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Comedian Margaret Cho reflects on her career and the role of standup in activism
Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.
Geoff Bennett: Margaret Cho is a trailblazer in the world of stand-up comedy and a bold, brash and unapologetic voice on political and social matters. She's now celebrating 40 years of making people laugh and pay attention to the issues of the day.
I met up with her recently at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Live and Livid is the name of Margaret Cho's big first tour since the pandemic.
So you take your dog everywhere?
Margaret Cho, Comedian: Yes, she's really special.
Geoff Bennett: And her loyal Chihuahua mix rescue dog, Lucia, is along for the ride. At 54 and performing professionally since 16, Cho has woven comedy through her stand-up, acting and even her LGBTQ activism.
Margaret Cho: We need to recognize that a government that would deny a gay man the right to bridal registry is a fascist state.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Geoff Bennett: Her stand-up specials, like "Notorious C.H.O." in 2002...
Margaret Cho: Her name is...
Geoff Bennett: ... to "PsyCHO" in 2015, to starring in the groundbreaking 90s TV comedy "All-American Girl" inspired by her stand-up routines about the culture clashes between her traditional Korean mother and herself, a fully Americanized daughter.
Actress: Look, he's a doctor, and from a good traditional family.
Margaret Cho: Wow, and check out that frequent flyer mileage.
Geoff Bennett: To appearances such as her Emmy-nominated recurring role in "30 Rock" playing Kim Jong-il.
Margaret Cho: Hasta la vista, baby.
Finally, my girls have arrived!
Geoff Bennett: And, recently, a Hulu film, "Fire Island," with Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang.
Cho knew from an early age growing up in San Francisco comedy was her calling.
Margaret Cho: I just love the art form. And it was just a recognition more than anything that it was what I would grow up to be. I think a lot of people maybe have those feelings maybe when they were kind of playing. They -- like as a kid, you're like, oh, I want to be a fireman, want to be a lawyer.
I think they had those kinds of really childhood aspirations to be a comedian. But it was a very visceral knowledge of, this is my job, oddly, because I was not a class clown.
Geoff Bennett: Really? Yes.
So, who were your early influences, then? Who were you looking to, to say, I could do that, I want to do that?
Margaret Cho: Joan Rivers, ultimately, because she was so just incredibly elegant, but also crass. She was finding a way to be crass, which is pretty incredible in the '70s, for women and in comedy, and for television the way it was.
Geoff Bennett: She was one of your mentors. And I saw where you said that some of the advice that she once gave you was: "We are the type of girls who don't find our place when young. The funny ones, the odd ones, the weirdos, we are seen a little later."
Margaret Cho: She was very right about how we become more and more visible the older we get.
And she would say to me: "We're like the girls that were ugly in high school."
And I'm like: "You know, watch your mouth."
Margaret Cho: "Watch your mouth."
It's a funny thing of like, when you realize that we actually grow in value as we age, and it's a powerful thought that we can actually really embrace that power. So I think that she was very right about that.
Geoff Bennett: Do you view your stand-up act as being part of your activism?
Margaret Cho: Yes, my stand-up comedy is the main channel for my activism. It's the way that I am an activist.
If you go back to Bob Hope, that's all he was doing, was lending his sense of humor to the cause.
Bob Hope, Comedian: In fact, when I was a boy, I had such a high voice, the teacher made me sit with the girls.
Margaret Cho: Although my cause is somewhat different, but actually not really that different. It's about boosting morale. It's about sort of a call to action and call for unity for Americans.
Geoff Bennett: To be clear, the language Cho uses is nothing like Bob Hope.
Margaret Cho: Sometimes, you will see like a really beautiful Asian woman and she's with the most famous (EXPLETIVE DELETED) face, broke-down, busted white man. And I'm just like (EXPLETIVE DELETED) are your eyes that small?
Geoff Bennett: Crass and vulgar are some of the words used to describe her humor.
I asked her about that approach.
Margaret Cho: I think, like, what I have been trying to do is hit sort of both high and then low. So, like high-minded is like looking towards fighting for equality, fighting for rights for the queer community, fighting for trans lives, fighting for drag, fighting for all of these things in a very noble effort, but then undercutting it with the most crass, explicit, foul joke, that you can have that center, very highly minded idea, so that my feeling, like, is like, I'm trying to make this -- it's like a sundae or something.
Like, you want the cherry on top to be a really noble effort, but, underneath, it's just...
Margaret Cho: And, when you live together, sex takes on a whole new dimension. I feel like a prostitute that works for really low rates.
Geoff Bennett: You have been really open about your past addiction, your past mental health issues. How does that journey show up in your work?
Margaret Cho: Well, I think it's important to talk about mental health as a subject matter, because it's inherently really funny, because it's like really, like, full of mystery and terrifying.
Geoff Bennett: In what ways?
Margaret Cho: Well, it's like, to me, the closer that we are to death, the more that we can laugh in the face of that, the more strength that we have to carry on living.
And so the humor is really the coping mechanism of the spirit.
I never saw Asian people on television or in movies. So my dreams were somewhat limited. I would dream, maybe someday...
Margaret Cho: ... I could be an extra on "MASH."
Geoff Bennett: When you were a child, and you knew that this was the life that you wanted for yourself, did you ever allow yourself to think that it would be this big?
Margaret Cho: No, I never knew what it would be. I never thought about what my career would look like just because I didn't have any examples to draw from.
But "Dancing With the Stars" is old people's jam.
Geoff Bennett: Her mom is often a foil for Cho's humor and a butt of her jokes too.
Margaret Cho: Every taping, she would sit in the front row of the tapings, and I could not even look at her because she would emit this low-pitch moan that only I could hear.
Margaret Cho: Ooh.
You know, she's 88 now, and so this is a very, like, special time, when you don't really treasure everything that she says. So that's a really big part of my work, is talking about her. And then everybody really loves, like, just to hear her voice through that, whether that's, like, because she thinks my haircuts: "The haircut very gay."
So, she thinks this haircut is the most gay that my hair has been. Well, she is right. But that kind of voice is like I think the thing that people are familiar with, because it's sort of like talking about the immigrant experience that is also when it becomes very right on.
Geoff Bennett: You have been doing this, as you mentioned, for 40 years. What's your greatest accomplishment?
Margaret Cho: My greatest accomplishment is just -- is, I think, inspiring comedians like Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang to further greatness, that they were able to see me and recognize that this is what they wanted to do.
So, yes, the reason that Ali Wong exists, the reason that Awkwafina is out there, all of these comedians, I think, were inspired by me. And that's my greatest achievement.