"If you are a woman, a person of color, if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, if you are a person of size, a person of intelligence, a person of integrity, then you are considered a minority in this country, and it"s going to be hard to find messages of self-love and support anywhere. For us, to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution, and our revolution is long overdue!" concluded Margaret Cho at the end of her second smash-hit comedy show, Notorious C.H.O., released as a film last year.
Although Cho is something of a patron comic saint for society"s outsiders, her story in many ways traces the arc of the American ideal of hard work and success. Born to first generation Korean immigrants in 1968, Cho grew up in San Francisco, at the epicenter of the gay sexual revolution. "Some people are raised by wolves; I was raised by drag queens," she quips. Groomed to be a stereotypical Asian overachiever, Cho grew up self-conscious about her looks, and did not enjoy school. But she found her salvation in comedy, and started doing stand-up at age 16, in a club located above her parents" bookstore. Cho built her reputation as one of America"s most promising young comics through years of rigorous touring. By age 26, she had hit the big-time, starring in the ABC sitcom All-American Girl, the first ever to focus on an Asian-American family. Even before the first pilot was shot, however, things began to fall apart. ABC ordered Cho to lose weight, and she did, shedding 30 pounds in two weeks, and ending up in the hospital with kidney failure. Though the show went on, it was so steeped in political correctness as to be completely un-funny, and was soon pulled off the air. Cho"s nightmarish experiences in network TV and her downward spiral into drug abuse provided a wealth of material for her triumphant, tell-all 1999 off-Broadway hit show I"m the One That I Want, the film of which made record profits with just nine prints in circulation, and cemented Cho"s stardom. "They"d never seen an Asian-American role model like me before," she deadpanned. "I didn"t play violin; I didn"t fuck Woody Allen." She returned to the stage in 2001 with Notorious C.H.O., a bawdy, hip-hop inspired show about sexuality, replete with tales of drag queen guardian angels, colonic hydrotherapy sessions, a visit to an S&M club and lovingly-rendered, sidesplitting impressions of her eccentric mother. The genius of Cho"s comedy lies in her ability to dissect sexism, racism and homophobia with her razor-sharp wit, and she has been honored with several awards recognizing her contributions to the cause of civil rights and equality. "Self-esteem mixed with social commentary and really good dick jokes" is how Cho describes it. Her new show finds more hilarity at the intersection of the personal and the political, including the "Axis of Evil," Thailand"s red light district, loser exes and, of course, her mother. Cho"s "Revolution Tour" will make a stop at the Murat Theater on Sunday, March 2. Before hitting the road, Cho took time out to talk about politics, prejudice and Richard Pryor. NUVO: Revolution is the theme of your new show. What concept of revolution are you working from? MC: Small, everyday revolutions, in terms of protecting ourselves from everyday harm - especially minorities, women, gays and lesbians, people who have a tendency to be threatened or attacked just by virtue of who we are. To increase our personal power as well as our political power, and make our voices heard; to be able to get out of the zone where there is this ridiculous idea that we need to rise above racial epithets and construction worker cat calls and things like that. My solution is not to ignore what is going on, but to really scream at what"s happening, really protest what"s happening. I challenge anyone to do that. I"ve been doing it myself, and it feels great - as opposed to letting something burn inside you, and constantly going, "Oh, I should have said this Ö" If you have nothing to say, just scream. NUVO: That can be very empowering. MC: It"s incredibly empowering, and incredibly important. For so long, we have been told that politeness is a solution to the problems that we face as minorities, and silence is not the answer. Being very loud is the solution. That is our revolution - one of volume. NUVO: How do you relate that to a larger political context? MC: The small acts of revolution that we do every day add up to a very big change in our collective state of mind. One small thing like that is going to help you want to keep on defending yourself, and then your actions have an effect on other people. All of our actions are politicized in one way or another, whether we like it or not, that"s just the way the world is. To realize that, recognize it and use it for what it is, is really important. NUVO: In Notorious C.H.O., you talk a lot about self-esteem as an act of revolution. How much self-esteem did it require on your part to begin doing stand-up