We still have a long way to go on diversity, but today’s cultural landscape is much more progressive than the one Margaret Cho began telling jokes in.
In 1994, she was the lead in All-American Girl, the first Asian-American-focused sitcom, years before the modern hit Fresh Off the Boat. By 1995, the show was cancelled. It was a dark time for Cho, but it led to her ground-breaking special in 1999, I’m The One I Want. The vulnerability and fearlessness she displayed in that special would become the hallmark of her comedy. Despite multiple ventures into TV, music and political causes, Cho has always come back to her first love—standup comedy. In advance of her Jack Singer Hall gig on Saturday, Cho talked to Alan Cho about why she’ll always have something to say.
While diversity is a hot-button topic now, you’ve lived with it your whole career. Do you ever think about how that shapes your comedy? I don’t think about it too much. I just do the comedy I feel is right. The interesting thing is that political correctness is set up to protect people like me. I feel free to do whatever. Ultimately, I don’t care if I receive criticism. In comedy, every night is a chance to do something new, a chance to reinvent yourself.
But do you think there’s been a lot of progress in terms of diversity? A lot of progress has been made. Not as much for the bisexual community, but the LGBTQ community at large. And for minorities and people of colour, things are improving vastly. Especially with all these comedies with Asians and all these wonderful new voices in comedy. Like Ali Wong, she’s a friend of mine and she’s fantastic.
Your comedy has always been shockingly confessional. What does that come from? Really, it’s all about having new material. If you want to be a great comic, you really have to mine your life. As for the tradition of being so confessional, I followed Richard Pryor, who was a friend of mine and a great mentor. He was very open about his life, even about his drug abuse and setting himself on fire.
What was the big lesson you learned from Pryor? That you can lay it all out there. And as tragic as it is, it can be funny. In fact, the more terrible it is, the funnier it is.
What inspires you now in comedy? New material. It feels great to write a new bit and have it work. It’s the best feeling. That feeling never goes away. That’s what keeps me going, that challenge. I’ve been trying to work on certain premises for 30 years, and they still haven’t worked. I’ll make them work one day. I’ll spend a decade on a joke, because sometimes it takes that long.
Margaret Cho: Saturday, Nov. 19 at Jack Singer Concert Hall, Arts Commons. Pre-party, 7:30 p.m.; show, 9 p.m. $64 – $84. 403-294-9494, artscommons.ca.