By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
She’s brassy. She’s bold. She’s Asian American. Her home is a sanctuary for rescued animals and neighborhood birds (28 bird feeders so far). Her stage is a sanctuary for marginalized groups. She fills many creative, activist roles in support of women, Asians, and gays. She’s Margaret Cho, and she’s bringing her newest live comedy tour to Spokane and Tacoma in July.
When Cho first came on the scene in the 1990s (she was only 14 when she opened for Jerry Seinfeld), she was a combination that didn’t exist in comedy: Asian (Korean American), female, and queer.
“I had lots of things to say, and it was exciting because it was such a different perspective,” Cho said. Her uniqueness gained bookings yet caused consternation in those unused to a variety of gender identities. Cho identified at that time as bi, which she never tried to conceal, but felt she had to do so much explaining that she settled on “queer,” being that “it’s the only word we have.”
Cho believes “gender is very infinite” and today embraces an identity of asexual. “That’s something that’s really underrepresented but still part of the queer landscape…Asexual is a real sexuality…that I’ve just discovered coming out of—I don’t know if it’s the closet—coming out of the refrigerator?”
For every person who was confused or uncomfortable with Cho’s sexuality or her racy language (she openly discusses—and sometime mimics—sex, the body, and race), there were another 10 who had finally found a sanctuary in live comedy. Cho brought in a different crowd, people who felt threatened then by alpha male comedians—and still do feel that way: Asians, women, and gays.
“There were a lot of people coming to my shows who never felt they could participate in comedy because normally we had been the butt of the jokes. Especially in the 80s with ‘Asian driver’ jokes…it was super weird to go to a club and feel like you’re not going to be assaulted verbally…That gave me a lot of space to grow as an artist.”
The Weekly talked to Cho about the trend in comedy today of these same types of comedians who feel threatened by what they lump under cancel culture but what is really society’s efforts to “level the playing field,” as Cho described. “It’s really what society has permitted for so long from a white supremist, male-centered hetero-normative point of view—that hetero is normative—[which] has been so permissive in violence in language, violence in everyday speech, the way that we allow language to be sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, transphobic.” Cho allows that the point of humor is to shock, or offend, yet “comedians…are tasked to now be more skillful in the way they address things.” Cho herself has dealt with sexism and racism from her audience, other comedians, and the acting industry in which she struggled for some time to gain a foothold.
“It’s not a flat blanket statement of what can we talk about, what can we not talk about. It has more to do with how can we…amend where society has done wrong to so many different marginalized groups of people?” Her advice? “Just do better jokes!” And try to understand where other people are coming from. People who were always there but did not have a voice.
“It’s not like they never had these [grievances]; they just never had a place to air them.”
Cho has been busy with different projects from TV to movies, such as the just-released “Fire Island.” Her comedy tour has been off and on due to COVID-19, but she still loves stand-up. It’s a part of her social life, and an “integral part” of her being. She has taken advantage of some downtime during the pandemic to focus on caring for animals.
“I’m just a big nature lover. I have hundreds of plants. It’s a very important part of my life.” One of Cho’s rescue cats is deaf, and they have developed a special way of communicating. “My cats make me really starstruck.”
When she visits the Pacific Northwest, her topics will include racism and gun violence, especially towards Asian Americans and the gay community, and “how awfully close it hits to home.” When Cho spoke with the Weekly in June, a U-Haul full of white supremacists had just been apprehended on their way to riot at a PRIDE event.
“It’s a real fear. It’s not imagined and it’s not just ethereal. That combined with…continual gun violence—it’s not ‘escalating’—we’re just so afraid all the time.” Funny even when upset, Cho commented that the truck full of white men were “also really gay…all crammed in that U-Haul, dressed exactly alike! And using…the U-Haul, which is the most holy lesbian vehicle—How dare you!”
Cho looks forward to coming to Washington.
“It’s going to be fun.” She loves the weather, which is “good for my hair” and she is appreciative of the history of Asian immigration here, especially in Tacoma. She doesn’t think she’s changed much over the years. What has changed is the landscape, which has more space for women, Asians, and queers than when her career began—partly thanks to her.
“I’m the same in that I really still just want to do a good job and be thoughtful about the kind of comedy that I do…I want to be funny but also, I want to challenge myself.” She still loves to talk about her parents, particularly her mother. She finds it amusing that, “even though they’ve been here since 1964, they still kind of don’t identify as American.”
There will likely always be comedians with an alpha, hetero male perspective, and they will likely have their audience. Yet now, due to frontrunners like Cho, other stand-up household names like Ronny Chieng, and up-and-comers like Joel Kim Booster or Bowen Yang, “Times will change. It’s just that now, times are changing more in line with my way of thinking about what we can talk about, what we’re able to do as artists.”
Cho’s show promises to be full of the bold language and behavior she is known for. She will help us find humor in the unfunny because, as she expressed, it’s what we need in hard times. “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. If I don’t laugh, I’ll die. We have to find hope in it or else it’s absolutely hopeless.”
Cho’s comedy tour will be in Spokane July 7-9 and Tacoma July 28-30. To purchase tickets, go to margaretcho.com/tour.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.