Margaret Cho’s one-woman revolution

Thursday 10th, November 2016 / 12:05
By Christine Leonard
Photo: Courtesy of Pixie Vision Productions

Photo: Courtesy of Pixie Vision Productions

CALGARY — Considering that she’s one of the most versatile and prolific performers working in the entertainment industry today, compiling a list of the things Margaret Cho isn’t doing right now would probably take less time than recounting the plethora of ventures and causes that she’s currently involved with. A Grammy and Emmy Award-winning actress, comedian, author, singer, and activist; her resume of accomplishments is as impressive as it is honestly come by. Cho’s road to success has never been clear, or straight (for that matter), but her determination to find her voice and make it heard has paved the way for countless artists to come.

“I don’t really make a plan. I kinda like to sort of see what’s going to happen,” says Cho from her home in the rolling no-cell-phone-receptionhell-mouth hills of California. “I’m always so busy anyways. I don’t have the luxury of thinking ahead, I just sort of let everything kind of happen as it will. I will continue to expand in my field; I’ll do all sorts of different acting projects, as well as a lot of different television projects. I would love to have a talk show, that’s kind of my big dream. That would sort of encapsulate all of the worlds I’m in: whether it’s music, or journalism, which I’m very interested in, or comedy. That’s something I would love to do.”

A return to the sitcom universe would not be entirely inconceivable for the 47-year-old Cho, who has made her own unique mark on the genre on a number of fronts. Her Korean-American family loosely inspired the groundbreaking 1994 sitcom, All-American Girl, in which Cho portrayed Margaret Kim, a rebellious teenager who flaunted her tattered denim and modern moxie much to her traditional parents’ chagrin. The short-lived show continues to be referenced as one that set the stage for those all-too-rare sitcoms that have dared to enter into the forbidden realm of immigrant and non-white households. Looking back, Cho could not have anticipated the exponential effect those first tentative steps would have on the rest of Hollywood.

“No, not at all. I had hoped that it would and I wish it could have continued, but it’s great that people remember it,” says Cho of All-American Girl. “And also, I think now with shows like Fresh Off the BoatMaster of None and Doctor Ken we can see how our show had a great impact on the people who would grow up to make these shows. And I’m very proud of the legacy of it.

“And now, I’ve got to step into the role of the elder statesman, which I love too and now I realize that this is necessary. To know that you’ve broken ground for all of these people, and Asian comics in particular like Ali Wong, and Bobby Lee or Ken Jeong, making way for a new archetype. That is the elder statesman. I love that role and I’ve very happy to play it.”

Fourteen years after the conclusion of her pioneering series, Cho would return to the small screen at the head of her own reality-sitcom on VH1, The Cho Show. The “semi-scripted” program focused on Cho’s lifestyle, and relationships with her family and a retinue of celebrity pals such as Sandra Bernhard, Michelle Rodriguez and, perhaps most memorably, Joan Rivers. Cho would go on to become a co-host of E!’s Fashion Police in 2016, applying her eye for style and acerbic wit to that television panel just as Rivers’ had prior to her death in September of 2014.

“I love the sitcom format, it’s one that I grew up with — one that I spent a lot of time on,” Cho confirms. “To me, it’s a really great old-fashioned way to tell a story. There are a lot of single-cam shows these days, but I do love a multi-cam show. I just do anything that makes me laugh, that makes me think, and that makes me feel like I want to be a part of it. You know, something like Fashion Police is great, because I love clothes. I make clothes. I love the art of it and all of it is very pleasing to me; also that fact that it’s the legacy of the Rivers family: the family that I am a part of. Joan Rivers was like my mom; she was great. So, it would have been something she wanted, for me to be a part of that show.”

Sadly, Cho had just lost another of her showbiz parents with the death of Robin Williams in August of 2014. Cho was often scheduled to appear after Williams during her early years of performing in comedy clubs. A strategic move that she’s pretty sure he’d arranged just to make her work that much harder, and thus get that much better at. With the help of friends, Cho organized the Be Robin charity campaign to provide outreach to San Francisco’s homeless population. A cause that was extremely important to the late comedian.

“Yeah, it’s fun being involved in all this charity work like the #BeRobin project. It was a way for all of us to come together and honour our dead dad. Robin Williams was like our dad. It’s horrible, you know. So getting together and have a place where we can just get crazy is something that Robin would have loved. And raising money for people in need, it’s really exactly something that he would do. And something that was great fun to do in order to deal with our grief and incredible sadness about it, and have a blast!”

Touching hearts and minds with her penchant for delivering social scrutiny with a jolt of humanist humour, Cho has steadily moved beyond self-parody into the realm of self-actualization. The reality of having finite resources to distribute between many avenues of creativity has codified how Cho prioritizes her endeavours. Building off of the momentum of her Off-Broadway acts “I’m the One I Want” and “The Sensuous Woman,” she most recently recorded her stand-up special “psyCHO” and is currently touring a comedy show of that name. Accustomed to her role as the brave face of the generic Asian-American, Cho strives to bring grace and fortitude to her ever-expanding role as model citizen and comedic orphan.

“One of the things that I really love about my profession is that I feel like I make comedy very safe for people who do identify as outsiders. Whether you’re gay, or any ethic minority, or a feminist. Comedy clubs were never safe for women, even now. It’s pretty rough sometimes. Especially with a lot of comedy about rape that’s not really anti-rape. There’s a lot of misogyny in comedy that I feel is not addressed. So I like to work with that. I think ultimately it’s about being funny and then finding some kind of levity in the pathos. You want to really address very deep subjects, but also it’s got to be filling, and ridiculous, and really side-splitting. I don’t wanna get just bogged down with messages and ideas. I want things to be funny always, but I want to find my way through it.

In end, it all boils down to a microphone and a spotlight.

“I identify myself as a stand-up artist outside of everything else I do. I’ll always return to stand-up comedy. It’s something that is a constant in my life. It’s something that I do every day. I’d just feel weird if I didn’t do it every day. It’s just who I am. You just have to love what you’re doing. I think you have to fall in love with it every day and try to connect with it every day. Being an artist is not any different from being a human being. Art is as important as breath, or movement, or water, or anything. It’s just vital to practice it.”

Margaret Cho brings her psyCHO comedy tour to the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Sat., Nov. 19.