in the first place? MC: Oh, a lot. At the time, I really had no other choices, nowhere else to go. I didn"t have anything else I could do. I was very lucky that I went into the profession I did, because there was nothing left for me anywhere else. I failed miserably in school, and I didn"t have any sort of happiness socially. The only place I found solace, or any kind of joy, was in doing my comedy. Starting so young really made me fearless, because I didn"t know what to fear. I had no fear of rejection, and an incredible amount of confidence right off the bat. NUVO: So stand-up was kind of a last resort for you? MC: It was a last resort, but also my biggest dream. While I didn"t have anywhere else to go, or anything else to do, at the same time, I didn"t want to do anything else. NUVO: Does it take a lot of courage to get up on the stage with a microphone and nothing else? MC: No! I don"t think so. I"m not sure exactly what people mean by stage fright, or having a fear of the audience. They can"t kill you! There"s no danger in trying to make people laugh. There"s no danger in reaching for it, in trying for it. It"s very easy. NUVO: In your book, I"m the One That I Want, you write about a couple of instances earlier in your career about touring through the Midwest and receiving veiled threats from the Klan. MC: That was just stupid. That would happen to any person of color traveling. Or the stares that I would get, going into places where there was no one like me. That was hard, but it didn"t contribute to any stage fright. That was neither here nor there - it was just something that happened. NUVO: A lot of your comedy is very physical, and deals very much with the body in general, and your body specifically. Why is that one of the centers of your work? MC: Because it"s always been an object of derision Ö It"s this vehicle that I travel in. I"ve obsessed over it for so long, for so many stupid reasons, and I know that I"m not alone in my obsession. This is very common among people, especially younger women, so I"m trying to get people to talk about it, to experience with me the relief of letting all that go. NUVO: There is an interesting collective sense of relief, being in the audience for one of your films or live performances. MC: It"s exciting because it"s a new way of dealing with all of these physical traumas that we put upon ourselves. NUVO: Do you find that your work has become more political over time, or was it politicized when you started out, in terms of all the barriers that you had to break through? MC: I had no choice but to become political. There was nowhere else to go with my work; that I had a responsibility to politics because my ethnicity and my gender, my relationship with the gay community, that kind of stuff made it impossible for me not to be political. To not be political and to travel in those arenas would be very strange. Plus, minority artists are always expected, in a sense, to address race, or whatever they are. As if we need to explain the way we are, to explain away our existence. That has always been the case for minority artists, and certainly with me, because I come from so many different minorities. NUVO: Is that a point of frustration for you? MC: No. I"m very grateful for my career, and I love what I do, and I think that I"ve accomplished a lot. At the same time, I do believe that if I was a man, a Caucasian male, I would be in a much different place, a much more "commercial" place. I would probably be less political. NUVO: White comedians are rarely asked about their whiteness. If I were interviewing Jerry Seinfeld, I probably wouldn"t ask him about that. MC: Race and gender never come into it. They"re judged on the value of their work, whereas I constantly have to explain my gender and race. NUVO: Some of your funniest material on racism and other forms of discrimination plays heavily on different stereotypes - of Koreans, of gay men, for example. How do you go about deconstructing those stereotypes without simply exaggerating them for comic effect? MC: It"s done lovingly, and it"s done with a sense of dignity. The stories that I tell are true, and that"s a big part of it. To be truthful is to be completely guiltless - you"re just telling the story. That"s what I do - I just tell my story. I don"t feel I have to answer to that "Are you being an Uncle Tom?" question. Do I or do I not have a right to talk about my life as it is? Or do I have to change it purposefully because the "politically correct" community doesn"t want to hear these stereotypes? When you break down stereotypes, you need to explore them. It"s very complicated, and it"s taken me years to figure it out. I used to think maybe I was wrong for doing what I do. Ultimately, it"s about not being given the right to tell your story - if you have an Asian accent, you must be making fun of your ethnicity. Whereas, it would be weird if I gave my mom a British accent, because I wouldn"t be telling the truth then! I would be somehow