and Act Up and AIDS activism, a lot of this stuff is very politicized. So if you're sort of a public figure and you're identifying as queer, you have to be political. Activism is sort included in the package because there's so little representation for queer or any sort of minority out there, so I think that's a really good thing.

Do you worry in your routines about offending people?

I'm sure that I do. I think it happens all the time. I think that’s probably why it's good to be a comedian. You know that you do want to be offensive. Comedy in itself is an offensive artform. You want to court that. And it can be pretty tricky when you're in this sort of theater of social media, and in an atmosphere of outrage–which exists now for sure–but I think that a lot of it can be really important. It can be really groundbreaking if you can find a way to do it with some humanity.

Have there been cases where you've regretted a joke that you made?

I think that I always want to defend it, because I think that the main impetus of comedy, like to make a joke out of something, is pretty noble. The sort of reason for comedy is to alleviate the tension of something, and I feel like that in itself shouldn't have to be defended, but you never know.

Do you ever get offended by other comedians?

Yes, I do get offended by other comedians! But it's also something that I acknowledge as being like, well, you know, that's just part of it. That's people just trying things out. I can get very offended, though.

What sorts of things do you find most offensive?

Well I was really offended... this was a few years ago now. There's a comedian named Daniel Tosh, who was getting heckled by this woman from the audience, and he encouraged the audience to gang rape her, which to me, is really out of line. That's out, out, and out, impossibly… you can't even justify.

There was a period where there were sort of all these male comics trying to justify that we were post feminism, that we were post political correctness, and they'd sort of test their own being post that they were just being incredibly offensive. Of course now that's all changed, with the #MeToo movement, and in comedy, male comedians have a particularly difficult time now. You could never get away with that now, which I think is improvement. I think that's a really great thing, but it really offends me when male comedians who are not sexual abuse survivors use that as a weapon. To me that's inexcusable.

I think when you're doing jokes about rape in particular, there has to be a real sort of a sense of who's saying it, what's being said, and what can be done to improve things. So there's a place where I definitely deeply take offense to stuff, but then at the same time, I also get that comedians are just trying to be comedians, so there's so many different schools of thought when it comes to that.

For yourself you've been very open about your own personal history and in sexual abuse. Was it difficult for you to figure out how you could work that into your routine?

Oh yeah, because people shut down when you start talking about these subjects like molestation and abuse. People shut down because they're like “We don't want to talk about this, we would rather just not make sort of a public discussion about this, it's not a public forum for this, this is not appropriate for entertainment.” But to me, I think it is important. I think it's really valuable, and now that's proven to be the case because of the way that every day there's a new story about who's done what, and who survived what, so there is a move towards people really claiming their story, and I think that's really good.

When you're on stage and you're doing your stand-up routine, is there a distinction between Margaret Cho the character, and the actual Margaret Cho? Are there things that you're exaggerating or you're holding back on?

I think that there's probably a lot of things that are exaggerated. I mean I don't know, you know? I do so much performing, I do a lot of shows, every day is something different, and so I guess like nowadays I've been at this for 35 years, so the line of where I actually stopped and where the sort of character ends is all sort of blurred. I can't really tell.

Bringing things back to your upbringing, you grew up here in San Francisco and looking at what San Francisco is today as you come back, what changes have you seen in the city?

It's very different. It's um... there seems to be a lot of tasting plates when you go to a restaurant. Everything is really small and it's $8. Like that to me is very strange. The buildings are all different, what houses those buildings is different, the businesses have all changed, but the sense of independence, the sense of weirdos, and outsider art seems to still be there. It's certainly a place where I see a lot of great economic upheaval. It's very fancy and very rich. Everybody seems rich, but there's still this sort of gritty underbelly of freaky people which I appreciate.

Are you going to move back here then?

I lived here until maybe two years ago. I was living in this illegal, unzoned art commune; it was really cheap, and really loud, and it was so crazy, but it wasn't my permanent residence. I had a place there for a couple years and everybody around me was too young. Obviously everybody was there was like college age, or even younger, and I do love young people, I find them really inspiring, but it was a little even too much for me. I think I’ll always, somehow, have some kind of place to live in San Francisco, because that's sort of my ancestral home, and where I'll probably end up eventually.

In terms of the the younger generation, do you see yourself as a role model for them?

I hope so, because I've really enjoyed my work and my life, and if I can lead people into a place where they're very satisfied with their lives, I think that's great. In that way I would love to be a role model. I think that having that freedom in my life has been really great, so if that inspires others, that's awesome.

You've always been very politically and socially active. What are the the main kind of organizations that you're working with right now?

There are so many different ones! There's always the Trevor Project, something that I end up doing every year, which is basically to benefit young gay people. This is a really cool thing. [The Trevor Project] sort of springs from that whole “It Gets Better” movement, something that's out there that really helps young people. I think that's always really important. Of course now, Planned Parenthood is more vital than ever to support these kinds of organizations when in this time we're really looking at feminism in a very exciting way. All of that is really important, whether it's these women's marches, or looking for a way to survive this administration; it's pretty intense.

