Comedian undaunted: Margaret Cho takes on racism, homophobia and sexual abuse in standup show

Published on: November 16, 2016 | Last Updated: November 16, 2016 2:00 PM MST


In retrospect, Margaret Cho probably should have interpreted the election-day calm on the streets of Los Angeles as eerie and foreboding rather than reassuring.

It was Nov. 8 and the comedian was chatting with the Calgary Herald via cellphone. In those early hours, she was confident that Hillary Clinton was poised to take the White House.

“The streets are very quiet in a way,” she said. “It’s much quieter today than I anticipated. I thought it would be more of a riotous thing.”

While we did not have direct access to Cho after Donald Trump’s surprise win that night, the comedian and activist’s subsequent tweets suggest surprise quickly gave way to defiance. When the results were coming in, she tweeted “This is dread. This is what that feels like for those of us who have been fighting all along.”

But the next morning she wrote: “We just didn’t do enough. Now we have to do it all. It’s not over.”

Within a few days, she was reporting from the front lines of an anti-Trump protests in Portland. Earlier this week she posted a picture of herself in front of a Hillary-as-Wonder-Woman mural with the words “I’m more liberated and motivated than ever to show this motherf — ker what we’re made of. #ImStillWithHer.”

For anyone who has followed the 47-year-old comedian and musician’s career, it’s hardly surprising that she would come out swinging. In fact, even when she was confident of a Clinton win, Cho acknowledged there would be plenty of work to do by progressives in her country after a bruising election campaign revealed America was not nearly as enlightened as she had hoped.

“We now know what extent the problems are in our country with racism, sexism, with Islamophobia, with homophobia,” she said. “There was a lot of bad stuff unearthed due to this election year. You realize the sort of darkness that exists in American politics. ”

While none of this sounds particularly funny, Cho’s comedy has always delved into dark terrain. For decades, her act has been filled with insight about race and sexuality. She has long been a champion for equal rights and vocal supporter of the LGBT community. Beyond that, her standup act has also been personally revealing and cathartic, often to the point of being uncomfortable. She has been open about the racism, bullying and sexual abuse she suffered while a child and teenager in San Francisco. So when she brings a new standup show to the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Saturday, it’s likely that the social horrors she regular addresses — rape, racism, misogyny and homophobia — will have sharpened poignancy in the Trump era.

“The show is going to be pretty dark,” said Cho. “It’s about what is happening politically but also where I’m at as a person. It’s fun. It’s sort of a mid-life crisis show.”

Cho gained some unflattering media attention  seven months ago when audience members walked out on one of her standup shows in New Jersey, where the comedian reportedly gave a rambling performance where she talked about sexual abuse, forgot punchlines and sparred with hecklers. She later said she had been suffering from jet lag and mourning the death of Garry Shandling, one of her comedy heroes who had just passed away.

Late last week many outlets were reporting that she was living in a sober-living house after a stint in rehab, something she reportedly revealed in a standup act in early November.

Cho, of course, is hardly the first comedian to exorcise her demons on the standup stage. Dark autobiographical fare has always been a gold mine for witheringly honest comedy. Earlier this year, she also released an album that showed her skills as a singer-songwriter. Like her comedy, the guitar-pop, Americana anthems address social issues with honesty and humour.  Ron’s Got a DUI is a love song to a generation of gay men who were lost to AIDS. Fat Pussy is about body image, while the cathartic I Wanna Kill My Rapist was turned into a video that features Cho and more than a dozen armed women chasing down a rapist.

“I think it’s just about finding a way to talk about these truths that is really effective,” she says. “No matter who you are, these kinds of feelings of inequality and awkwardness and dark insecurity are very familiar to everyone. It’s just a real joy to be able to take something sinister and difficult and make it very potent comedically.”

Cho began her professional standup career at 16, where she gained an early reputation as a “Patron Saint for Outsiders.” She won a comedy contest that earned her a spot opening for Jerry Seinfeld. Arsenio Hall had her on his late-night talk show and even Bob Hope enlisted her for one of his prime-time specials.

Not long afterwards, she developed American Girl for ABC. It was a controversial, and short-lived, sitcom that proved too edgy to network brass who forced her to water down her vision.

But with television’s new golden-age now specializing in the unfiltered vision of comedians such as Louis C.K. and Donald Glover,  Cho’s brand of humour and uncompromising standards would likely be a much better fit.

“TV is in a really great place, it’s my hope to try to be a part of that,” she said. “There’s a lot more diversity in terms of storytelling and how we watch television. People really look at it now like 12-hour movies. It’s just gone to a different place.”

 Margaret Cho will appear at the Jack Singer Concert Hall Saturday