Margaret Cho is a multi-talented entertainer whose massive skill set includes singing, burlesque, acting, writing and standup comedy. From her early days as a teenager at the zenith of San Francisco's comedy scene, Cho has brought a fearless honesty to her many endeavors. While Cho is a performer first and foremost, her outspoken advocacy and various humanitarian efforts have won her both awards and a considerable fan base among LGBTQ and Asian-American communities. Cho currently co-hosts the late-night talk show All About Sex for TLC, but her television resume is massive, with highlights including a starring role on Drop Dead Diva and a memorably hilarious arc as Kim Jong-Il on 30 Rock. Cho has also published two books, including the autobiography I'm the One That I Want and the essay collection I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Westword caught up with Cho before her headlining engagement at Chautauqua Auditiorium on Friday to discuss the Psycho tour, what it was like to start comedy at the age of fourteen, and dressing up as a dictator.
Westword: Is this visit to Boulder part of a whole, big tour?
Margaret Cho: Yes. There’s two shows in Colorado this year. The first one is in Boulder in June, and the one in Denver will be part of a very big tour.
When’s the Denver show?
The Denver one is November 13 at the Paramount. The Boulder show is sooner, it’s on June 26 at the Chautauqua Auditorium.
Are you currently prepping to record an album or a live special?
I just did record a live special in New York. That will come out in September, and then I’ll do the tour for that show starting in October.
So, when you’re in Denver in November, it’ll be in support of this most recent special.
Do you have a title for it yet?
It’s called “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team,’ but there is a ‘Cho’ in ‘Psycho.’”
It’s a little unwieldy, but I’m certainly not going to forget it.
I like those albums sometime, where they have a really long, weird title. I think that’s funny. My friend Fiona Apple just did one with a very long title. I’ve had sort of long-ish title in the past. I’m the One that I Want is definitely kind of an awkwardly long title, but it works well. I love this show and I’m really excited that I’m doing it, so it’s going to be great.
So, you’re still pretty active in San Francisco, where you started out doing comedy. Do you still live there?
I still have a place there, but I live in Los Angeles most of the time. I live in an art commune when I’m in San Francisco. I’m from there.
There was sort of a comedy boom there when you started out, right?
There was a comedy boom there. That was a big part of my upbringing, just figuring out how I could be a comedian. I started very young. I started at fourteen and, of course, the boom influenced me a lot.
A lot of comics were starting out in that environment. Have you noticed how the city has changed in the intervening years?
It’s still very big now. Comedy is still very much a thing, and I think it’s revitalized, too, because San Francisco is quite a young city. With the tech boom, people are always going out and comedy is very popular. There’s a lot of comedy shows happening and so there’s a lot of comedians being supported by audiences who come to see them nearly every day.
The tech boom also makes it such an expensive city that I know a lot of comics who feel like they’ve been priced out.
Oh, yeah. It is really expensive, so a lot of comics probably do live outside of the city. There’s a big scene in Oakland and the other cities around it.
That’s too bad. It seems like they have a special thing going on there, but it’s threatened by commerce. The Cynic Cave keeps needing to have crowd-sourcing fundraisers just to stay open, you know?
It is threatened, but there’s a lot of work, too. There’s a lot shows to be done, and a lot of things you can do here. I like the city itself because it’s easy to maneuver around. It’s where I’m from, so I’ll always have some sort of connection to it.
So as far as the other projects you’ve pursued, i.e. writing and acting, have any of them called upon you to take a long break from standup?
Not really. I mean, there have been times when I have taken breaks because I was working on something else, but it was not on purpose, you know? I would always rather still do comedy. It’s also a really weird thing to do if you don’t do it all the time. The stress of doing shows as a comic is only alleviated by doing shows often. So when you don’t do them often it becomes a much larger thing in your mind to cope with. So I just prefer to work as much as I can so that I never have to start over. Sometimes you have to essentially start over in your mind about where you are as a comic, and it can be pretty tense.
A lion’s share of your material is generated from your personal life, right?
It all is. It’s all stuff that I experience or stuff that I want to discuss.
Have you ever had that comedian moment when you’re in the middle of a big life event and you detach from it a little bit and think: “This will be hilarious eventually?”
Oh, yeah, all the time. You’d hope that that’s what they lead you towards. You never know, though.
I wonder if that detachment is itself sort of a coping mechanism.
Being funny, I think, is a coping mechanism. For a lot of people, that’s where it develops from. That’s probably why you see a lot of mental illness in comedy. I think it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of us are pretty crazy. So, it’s an obvious coping mechanism to obsess over things and look for those details.
