Margaret Cho has earned a reputation as not only one of the best and most important standup comedians working today, but also as a hard-working activist. Both onstage and off, Cho speaks out for marginalized groups, most notably the gay and lesbian communities. Her new concert film Cho Dependent is currently airing on Showtime, and a DVD is scheduled for release November 22.
Who were your major influences?
I think Bill Hicks was pretty major. Richard Pryor. Joan Rivers is a huge influence. There are a lot of people. I also just love going to see comedy. I go to see a lot of shows. Right now I really love Neil Hamburger. He’s amazing. My favorite. I’m totally inspired by him. I also love Louis C.K. Maria Bamford is great. There’s a lot happening. It’s such a cool business.
It’s funny that you mention Bill Hicks because I’m wondering if you see yourself as one of these “truth explosion” comedians—someone in the vein of Hicks or George Carlin or Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce? Do you see yourself in this mold?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, those are the people that I really love. To me, that’s a very valuable thing: if you can be truthful, there’s something really joyous about it. And it also frees up your life a lot, too, to talk about things in a very honest way. So yes, I think so. I really admire those comics.
On that note, Carlin had said, “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn, and cross it deliberately.” Do you agree with this statement and, if so, to what extent?
Yeah, I think so. I think you have to cross lines and make it worthwhile for an audience. You’re really laying it out there for them and making it resonant. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I care about doing: making it a really valuable experience for people. And part of that is really crossing lines and crossing into boundaries or areas where other people won’t go—where other comics won’t go.
How do you straddle the line between pure entertainment and putting on a good show, and trying to be socially aware and crossing those lines?
Well, social awareness, to me, is part of it. The way I view things politically is part of who I am and what I do. But the other side of it is that you also want to be a good entertainer and not be an asshole, so you have to find a way to be political and, at the same time, be accommodating to people who don’t have your point of view, which I think is a good way to do it, or a way around it and still be entertaining. I think that’s most important.
You have a lot of different projects aside from standup comedy. Can you ever see yourself taking an extended break from standup?
No. No, I never have and I don’t think I ever will. I’ve done this for quite a long time now, so I don’t think that’s really possible. I think it would be weird. I really wouldn’t like it. The longest I’ve ever taken off is a couple of weeks, and that’s uncomfortable for me. Not uncomfortable to not do it, but when you don’t do it for a long time and then you go back to doing it, it’s very tough, I think. So it’s best to not leave too much time in between.
Can you talk a little about your acting? I always find it interesting when standups act in TV or film where it’s much more collaborative, whereas when you’re doing standup, you have pretty much 100% control. Do you have to give up a lot freedom when acting?
Yeah, but that’s OK. To me, that’s great—it’s wonderful to be a part of a big project and have a chance to collaborate with other people. They see things that you don’t necessarily see. I think it’s valuable. I really enjoy it and I’d like to do more. The thing about comics and acting is that, in general, we’re not utilized very much. We’re not trusted with very big roles or trusted with carrying a project. We’re always put in as something that’s supporting and funny, and that’s good, but I like to do things that are more central and much more pivotal, which I think is coming. But in general, comics are usually on the sidelines when it comes to movies and TV.
Cho Dependent is your sixth concert film. Considering all the other projects you have, I think the rate you churn out these hour-long specials is amazing. How are you able to be so prolific?
Well, I like comedy and I like to write sets and I like to tour. I really like to tour, and to me, you can only tour if you have new material and new shows. For me, a lot of the same people are coming to see me over and over, so you want to do a new show for them and have new material for them. In general, my goal all the time is to write new things and kind of “stay in the game.” You have to write and keep producing new material and keep growing, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.
In the press release for Cho Dependent, you said that this was the hardest you had ever worked on a project. Can you talk a little about what made this project so personal to you, or so important to you that you felt you had to work even harder?
Well, it’s really hard not just to write the jokes or not just to write new material for it, but then I was writing songs, which is really tough. I mean, I learned the instruments: I learned how to play guitar and I learned how to sing. I learned how to do everything properly, and also in the process to produce, how to put a song together—put the elements of it together—how to collaborate with musicians, too, how to make a song—a joke song—really comedic and also make it sound good. So there are a lot of things that I learned and worked hard on, and the end result was doing the show, singing with a choir, doing all these different genres, and not only that, but doing a full stand-up show on top of it, so there were a lot of different elements that went into the project.
You speak out a lot about gay rights and the LGBT community. What is it like to be at the forefront of this important social movement?
To me, it’s a very human thing, and it’s the people that I love and the people that I’m friends with. The political arena that I’ve chosen to be in is with LGBT rights, and all of my friends are in this political arena, and we’re all working together. Even though we’re very similar, we all have different points of view so I think it’s a very interesting community to be a part of. It’s a community I’m very passionate about, and there’s certainly a lot to be done, but it’s a great thing to devote yourself to.
