Margaret Cho is, quite simply, a living icon of the stand-up comedy world. More than a comedian and entertainer, the San Francisco native is a strong-voiced activist for womens’ rights and the rights of gays and lesbians. And now the power she wields will only grow as her new VH1 reality show, The Cho Show premieres this week.
It’s difficult to tap into something unknown about a comedian that even your mother has heard of, but someone like Margaret Cho is nothing, if not an endless well of interest and creativity. Beginning in 1995, with the debut of her ill-fated star-vehicle sitcom All American Girl, Cho burst onto the scene as a fiery force of unforgettable, wholly enduring comedic appeal.
Sold-out concert tours and feature films soon followed; the first of which, I’m the One That I Want, famously documented Cho’s account of her sitcom’s implosion and subsequent alcoholism – painfully hilarious routines that pushed the seasoned stand-up veteran from household name to bona fide superstar.
As a celebrity, Cho, 39, is best known among her devoted legion of followers as a versatile Jill-of-all-trades, having spent her career wearing the hats of comedian, actress, political activist, feminist, and even burlesque dancer. Over the phone, she’s at once friendly and affable, treating the occasion more as a conversation than an interview. And with a brand new tour (aptly titled Beautiful) and an upcoming reality show The Cho Show premiering on VH1 on Aug. 21 , Cho is the miraculous breath of fresh air that the oversaturated Heidi Montag and Dina Lohan-market has been waiting for.
You’ve been a stand-up comedian, a writer, a political activist, a burlesque entertainer, and now a reality TV star. What job would you absolutely not be able to do?
Um… surgeon? [Laughs]. Although, I could assist, because I was in nursing school; I went to nursing school for quite a while, when I was very young, so I could probably assist in a surgery, but I could not perform a surgery. I mean, I could probably pull it off, but I don’t think anybody would want me to do that.
So you could hand the scalpel, but…
Yeah, I could hand-off shit.
What drew you to the world of reality TV?
Well, I just wanted to do the show and I really love VH1, and I’ve worked with the executive producer for my show, Rico Martinez – we’ve been writing partners on some other stuff – and we just thought this would be the right thing to do. It’s just the right time, and so we made it happen.
How did you get your parents to go along with it?
Well, I said, ‘It’s either this, or assisted living. You decide, or I’ll choose for you. Think fast.’ And that’s how it happened.
In the first episode of The Cho Show, we get to see some of the tension between you and the audience when you’re talking about the Virginia Tech shootings. When you decide to put potentially taboo subjects into your comedy act, how do you decide what’s going to work and what could possibly backfire?
Oh, you never know. You never know: it could totally backfire, at all times, and it’s sorta like you just gotta wing it. Everybody, all comics just have to wing it, and you have to figure out what you can do, and it just has to be like a leap of faith, you know? Sometimes you fall right on your fat face, and it really sucks.
What sets apart the Beautiful tour from the previous tours you’ve done?
It’s all new material. And it’s good because I took kind of a long break from doing a lot of stand-up shows; I was doing burlesque last year with Sensuous Woman [Cho’s 2007 tour, a hybrid of stand-up and burlesque dancing], and I was doing the True Colors tour. I was still doing stand-up in those shows, but I wasn’t focusing on my own show, so this is my own sho – my first one-woman show for many years.
Is the show themed completely around the idea of beauty?
No, but that’s part of it.
Has the media perception of Asian-American entertainers changed any since you first started performing?
I don’t know. I think there are a few more of them – not that much more – but… I don’t know. I mean, I guess now there’s more performers, but I think there’s a consciousness around race or a consciousness around talking about race. So yeah, things have changed – not significantly – but they have changed.
When you say a consciousness, do you mean more of a tip-toeing around the subject, trying not to offend people?
Yeah, there’s kind of a sensitivity around it, like around race, and a kind of awareness that this is a relatively new phenomenon, that we’re seeing more Asian-American faces out there than before. There’s a need to discuss it and frame it, to make conversation about race, so I think it’s positive.
How do you reconcile your having dabbled in burlesque performance with being an outspoken feminist?
Well, I think burlesque and the modern world of burlesque – the kind of dance that I do and the dancers that I know – are all incredibly feminist. It’s about women celebrating their bodies, and for my burlesque experience, the audiences tend to be almost entirely female. The shows and the content of the shows, the dancers are dancing for women. It’s a phenomenon that exists for women, by women; it’s a feminist experience.
I think that burlesque in the old days, in the 30s and 40s, was not a feminist experience – that was something that was for men, and those were the strip-clubs of the day. But now, modern burlesque, neo-burlesque it’s called, the way that women are drawn to it and the shows that are put on, it’s really a very feminist experience.
What would you say is the main difference between the way the shows are performed now, so that it caters to women, as opposed to the shows from the 30s and 40s?
Well, the audience is women, and the performers are hired by women. The way that the world is and the way that the beauty system works, you know, the way that beauty is sort of judged and calculated or how much beauty someone has, the show’s standards of beauty are very feminist. So, you know, amongst burlesque performers, you have a variety of body shapes and sizes, it’s very racially diverse, it’s diverse in terms of sexuality, so it’s pretty queer.
So I guess you’d say it’s more of a shift in the industry, the fact that it’s now staffed by women?
Yeah, and the industry, it’s reborn into itself, so the industry is now totally like feminist and driven by the desire to feel okay with your body and enjoy your body more.
You’ve said that you always wanted to get a tattoo, but were worried you’d grow to regret it. What made you change your mind?
Well, I realized that I was getting older and didn’t have that much longer to live. I didn’t have to live with it as long as I thought I was going to have to. I think when you hit a certain age you go, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t have that much time left.’ I was at thirty-five and I was like, ‘Well, I probably have thirty-five more years, so, you know, might as well do it now.’ And that realization that life is finite and it’s running out really makes you go, ‘Okay, I better get one!’
How did your parents react when you first showed them?
Oh, they hate it. They’re mad, because I just got another huge one on my chest, which is a very, very weird place to have a tattoo because it’s so visible; you can never hide it, it’s just kinda there. It makes you a very touchy person, in a way, because people always talk to you, and you kinda have to deal with that.
It’s kind of a conversation piece.
Yeah, which I didn’t need it to be, that’s not why I wanted to get a tattoo. I don’t want to talk to nobody. I didn’t need an icebreaker, I never do.
What is it a tattoo of?
The newest one is my peony flower, because my Korean name means peony. So it’s my name and it’s on my chest, and now I have three huge peonies.
What do you think is at stake in the upcoming Presidential election, in terms of women’s and LGBTQ rights?
Well, I hope to make sure that we hang on to gay marriage in California and elsewhere. But I think it’s great, and I think Barack Obama is going to be an awesome President. I was a campaign surrogate for Barack Obama, so we all helped him secure the nomination and we’re going to get to the White House, and I’m very, very excited.
You’ve been very open about your struggle with body image issues and self-esteem. What do you have to say to all the girls out there who feel as though they might not be pretty enough or thin enough to be successful?
That they are and that there’s no body size or right size. It’s about feeling good and feeling beautiful. You can do so much; you can feel sexy and pretty and it has nothing to do with what you look like; it’s all about how you feel.