What do you see that people can do to deal with this administration?

Social media is really important. That's probably where we get the most amount of some sort of relief. Or at least some kind of a voice out there; it's where we can really see change happen. I find that really great, and so inspiring that we have that ability.

You've described yourself as green and sober, talking about your own chemical abuse in the past, and you currently have a marijuana strain that you’ve worked on.

Yes, I actually am NOT in the pot business anymore. I was very briefly. It's a very confusing industry that is fraught with all sorts of legal implications, because it's legal on a state level, but illegal on a federal level, so it's so impossible to kind of maneuver that.

I'm actually not green and sober– I just like the name, but that's more in line with my show, Highland. It’s a show that I have in development about a Korean-American family who go into the marijuana business. It's sort of the logical progression of Koreans often invested in liquor stores, and now they're in the pot business, which I think is probably right. I think that's exactly what they’d be doing, so that's what that story is.

You also have an interest in the paranormal as well.

That’s right, I do! And it's always something that I think is so... I don't know. It's something that I've experienced, it's something that's so ancestral to my family. Like my mother could always see ghosts, and then we do a lot of ancestor worship and stuff like that. It's a very alive thing in Korean culture, so I've always had that part of me. It's also a lot of fun, too. My best friend got married, and for her bachelorette party we did a seance. It was so fun, it was all of our friends, and they had these ghost meters. It was just the best, so I love that kind of stuff.

Speaking of fun things, you spent some time on Dancing with the Stars.

That’s not that fun though. That's the worst. It's such a hard show to do. I don't think anybody has fun doing it. I remember being on there and nobody had a good time. Everybody was working hard– it's hard.

So no plans to try and go back?

No, it's very athletic, which I think is great. I think what's really cool is that you get to see all the people dancing. The dancers themselves are incredible because they have to teach us, people who haven't had that much dance experience, the very difficult art of ballroom dancing. I do appreciate the spectacle of it, and it's live TV, which is also unique, so I like that, but it's a lot of work.

You've done dancing, you've done singing, comedy, writing. Is there anything that you haven't tried yet that you're itching to start on?

I don't know. I just love to do stand-up comedy. I like to continue with that. You get to a point where you really kind of feel like Oh, I really understand this art form now, and so that to me is what I really appreciate.

Bringing it back to the notion of identity, you'd gone to Korea and performed on Saturday Night Live. What was that like, going there and doing that?

Oh, it was super weird. I was doing this stuff with a child actor, and they don't have child labor laws there, which is so weird. So I was writing with this little kid till like 3:00 in the morning, and it was outside, in the middle of winter, and it was so scary; it never seemed to end. I had a great time; the kid did not. I think that it was just a lot of work.

It's weird doing comedy in Korea, because they don't have stand-up comedy there, so the audience is really sort of neat to be kind of filled in on what it is and how to do it. It was very fulfilling to do; I really love the country. Obviously, it's amazing to go there, and it's amazing to work there, but it's definitely very different.

What was the reception?

It was really great! They really got into it, and I think that's really special. I do love all of the sort of pop culture stuff, like K-pop, and the movies there. I think it's an incredible entertainment industry. It's definitely different than here, but there's certainly so much inspiration that I get from it.

Did you feel the need to tone down your act at all to make it a little less crass?

Yeah, of course. Also, it was television, too, so that in itself presents its own problems. But it's not the kind of censorship that you would expect. There were these jokes that I had, sort of about Korea, that they really didn't want to have up there. Like they don't want to ever be perceived as a poor country, or an underdeveloped country. That perception of Korea was more important than anything else. There was kind of a weird nationalism or patriotism that sort of needs to be served in a way that never happens here. It's more that you couldn't make fun of the nation as being sort of backwards. You couldn't use the country bumpkin analogy, or they wanted to be very high-tech, very sophisticated. That in itself is a weird thing, so there's stuff that we just didn't really have. When you do television in the United States, it’s different. Even anywhere and the rest of the world is different, but Korea is very special.

On 30 Rock you had played Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. What kind of reaction have you gotten- any reaction from North Korea yet?

I'm sure they have seen it. I would imagine that they're very aware of their image, and how it’s portrayed all over. It was fun for me. Definitely fun, because growing up we had such an awareness about what was happening in North Korea that my family used to pay these charities to like have helicopters fly over and drop off parcels of rice and supplies. It was something that was very alive as a kid growing up, and this sort of feeling that North Korea was a place where people really suffered. I think to lampoon that society was very appropriate and exciting.

Okay, great. We're gonna go out here with a song from your album Cho Dependent. This is the song that you did with Andrew Bird, called I'm Sorry. Do you want to give us a little background on what song came from?

This is a real murder mystery! It's about a guy that worked on my tv show, All-American Girl, who ended up being a murderer, and it's so crazy, but I wrote the song, Andrew did a wonderful job with this, and I really love it.

Thanks again, Margaret Cho.

Photography and transcript by Carmen Llerena