hiding my race. So I have to be very conscious of this kind of stuff, and that is what makes my work very political. It sometimes bothers me because I always have to be concerned about that. I want to be an entertainer. That"s my first and foremost goal - that"s what I"m here to do. I don"t pretend to be some kind of pundit, but I would like the right to be, if I could. I think we have enough opinions of older males out there, and I would like to see some women and some people of color have opinions. Connie Chung doesn"t really have opinions, she just reports what happens, which is very different from, say, Bill O"Reilly, who gets to spout off whatever he thinks. I"m not sure why he"s entitled to do that, whereas somebody like Connie Chung has to be objective. That"s why it"s great being a comedian - I don"t have to worry about political backlash, because I"m still just an entertainer. It"s a very relaxed position to be in. NUVO: What do you think about entertainers and comedians like Janeane Garofalo using their celebrity to express their political views about the conflict with Iraq? MC: I think it"s great. I admire all those people for going out there and voicing their opinions about what"s going on. Hopefully it will create some change around the situation, which seems pretty dire at the moment. It doesn"t really look like anything is going to change W"s mind. No matter what, it seems very hopeless at the moment. NUVO: You probably hate being asked this, but as a Korean-American, do you have an opinion on the U.S." relationship with North Korea? MC: No. (laughs) I"ve never been there, and I don"t have any relationship to that country, yet it is assumed that I should have some thoughts about what"s going on there, but I don"t. Maybe that"s wrong, but I"m American. I was born here. I"m much more involved in American politics than I am with foreign policy. Because I am of Korean descent does not mean I automatically have an opinion about this, but that is assumed, because of who I am. NUVO: Chris Rock probably doesn"t get asked about how he feels about the AIDS crisis in Africa because he"s African-American. MC: It"s accepted that these people are Americans, and yet I have to somehow explain what I think about something I have no notion on. NUVO: Nor should you be expected to. You"re not a foreign policy analyst - you"re a comedian. MC: No, and I don"t understand it! That"s not part of my job. That"s not who I am, and that"s not what I do. NUVO: I wanted to ask you about Richard Pryor. You"re often compared to him, and you"ve cited him as one of your greatest influences. Do you remember the first time you heard his work? MC: It was probably Live at Sunset Strip, which was very funny, and remarkably touching and sad. He"s an amazing performer and writer, and he did so much for comedians who could talk about their lives honestly, and talk about the pain they had gone through, to take a moment to reflect on their sadness and their pain, and in a way that the audience could accept, and still laugh again after. Comedy is just as important as tragedy - it"s all combined, there"s no difference between the two. It"s all from the point of view of perspective, and Richard Pryor is the master of that. NUVO: Was it difficult for you to relate to his work, given the difference in your identities and experiences? You must have been fairly young when you saw his film. MC: Yeah, I was, and it was really exciting, like we weren"t supposed to watch it because he said all these bad words, and it was all really lurid and scary. I got so much from watching him later on - his body work, and what he managed to do through all of his years of trouble. It"s awe-inspiring. NUVO: Pryor is one of many brilliant comics who"ve had difficult personal lives, problems with substance abuse. What do you think the relationship is between the perceptiveness of the great comics and their tragic personal lives? MC: I think it"s a myth. There"s this idea about comedians that we have to be miserable, that inside we"re really crying. Mostly, I don"t feel that tragedy. I feel a lot of joy. I tried to be part of that myth, but I"ve found that even though I"ve had incredible ups and downs in my life, I don"t feel burdened by these problems, or destined towards some tragic end. NUVO: Had you hoped that your success in this field would have paved the way for other women and people of color in comedy by now? Do you see this happening? MC: I hope that people feel encouraged to follow their own path, and not be afraid to be "the first" at anything. Everybody is entitled to extraordinary lives, and all artists have the right to extraordinary success, regardless of race or gender. You should just do what you do, and love it, and enjoy yourself, because there"s no reason not to. Margaret Cho will perform March 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Murat. Call 239-5151 for ticket information or online at Ticketmaster.com. For more on Margaret Cho, visit margaretcho.com