Margaret Cho and the Practice of Turning Pain Into Comedy

margaretchoAn obvious product of the exuberant and diverse culture of San Francisco, comedian Margaret Cho has always provoked thoughts and laughter through her exploration of her own racial and sexual identity. It’s admirable, if sometimes a detriment, as people tend to label comics by their demographics. This became a problem for a few people who saw a certain Golden Globes skit. Because a small group of nay-sayers happen to have access to the internet, there were complaints against a Korean’s imitation of their own heritage.

But the reduction of a comic’s entire history to a single skit is as irresponsible as calling self-deprecation an act of racism. With Cho, we have a wonderfully dynamic voice whose vantage point of social issues has produced a singer/songwriter, TV host, author, music video director, and currently touring comedy professional whose creative fuel comes from a desire to see love uninhibited.

I recently had the chance to chat with Margaret over the phone about her current efforts with comedy and advocacy.

You’re on a pretty extensive tour right now. What can you share about it?

Well, I’m developing a show and I’m going to be doing a special in New York after I leave Nashville. I’m excited about it. It’s really about how to figure out a way to deal with all of the violence against women that I’m seeing in the news everywhere. It’s a very common thing, and it’s alarming, and I’m really angry about it. So the show is about how to deal with all that rage and anger over that. So it’s called “There is No ‘I’ In ‘Team,’ But There is a Cho in ‘Psycho.’” I’m doing the show, and it’s going to be a Showtime special. I’m going to be filming in New York. I’m excited to have Nashville be my big, sort of practice before I go film!

What specific examples of violence against women reflect these cultural attitudes?

I’m talking about Bill Cosby, I’m talking about Boko Haram, I’m talking about Jian Ghomeshi; he’s got allegations against him. He’s one of Canada’s biggest broadcasting stars. He’s somebody who has a big scandal around about violence against women, and of that violence he’s been a perpetrator of it. So it’s this sort-of escalating thing, with stuff happening with the NFL with Ray Rice, or even just the things that people are saying. John Grisham coming out in defense of pedophiles, or the dad from 7th Heaven. There’s a constant kind of thing where you’re seeing all these stories happen more and more everyday. I don’t know if that’s the way the news is, or if the source of it has grown or has become more socially… that we’re aware more because of the way that we see news in social media. So I don’t know what it is.

That seems to parallel the problem associated with school shootings. Some people claim that instances are over-reported, whereas others cite these instances as a trend, and that people should be very cautious.

Yes. I mean, it’s like where… I think that whether it is a trend or whether it’s just the way that information’s out there, I think we’re still going to have a lot of feelings about it. So it’s about trying to deal with those feelings. How do we manage that as people? So that’s my goal. And I’ll talk about a lot of the other things that I view.

I have a hard view because I lost my father in comedy, who was Robin Williams, and then I lost my mother in comedy, which was Joan Rivers. And so, I’ll talk a lot about the process of grief in comedy, and my relationships with both of them. I did a big homeless outreach because I wanted to find a way to remember Robin Williams’ legacy and honor him because he was such a big homeless advocate. So that’s why I wanted to put that out there. I did that for two months, and I’ll talk about that. But there’s a lot of different things. I worked on the Golden Globes with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and so I’ll talk a lot about that.

So with this show, you’re taking very ugly topics and tackling them head-on with comedy. What kind of headspace does that put you in?

Well, it’s really frustrating, but I realize that with comedy it can actually be very healing. When you can come at something that serious and really address it and talk about it, that’s really the magic of comedy. The alchemy of comedy. What we can do is really change the way that people think about it. I know that comedy’s been integral in the way that we view politics. Especially since the advent of The Daily Show, and Bill Maher. These are people that we really listen to when it comes to politics. And they’re comics. So I think that this is an important thing to acknowledge; that comedy can be very powerful in terms of healing and in terms of political action.

With Bill Maher particularly, he had a huge effort with the whole “Flip-A-District” campaign to remove people in power whose attitudes weren’t necessarily the best attitudes for the area.

Oh, he gets very involved. He believes in what he’s doing. Bill Maher’s got a lot of integrity, and he’s got a lot of intelligence about what’s going on. I love him.

Talking about the loss of both of your comedic parents, where would you feel that leaves you as an entertainer?