Which do you think is more important: comedy or activism?
Well, comedy’s always my main focus. Comedy’s what I really am devoted to. Everything else is important to me, but those are more life things. I mean, comedy is my career. I think with activism, a lot of it comes with my social life and my relationships and everything. But comedy is always going to be what I’m most driven to.
Can you talk about the state of female comedy today? Who, in your opinion, are the best female comics out there?
I love Sarah Silverman. I love Kathy Griffin. I love Wanda Sykes. I love Rosie O’Donnell. I love Maria Bamford. I love Kristen Schaal. I’m such a fan of so many women in comedy. I think that comedy’s very good for women here. In England, it’s different. I spent a lot of time there this year, and I found it really tough for female comics to get work and kind of have a voice there. There are great female comics there but they don’t get as much attention as the male comics, and I think it’s just a different industry. It’s hard. But I did really well there. I do well when I go, I think, because they don’t consider me a woman, which is really weird. I’m not white and I’m not British, and so I don’t have the same social [standing]. They have almost a caste system with social values or social restrictions upon people in their country. It sets women in a weird way, and I don’t apply to that. I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a weird situation but I do find it tough there for women. Here, it’s pretty great. I think there’s a lot of female comedy—a lot of female voices that are very popular in comedy, and I think that’s great.
One of my favorite jokes of yours comes on Beautiful when you say that God is essentially telling all of us, “Don’t be an asshole.” I know that you used to be a Sunday school teacher. Can you talk about your religious views today and any struggles with faith you may have had?
My religious views are pretty open. I think I’m probably more spiritual than religious, although I grew up super-Christian. My family is super-Christian, but they’re Christian in kind of a 70s way. They’re not really judgmental and they’re not anti-gay. They’re not really any of these things that we sort of associate with Christianity now. It’s a very open, very loving Christianity, and that’s the way I grew up. I still have a lot of feeling for that. I don’t attend Church and I’m not in any kind of congregation, but I do have a great deal of admiration for many different kinds of religion, whether it’s eastern religions or sort of a western, Christian thing. I have a lot of respect for people who can have faith but find within their faith the ability not to discriminate against other people—people of other faiths. I don’t really have crises of conscience. To me, I’ve kind of developed my own relationship with religion and with spirituality that is very comfortable, and to me, it has its own morality and it has its own kind of value system that is about doing positive things and being good, and I love that.
I think a very strong case can be made for you as one of the most important standups of the last thirty years. How do you assess your own legacy? Do you ever step back and try to look at your career objectively?
Well, no, I don’t really have those deep moments of reflection. To me, it’s just a day-to-day thing. Every day is kind of like, oh, I’ll do a set. Later that night, I’m gonna think about what I’m gonna do and who I’m gonna see and hang out with or what’s gonna happen. To me, the dailiness is what I tackle. I don’t really look beyond. I rarely look back. To me, that’s not really my style, although I probably should. I think I’ve done a lot of good things, but at the same time, I’m kind of more focused on what’s coming up not in the too-near future, but just today.
Can you talk a little about your views on tattoos and what they do for you personally?
Oh, they do a lot. I really love it. I’m going for, like, a circus lady bodysuit. I love these women at the turn of the century who decided that they would go into show business but they couldn’t really do anything so they would get tattooed. And so I’m kind of doing that, but I can’t really get tattooed in places that are super-obvious: my hands or my arms. From here down [pointing to below the elbow] if you don’t have anything, it doesn’t look like you have any tattoos at all. So I’m kind of going for that, although I have a new one—a really huge one that I’m doing. I’m just kind of doing my whole body. Everything that you see is kind of under clothes. Like, my whole tattoo is one giant one. [Laughs] It’s really painful. I sat for a long time yesterday. I’m going in tomorrow for a huge session.
What’s a huge session? How long?
Four or five hours, which is pretty intense. The design is already done. We don’t have any more discussions about it so it’s just intense hours with the needle. And I can’t sit for all that long, so it’s a tough thing. To me, I love it, but it’s also something that is a little bit at odds with my work as an actor because you have to sort of remain changeable. But I’ve gotten around that by being very judicious.
They can work miracles with makeup, though, can’t they?
Yeah, it takes a long time, though. It does take a little more time than I’m willing to commit to. But fortunately, I’ve gotten away with a lot. The parts that I do, it’s not a huge thing where it has to be really visible, so I’m good.
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About the Author: Daniel Berkowitz is a Los Angeles-based graduate student focused on nonfiction writing and popular culture. He's currently working on a book about how comedy affects democracy. He also really likes baseball. Follow him on Twitter @DanIsPrettyCool.