Margaret Cho

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday October 6, 2015
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Summarizing the past few decades of Margaret Cho’s career in a single interview is like attempting to stuff a cloud of genie genius back into the bottle. Known mostly as a stand-up comic, Cho has branched out into TV, films, social causes, books, music and more. She'll bring her new PsyCHO tour to her hometown on October 15 at the Castro Theatre, and that's the main point. To witness perform live is to have your soul tickled and spanked.

Cho's current tour is taking her to 22 U.S. cities, and almost a dozen gigs in Europe through the end of this year. But the Castro Theatre show holds a special place in her heart. Born 46 years ago in San Francisco, Cho enthusiastically shared memories of her early life in the Bay Area.

"I'm very proud of my background there," said Cho from her Los Angeles home, where she's lived since 2000. "It's probably because I come from San Francisco and was born into an amazing culture that I'm the way I am."

Longtime fans of Cho know her early comedy routines about her Korean parents and their life running the Polk Street Paperback Traffic book and magazine shop, which included gay erotica titles like the infamous Ass Master .

"I grew up in the era of all of those exciting events," Cho said of the emerging gay community. "In the '70s on Polk Street," [the gay neighborhood before the Castro became its center], "everybody looked like the Village People, or like a live drawing by Tom of Finland. All these people came from around the world to find acceptance and love. Just to be around that, I found the experience helpful."

Recalled as an era of tragedies as well, Cho said, "It was also a very harsh and emotional time, and incredibly devastating; Harvey Milk's assassination, the Jonestown massacre, really such an enormous era. We were a block away from The Peoples Temple in the Tenderloin."

As a teenager, Cho had problems in school after a series of sexual assaults, until she was accepted into the San Francisco School of the Arts. Among her classmates were actors Sam Rockwell and Aisha Tyler.

Cho eventually found a queer community, despite not knowing herself what she was. "I felt very unsafe around men, but felt protected with gay men. I thought I was a lesbian at first, but then realized I was bisexual."

Her early stand-up work developed as the nearby queer culture emerged with a renewed activism. Around the time she premiered shows at Josie's Juice Joint and other venues, Cho performed in many benefits for AIDS nonprofits, and the San Francisco branch of the activist group ACT-UP.

"All this stuff was so thrilling, and relates to the story of my own development, wanting to talk about the world," she said.

As she developed her irreverent material, Cho landed a series of gigs, opening for Jerry Seinfeld, appearing on a Bob Hope special, and on The Arsenio Hall Show. In 1994, Cho was lauded with the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian. Numerous awards, including a second Grammy nomination this year, would follow.

But the sitcom All-American Girl, while eagerly anticipated by fans, became a bit of a Waterloo in 1994. While recent comedy shows with autobiographical themes and Asian-American stars have been enjoyed by viewers (Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken ), Cho was, as is often the case, ahead of her time.

Cho's humor was too risqué for TV executives, one of whom also criticized the star's looks, which led to health risks from her crash diet. The jokes and Asian-American characters were lambasted as being too stereotypical. After 19 episodes, the show was cancelled. A bout of drug and alcohol problems followed for Cho.

Margaret Cho in her Los Angeles home. photo: Mary Taylor

On the Road Again

But recovery, in her life and career, thankfully became the fuel for I'm the One That I Want, her successful 1999/2000 tour (also filmed as a DVD) and related book.

Subsequent tours included Notorious C.H.O (2002) Revolution (2003), Assassin (2005), The Sensuous Woman (2007), Beautiful (2008) and Mother (2013). Cho was also part of Cyndi Lauper's music and comedy tour True Colors in 2007 and 2008.

The comic actor has enjoyed more than a bit of revenge in TV land, with hilarious guest-starring spots as Kim Jun Il on 30 Rock . That role garnered Cho an Emmy nomination, and ironically, viewer complaints when she performed as Kim Jong Il at The Golden Globe Awards. Other TV shows in which she's performed include The Nanny, Sex and the City, Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World, Sordid Lives and Drop Dead Diva.

Music has also become a refreshing outlet of expression, and Cho composed a series of songs that became her album Cho Dependent (2010). She's also collaborated on various music and video projects with The Dresden Dolls and The Cliks. Cho can also be heard on the weekly podcast Monsters of Talk with Jim Short. She also costarred in the amusing 2004 indie film Bam Bam and Celeste, and the AIDS drama It's My Party, even the thriller Face/Off.