It’s really hard. I was much closer to Joan than I was to Robin. Robin, to me, was more of a hero. Robin was this very untouchable, great, heroic… beautiful spirit. He was really the father figure of San Francisco comedians. He took a great interest in a lot of us financially. He took care of a lot of people. And I think that for me, what was really hard, was that he knew how to give but didn’t know how to receive. That was something that I had known for all of the time that I’ve known him. That was a really tough thing to just know that he had died in a very lonely, very tragic way. The grief that all of us felt in San Francisco, we couldn’t really manage it. So my homeless outreach really came out of me being unable to stop grieving him. And Michael Pritchard, who was also a good friend of Robin’s and a great homeless advocate and comedian said “Don’t grieve Robin. Be Robin.” And so that led to me doing street performances for two months to collect money for the homeless. That became this huge thing where I was able to raise a lot of money and give it to homeless organizations and have a great time out on the street doing shows for homeless people. So that was powerful.

And with Joan, Joan I was really close to. Joan was the person who I would go to if something bad happened. She was really a guiding light. That’s something that I have a very hard time with still. But I think it’s important to talk about because I want to honor her, and I want to share what our relationship was like and share some of the things that she said to me. Because I think that people should really know. I think that it’s fabulous!

On the notion of advocacy, and you stepping into these shoes in a way, who would you say are your biggest allies tackling these issues of homelessness, violence against women, and pride in sexual identity or race?

Well, I would say… well, Joan taught me to be really unapologetic. And grateful. Robin was really there to be a tremendous example of “how to be” in the world. And generosity was his religion. So that’s wonderful.

But I get a lot of inspiration. I grew up in the age of Harvey Milk. He’s somebody that helped me to understand politics, gender politics, and the politics of sexuality, and being part of a community. Being part of the LGBT community. Learning how to harness our political force. That’s something that I was raised with. He’s a big hero. But there are so many people who are influential, that I’ve learned so much from my life. I’m so grateful to so many of them. And some of them are very big, close friends of mine, so it’s not just sort of a “hero worship” thing. There people that I get to see and be around. I’m very lucky.

Are there any of those close friends with whom you’re working on current projects? What about your association with Amanda Palmer?

Oh, she’s wonderful! I have not seen her for a bit. We have not worked together for a while, but she’s somebody that I’ve toured with, that I’ve written with, that I’ve sang with, that I just adore and love. Her and Neil [Gaiman], her husband, both. They’re both wonderful. I’m a tremendous fan of theirs.

But I work — I just spent New Year’s Eve, and I just spent every single holiday, with Bob Mould. We did Thanksgiving… and Christmas… and then New Year’s Eve together which is just tremendous because we had a really good time. He helped me on my homeless outreach, and I get to eat at his house with him. Then we went to Chicago to ring in the new year and do a big show. So that’s really “rock and roll” and really fun to get to sing with him and play with him. The man that I just admire and love. That’s sort of the “rock and roll” stuff. I’m also making a record with Roger Rocha from 4 Non Blondes–

Really?

Yeah, he’s wonderful! He worked… he was my musical director on the “Robin projects” because we were busking on the street with huge horns and strings and everything. It became this huge thing. So we’re making a record right now. That would make three albums that are currently unreleased that I’m trying to figure out when to release them. I’m also doing all this comedy stuff, and a TV show, so it’s really hard to figure out when to make time for music since it’s not my primary profession, but it’s something that I love to do. So I’m trying to figure it out.

Sure. In the near future, do you think that you’ll have time to combine both efforts? Or dedicate the required time to fully realize your musical projects? Maybe something from Margaret Cho that sees both comedy and music on the same front?

Yeah! I mean, that would be the ideal. I was kind of able to do to it with my first record, Cho-dependent, which I got a Grammy nomination for. So I was working with a lot of people. Some of it I did in Nashville, actually, with Andrew Bird. So that was really great to be able to work on that there with him. It’s something that I’d love to combine and figure it out. My main thing is spoken word and doing standup comedy. To be able to combine it to where I’m putting my songwriting and comedy would be something I love to do. I really take a lot of inspiration from “Weird” Al Yankovic who is truly the master of that.

In addition to comedy and music, you’re also hosting a television show?

The new show that I’m doing on TLC is called All About Sex. It’s a talk show, and it’s sort of an advice show. It’s on TLC on Saturdays. But it’s all about sexuality and advice, and being open on all these issues. It’s a new kind of role for me, but it’s really fitting and really fun.

One last question: Dirtiest sex story you’ve heard so far?

Well, there’s a lot of different kinds… I think it would be hard to say. I’ve heard a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot, and I don’t regret any of it. But sometimes… I think what I really long for is just to hold somebody’s hand. (Laughs) That’s the one thing that I haven’t done. That’s the most crazy thing I haven’t done yet. That might be the most shocking thing.

Cho’s show All About Sex airs Saturdays 11/10C on TLC, and viewers are invited to join the Twitter dialog with #AllAboutSexTLC. For information about Margaret Cho, her tour, and other projects, visit MargaretCho.com.

Photo by Todd V Wolfson.

Justin Stokes is a hack writer based in the Nashville area.

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