Q&A: Margaret Cho on Comedy, Feminism and Identity

Margaret Cho—comedian, actress, singer-songwriter, author and more—is a tour-de-force in the American public. A vocal advocate for Asian American, LGBTQ and body image issues and a public feminist, Cho has worked for decades to carve a space for the voices of the marginalized and been dubbed “Patron Saint for Outsiders.”

Cho, who brought the first Asian American family to television in the 1994 sitcom All-American Girl, has done it all and then some: She is a five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee, having released comedy albums, singles and music videos. She has written two books and made television appearances on shows from Drop Dead Diva to 30 Rock. She is an active voice in campaigns for LGBTQ rights, homeless rights, anti-racism and anti-bullying, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) has honored her with the Intrepid Award. She is fearlessly honest about her experiences with bullying, sexual assault and eating disorders, and countless people who have identified with her look up to her as a role model and icon.

Following the success of “The PsyCHO Tour,” Cho has just announced her upcoming tour, “Fresh Off the Bloat,” which will feature new stand-up comedy material on Asian American representation and personal rebirth.

“I’m talking about being fresh off drugs, drinking and on the brink of suicide and I’ve come back to life,” Cho says in the tour’s description. “I’ve finally been fished out of the river Styx.” Tickets for the tour can be bought here.

Ms. spoke with Cho about “Fresh Off the Bloat,” the influences behind her feminism and her Korean culture.

Photo Courtesy of Albert Sanchez / Ken Phillips Publicity Group

As you’ve said in the past, “If you say you’re not a feminist you’re almost denying your own existence. To be a feminist is to be alive.” Was there ever a particular moment in your life when you realized this necessity of feminism as crucial to existence?

For all the women in my family when I was growing up, in Korean culture, you never say your name. You only say who your son is, and that’s your name. Somewhere you lose your name, and then you’re only identified by where your place is in the family. It’s not subtle, but that misogyny is so engrained in the language. And working in comedy for as long as I have, I would do these shows and they would say, “Well we already have a women.” And there were, like, 10 guys on the show! When you’re in comedy, there are so few women compared to men, and we don’t have that same support of community that men do. We’re not as encouraged as men are, which is what makes women in comedy so close and tight. It’s that we need each other.

I’m Korean as well, so I totally get where you’re coming from—there are people who I just refer to as “ajumma” (a strong, outspoken middle-aged Korean woman) without knowing their real names, for example. In an interview with Salon a couple years ago, you actually identify as an ajumma, which is awesome. I don’t mess with ajummas, nor would I ever want to be on one’s bad side. But I also feel like to outsiders, an ajumma appears to be this stereotypical small Asian woman, one who is often found laughable by white people.

How do you go about living your life as an ajumma against these stereotypes? How do you think one can reclaim the term so that its true meaning is known—so that these women are recognized for who they really are?

I think the way I identify as an ajumma is the one who’s really scary, who everyone’s terrified of. Any way that you can discount a woman’s opinion, it’s always going to be through the stereotype, whether it’s the “dumb blonde” or the “feminazi.” People are always trying to discount women’s opinion by reducing them to caricatures, so the ajumma caricature is another in a long line of tropes that we have about women, and certainly women of color. But there is also merit in some of these stereotypes, like the ajumma that everyone’s terrified of—that’s real. Even though it’s a stereotype, it’s got teeth, so I admire that. We’ve got to let society work us the way that brings these stereotypes to our benefit.

You recently announced your upcoming tour, “Fresh Off the Bloat,” and TV project Highland. Can you talk a little bit more about these two projects, and what you’re most looking forward to about them?

I’m really excited to get back out on the road. I had the first Asian American show called All-American Girl many years ago, which was a very difficult experience. I wrote about it, and I did a show called “I’m the One That I Want,” and it was a good thing that I had stand-up comedy to deal with everything. Now, of course, we have the very successful Fresh Off the Boat, so [“Fresh Off the Bloat”] is about Asians in Hollywood and all of the things that have changed, and what is important to understand—whitewashing, all of this stuff we’re dealing with now, of course a lot about Trump, a lot about the way this whole election played out. “Bloat” is also about the politics of weight, through social media and all of these ways that women’s appearances are judged.

Highland is a show about a new Korean American family who are caught up in the big marijuana boom in California, the green rush out there, so they are the first family of weed there. You know, we’re seeing a lot of Koreans in the medical profession because their parents wanted them to and they didn’t want to go, and so they’re finding their new lives as pot doctors. This is part of that zeitgeist. It’s a couple of generations of a Korean family, it’s very new and exciting, it’s a new kind of Asian American family that we haven’t seen before.

Photo Courtesy of Ken Phillips / Ken Phillips Publicity Group

In the description for “Fresh Off the Bloat,” you say, “Koreans are the most savage of all the Asians.” I think that’s hilarious and, as a Korean, I think I believe it, but I’m wondering if you could talk a little more about the role your Korean culture played in contributing to the idea of “coming back to life” that you’ve used to describe the tour?

I think that Koreans love rebirth. If you look back on Korean cinema, the most common theme is revenge. There’s a continual rebirthing where we’re always being reincarnated and reborn, and a lot of times in Korea that’s like a trial by fire. In Korea, if you’re a celebrity and you break the law, you have to go into hiding for two years and then emerge victorious, so this is a reference to that cyclical thing that Koreans are really obsessed with. And we are the most savage. In Korea, we have the highest rate of eating disorders, we have the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world—all the women get it, and there’s no exceptions. It’s a very strange and very scary kind of society to live in. I’ve been there for my last tour, I performed there, and I was like, This culture is so strange and so repressed. If they have a gay pride parade, they ask people  not to take photographs in case they’re found out. I have a lot of really great gay friends in Korea who cannot come out, and they lead these really lonely lives. This show addresses that too.

How has your Korean culture influenced the style of your comedy?

There’s a brutality of language—Koreans just say what it is. There’s no weird politeness around, say, weight. You’re always judged by if you’ve gained weight or lost weight. The first thing anyone says is “you look fat” or “you look skinny.” There’s never any “hi, how are you?” It’s this weird thing where you’re always judged to a certain ideal, no matter what you do. And then there’s a status-oriented culture. In America, it plays out to “what Ivy League university did you go to? Because if you didn’t go, I don’t know if I can talk to you.” The Mercedes outside of the church parking lot, all of that kind of stuff. So I think it’s fun, too.

Who are your comedic icons, or just your icons in general—if you believe in icons.

I do. Of course, the great Joan Rivers, I love her. I’m also a big fan of my good friend Sarah Silverman, who is awesome, and Lena Dunham is great. Of all, I love Wanda Sykes. She’s an amazing friend, a great singer of karaoke, and hilarious. She’s a genius.

As a feminist, what issues are most important to you right now?

I think it’s just feeling a way to keep our spirits up, whatever that is. I love the women’s marches that I’ve gotten to attend, I love the resist march that I just did. I think that this resurgence of very old-school activism is really cool and really helpful, and we took a lot of things for granted before. I think that things are really different now, where we have to appreciate what we have, but we also have to fight for more.

There’s a lot of critique of feminist outlets for focusing too much on the negative issues and not enough on the positive. I think there’s definitely a very valid reason to focus on the negative issues, considering how numerous they are, but I also wanted to ask something more on the positive side—what, to you, is the best part about being a woman?

Being able to exercise your voice, to be heard, and having so many outlets in which this is possible, whether that’s social media or just being out there and sharing your truth. We have cameras now, so we can show you what’s wrong with everything. We can show you what’s going down. To be able to be a perpetual witness to the constant struggle of equality is really a beautiful thing. I love that.

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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