Well, you started when you were fourteen. Everything you do when you’re fourteen is a coping mechanism.
Yeah, that’s true. Doing comedy was just a way to be an adult, for me. A way to grow up quickly.
So, how was the experience of starting out so young? Were you just doing all-ages nights and coffee-shop open mics?
No, I was able to go do shows at real comedy clubs. At the time, there was a place called the Other Cafe, which was a home for people like Paula Poundstone and Dana Carvey. You’d see people like Bobcat Goldthwait there every day. Then there was the Holy City Zoo, which was where Robin Williams had actually been a door man for a long time. He had a lot of connection with that club, so he was somebody that I would see often. So I would just do it. You could perform even if you were too young to be in the place.
How did audiences respond back then?
I think it was always very different depending on the audience. They were always very welcoming because I was such a unique voice. A lot of the people there were so much older than me, they were men and most of them where white. It was a different point of view. My ethnic background, my age and my gender really set me apart, but I think that was always welcomed.
Do you think that phenomenon is unique to San Francisco? Audiences seem just as likely to tune someone out because they feel like they’re different or think that they can’t relate. A different point of view isn’t interesting to them. Have you had that experience elsewhere?
I think that everywhere I’ve gone, my work has been welcomed because I am different. Of course, you have to have the substance to back it up, but it really is about capturing the attention of people for that moment where you can prove that you’re actually worth listening to. That’s a really great thing.
Do you ever really bomb anymore? I imagine for the most part that your audiences are full of fans who’ve come to see you specifically at this point.
No, it doesn’t happen much anymore. You sort of just learn who you are. I’ve been doing this for 32 years now, so you get a sense of what’s going to do good. You don’t have the same lack of awareness about how you’re affecting people as you do when you start out. Actually, after about maybe five years in, people sort of stop bombing as much because they don’t have the same kind of ignorance about what the job is. Now it’s just degrees of personal depth. You want to do well for your own sake as an artist. You have to establish what that means for you.
Maybe "activist" isn’t the right word, but you’ve been a very vocal supporter of LGBT rights and you have a huge following in the community. When did you form those beliefs and decide that you wanted to be an advocate?
Oh, very young. That was around when I started doing comedy, and I was definitely in the same kind of mindset as most of San Francisco back then about a lot of gay politics and AIDS fundraising. I did a lot of fundraising, just to do good work in the community and do benefit shows. I grew up amidst the politicization of AIDS and —I really do think of myself as an activist— and I became one through that journey. When you do a lot of different kinds of speaking, going beyond fundraisers and benefits, when you’re protesting in front of City Hall and doing these things that go outside of what you do as a performer, that’s when advocacy becomes activism.
Has your activism cost you anything career-wise? I’m sure that turns away a certain audience, but would you even want that audience anyway?
I don’t know. I’ve always just been myself and enjoyed audiences who enjoy my work. I don’t know if it’s kept me from anything I’d necessarily want to do.
Do you have any projects coming up or in development that you wanted to plug?
Well, my special for this tour will be out on Showtime in September. I have a movie coming out on demand; it’s also on Amazon and Vudu. It’s called Tooken, it’s a parody of the Taken series with Liam Neeson. I actually play a man! I’m really excited about it; I love playing male characters. For some reason, that seems to have been good for me.
You played Kim Jong Il on 30 Rock.
Yes, and Kim Jong Un. I enjoyed that. I think it’s a very freeing and fun thing, to be able to transform. So yeah, that movie will be out and available online in the near future.
How did the movie come together?
I’m friends with Lee Tergesen, who is the star of Tooken. He just called me the week that they were starting. They had a person, a man, who was supposed to play that character fall out at the last minute and they were looking for a man to replace him. Lee kind of suggested me for the part and it turned out really fun.
When you were on 30 Rock, did you get sort of a subversive thrill from playing a dictator?
Oh totally. It’s my background also. My family is from Korea, and it’s a weird thing because Korea used to be one country, and they don’t really have a sense of the separation yet. Even though it’s been 65 years. So it was satisfying to be able do something — you know it’s quite a terrible regime— so the comedy that we generate from it is really important. I’m probably the only person who can make those jokes, really, so I’m glad about it.
Awesome. Well, I think that's our time. Any closing statements?
Well, I can't wait to come to Colorado. I'm so excited. I'm a big marijuana activist also, and I have not been there since the legalization. I've been trying to push for legalization for a long time, and I'm thrilled that it's working there. It's really amazing.
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Margaret Cho brings her PsyCho tour to Chautauqua at 8 p.m. Friday, June 26; tickets range from $40 to $55 on the Chautauqua website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.