Margaret Cho in her Los Angeles home with her Chihauhua, Gudrun. photo: Mary Taylor

Talking the Talk

Speaking openly is a trademark of Cho's humor, as is her ability to discuss some unpleasant and personal topics while still making audiences laugh. She recently got divorced from husband Al Ridenour after announcing their separation last December. Her family life is a part of her material, as are her own personal struggles.

"I've been talking about being sexually abused for a while, including in my first book," said Cho. "There's so much of a need to talk about rape and sexual molestation. You can turn the events of being a victim into becoming a survivor. It's something that's difficult as a standup comedian. People feel so empathetic, it's hard to laugh. I figured out how to address it, with a song called 'Kill My Rapist.' It's really an anthem, a very cathartic thing. I premiered it in Oakland for an audience of mostly women, many of them lesbians. They'd never heard a song like that. I encourage people to sing with me, until everybody is singing it and screaming the chorus!"

Cho said that fans have shared their stories with her as well. "I figured out a way to talk about it that wasn't insensitive, and instead empowering."

After discussing the latest bout of queer, trans and political topics, including Black Lives Matter, Cho expressed an enthusiasm for what she sees as a cultural shift.

"This time is so beautiful, because we're finally addressing these problems with language and society; people in the trans community, and other sexual minorities, are pushing the way that language is used. It doesn't work when it's used to silence us. Because of my multiple minority status, I'm one of the people who could be complaining, but I'm working with it. I do have a bit of a free pass to explore it."

Surprisingly, her October 15 show is Cho's first solo gig at the Castro Theatre.

"The only time I performed there was one time at the Gay Porn Awards," she said. "But I've seen so many movies there; All About Eve , so many others. It's an amazing place."

Asked about her new material, Cho said, "It'll be about anger and this rage that I'm trying to turn into comedy. Whether it's about gun violence or homophobia or all of this violence against women, it's a very charged show. I think it's the right thing for right now."

Oh, and there will be weddings.

"I got deputized to marry couples by [then-Mayor] Gavin Newsom in 2004," said Cho. "I'll be marrying couples onstage."

For info on applying to be wed by Margaret, visit:

Margaret Cho in her new show, PsyCHO.

Cho Biz

Along with equality on the marriage front, we discussed aspects of the performative nature of her life, including her self-expression through multiple tattoos, and her appearances on a few perhaps unlikely TV shows.

Of her body ink, Cho mentioned Everlasting Tattoo on Divisadero Street as her local favorite.

On her appearance on the reality show Wife Swap : "It was just a chance to show my family and my life in a different context than what anybody knows, to normalize my life alongside others."

Margaret Cho on Dancing With the Stars with Louis Van Amstel in 2010.

And, a personal favorite, Cho's appearance on Dancing With the Stars in 2010, where she was paired with openly gay pro dancer Louis Van Amstel. Cho donned a rainbow gown for one number before being eliminated after three weeks.

"I wanted to take that opportunity to talk about gay teens and suicide," she said. "I wanted to wear that rainbow-colored dress and dance to Barry Manilow, to tell kids to stay alive. It was a very intensively Gay Pride-focused number. Unfortunately that was not what people wanted to hear and that's what got us voted off."

Having been chewed up by the TV machine years ago, it's refreshing to see Cho taking it back and using it in idealistic and subversive ways.

"It's an opportunity to present these ideas, kind of like performance art; crashing into this mainstream arena, bringing up feminism, sexism, homophobia."

Speaking of feminism, Cho recently praised pop singer Miley Cyrus for some of her bold acts on and offstage.

"Sometimes people have different definitions of feminism," Cho explained. "Chrissie Hynde labeled her a sex worker. That hurt me, because I'm also a former sex worker. It's a very demeaning way to talk about sex work, as if we are the lowest of the low."

Attempting to define seems futile, when she herself is constantly evolving. Her recent work with the #BeRobin campaign raises funds for homeless projects, and commemorates her recently departed mentor, Robin Williams. Similarly, Cho's new show, which is also on Showtime, combines storytelling and more than mere comedy. She's become a queer comic in more ways than one.

"Queer, I think, fits me more than bisexual; nobody wants to claim that. I think gender is not two binary routes. It's actually infinite, so queer is more of an accurate term. It's a political term."

Margaret Cho brings her PsyCHO tour to the Castro Theatre, Thursday, October 15. 8pm & 10:30pm. $35-$55. 429 Castro St.

Watch more clips on the Margaret Cho YouTube Channel.