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MARGARET CHO

Margaret Cho: 'There needs to be more' representation for Asians in film

, Palm Springs Desert SunPublished 12:00 p.m. PT Oct. 15, 2019 | Updated 12:03 p.m. PT Oct. 15, 2019

Margaret Cho has opened many doors for Asian-American entertainers as an actress, stand-up comedian, author and singer-songwriter. The bisexual feminist icon has also been honored by the National Organization for Women, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and PFLAG for her activism.

But Cho has also survived sexual abuse, body issues and childhood bullying. In 1994, she starred in the ABC sitcom “All-American Girl,” as Margaret Kim, the daughter of Asian-American bookstore owners in San Francisco struggling with their traditions and the American experience. During filming, executive producer Gail Berman reportedly criticized Cho for her weight, which led to an eating disorder that caused kidney failure.

“All-American Girl” was not a hit and was cancelled by the end of the first season, but it was one of the first television shows to portray an Asian-American family. Cho returned to stand-up comedy in 1995, when she was also dealing with an addiction to drugs and alcohol that was apparent during her performances.

But by 1997, Cho had recovered and her career started to rise. She appeared in the 1997 film “Face/Off” with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and her first one-woman show “I’m the One That I Want” was a hit. She opened up about her struggles with her ethnicity, weight and drug problems, and she wrote an autobiography with the same title as her show.

She continues to be a successful comedian and hosts a podcast, “The Margaret Cho,” where she interviews people such as tattoo artist Kat Von D, screenplay writer Diablo Cody and Runaways frontwoman Cherie Curie.

Cho performs at the Palm Springs Cultural Center Oct. 19 as part of the “Outlandish” series.

She spoke to The Desert Sun by phone to discuss current events and some of her past struggles. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

THE DESERT SUN: How do you feel about the current news cycle and political climate as a comedian?

MARGARET CHO: It’s interesting because there’s a lot of things to joke about and people who get super offended, and then they get angry. It’s challenging, but there’s never been a better time because everyone is on the same page, too. We all get news the same way at the same time and everyone is up to date on everything. There’s a lot of references you can make that weren’t possible before.

What do you consider good comedy material these days?

It’s mostly, “How are we going to get out of this mess?” It’s so crazy. Everyone is so scared right now and it’s probably because of (President Donald) Trump. It’s not just he’s an idiot, it’s so embarrassing for us and the rest of the world. It’s not feeling like it’s getting any better; it’s getting much worse.

Have you traveled abroad and heard responses to what’s happening in the United States?

Yes. Most people are aware it’s not really our fault, and most people understand this can happen. They know it’s a very trying time and people are worried for us, and they’re scared themselves.

Has there ever been an Asian audience member who's told you they’re offended by your references to Asian culture in your comedy sets?

I don’t think that’s happened. It’s not like that, because it’s very true to who I am and how my family is, and that’s part of the Asian-American experience. You talk about your parents in a way that separates you and makes you more American. We’re always trying to be more American by escaping the foreigner part of our families, and it’s a very familiar Asian experience.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of Asian-themed films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell.” What are your thoughts on this?

I love it, and I hope there will be more. I think there’s more representation for Asians in film and there needs to be more.

You were on the sitcom “All-American Girl” in 1994, which was about an Asian-American family in San Francisco. Do you feel that show was ahead of its time?

I think so, but “The Joy Luck Club” was at the same time. At the time, we thought there would be more diversity and things would change or we would have much more of a presence. It didn’t happen again for a long time until now.

What’s it like to do a "Sharknado" movie?

It’s so fun. It’s also really rewarding because you don’t see the Sharknado in the filming and you have to wait until after it gets added with special effects later. You don’t really know and you have to approximate what the reaction would be if you see a Sharknado.

Do you have any good John Travolta stories from working with him on "Face/Off?"

I watched him eat an entire boysenberry pie with a fork. I ate with him a couple of times, and I ended up gaining so much weight making that movie that they had to add a panel in the back of my costume to expand a couple of inches.

Is it therapeutic for you to take the very trying and sad times in your life and make them part of your comedy?

It’s therapeutic and fun. It makes the hard times worth it if you have a good story to tell from it and a good experience to share. That turns something very negative into something very positive.

You’ve admitted to having weight issues and eating disorders during the ‘90s. What do you think about that all these years later?

You have to find peace with it. It’s really hard if you’re in entertainment because you’re constantly being judged on your size, especially for me being a part of the ‘90s when there was so much rampant anorexia out there. It was difficult to have a true sense of what a body should look like. There really isn’t a right way to be, it’s just your own comfort level and how you feel. It’s certainly a struggle for people like me. I opt out of the struggle and don’t care anymore. It’s something that I did care about for a long time.

There was a time when you did burlesque and had a television show where people called in to talk about their sexuality-related issues. You’re a very sexually open person yourself. How does one feel comfortable expressing their sexuality when it feels forbidden in society?

There’s so much of that in the mainstream with "50 Shades of Grey" becoming a huge phenomenal hit. They even have a sex toy range that came out with the movie. I think people are finding more of an ease of talking about it after seeing the movies and reading the books. I don’t think it’s an accurate portrayal of what the world is, but it is valid and a depiction that takes away the stigma around it.

Do you ever get tired of doing st

and-up comedy?

I’m always writing new material and challenging myself as an artist. I’m always trying to be better and that constant growth is something that keeps me going.