|THE BUSINESS TIMES|
May 11, 2018 5:50 AM
If crude, confrontational, squirm-inducing comedy floats your boat, get ready for Fresh Off the Bloat, Korean-American stand-up comic Margaret Cho's no-holds-barred new show, coming soon (May 15) to a theatre (as long as it's the one in Kallang) near you. Despite her Asian heritage, Cho is no feel-good comic, lobbing friendly verbal softballs at the audience. Instead, she channels a brash onstage persona, taking on socio-political issues that are close to her heart. Shock, outrage - and laughter too - are high on the agenda. Her previous touring show was aptly named PsyCHO, and her music is not for the faint-hearted either: among her music videos is one titled (I Wanna) Kill My Rapist. Cho's stuff is some way removed from the innocent, inoffensive fun dispensed by the likes of say, Psy. Don't expect her act to feature any Gangnam Style-type dance moves.
Given that her brand of brazen, brutally honest comedy is based on tearing down social barriers and taking audiences way out of their comfort zones, absolutely nothing is off-limits. Cho, 49, has crafted a successful career by searching dark places and finding the humour in tragedy - starting with her own. Her act has touched on her looks, her weight, suicide, sexual identity, sexual abuse (see song title above) and de rigueur subject matter among edgy comedians, drug and alcohol abuse - all tackled on stage without an iota of embarrassment. Among other things, she's been a sex worker (a phone-sex operator at 15 and later a dominatrix), an advocate for the LGBT community, starred in a TV sitcom (that bombed) and served as co-host on a show criticising celebrity fashion choices (E!'s Fashion Police, since cancelled).
Stand-up comedy is Cho's first love, and it's her primary focus these days. She was born in San Francisco to immigrant parents and has been mining audiences for laughs since age 14, performing in a gay club next to her parent's bookstore. As an eight-year-old, she saw Joan Rivers on TV, was influenced by her caustic sense of humour and decided that she wanted to become a funny woman. Fast forward 35 years and the Los Angeles-based comedian gives the impression that there are many more sacred cows to target out there. The title of her current show is a playful take on Fresh Off the Boat, the popular TV comedy about an immigrant family in 1990s America. She calls her version "my sickest show to date". You have been warned.
You performed here two years ago. What's it like to bring your comedy style - which has been called "fearless" and "savage" - to staid, socially conservative Singapore?
It's a very exotic thing to be able to do a show in Singapore. In 2016 with the PsyCHO show it was really fun to play in a city that's conservative - but there's a need for people to break free, after all. I bring my own brand of danger; comedians create their own kind of danger and people want to flirt with it, but it's just comedy. What's great is that you can take on pretty much anything in a place where people are used to staying in their own lane, following the rules. My favourite thing to do in Singapore is to eat chicken rice - I cook it at home, although no Singaporeans have actually tried it.
Comedians in the US have plenty of material to choose from these days. What have you lined up for your show here?
There's a lot in my show, and I've got so much to say. There will be plenty on the #MeToo movement: what's great is that we're in a time where men are scared, it's just the best time to be a woman. We're in this era that is just so mind-blowing and you can't make it up: can you imagine (US President Donald) Trump (who has been accused of sexual misconduct) declared April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month? It's great material for some of us but not for someone like (American comedian) Kathy Griffin (who faced a public backlash after posing with a severed head resembling that of President Trump).
You didn't have a traditional Asian upbringing and you didn't follow a conventional career path. What do your parents think of your comedy?
They love it. They have a hard time understanding it because it's just like so raw. But they are so supportive and mostly they're amazed that I've been able to create a life from that. We are a politically conscious family, and my parents influenced the way that I live my life. We were a very New World Korean family, blending in with gay culture in San Francisco. They decided to go into a gay (bookstore) business; that's a very odd thing for a Korean family to do. It's also very funny - it formed the basis of what I do. My father is more of an archivist, a historian, he still writes columns for a Korean-language newspaper, and my mother still has a strong Korean accent - I still speak to them in Korean.
You have body tattoos but no taboos.Your comedy can be brutal but do you ever feel vulnerable on stage?
I think that there's always a challenge in doing stand-up - it's something that constantly surprises me. Comedy is a lonely process but it can also be really social, you're around a lot of people. You want to be able to take on anything and have the skill to be able to do it. I do stand-up shows every day, and that is the incredible realisation of a dream. A big part of stand-up is the repetition - in the end you just figure it out as you go along. I've been doing it for 35 years but you take a lifetime to become good at it.
You have spoken openly about being bisexual - what are your thoughts on the subject?
It's definitely something that's a part of my life, but it's been awhile because I'm spoken for. I'm not married but I'm engaged, so I will get married at some point (Cho has been married once before). His name is Rocco Stowe and he's also a comedian, we met through doing stand-up. He'll be performing with me in Singapore.
Good stand-up is about taking risks: has it ever gone badly wrong?
Bombing on stage is so rare but it's terrible when it happens. You want to take risks and do something different but if you want to grow as an artist, you have to be prepared for it to happen. What's the worst thing that's happened? The worst is yet to come, but the best is also yet to come.