"In comedy and in humour you can find hope. When we laugh we can actually feel optimistic about our situation … It can be a really powerful force.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comedians of All Time, fiercely candid Margaret Cho sticks two fingers up to Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump in an interview with Megan Rogers.
You’re well into the first leg of the tour for your new show ‘Fresh off the Bloat’. You’ve described the show as you ‘coming back to life’ after the relapse you suffered with substance abuse which led to depression and suicidal thoughts. Could you tell me about that experience?
When you have depression it’s really very hard to get out of it yourself. It’s like quicksand the more you struggle the more you fall in deeper. I needed to go away for a while. I was in this very old school institution which I think was necessary. I had to go somewhere and just colour and have fights with other crazy people. I took art therapy and that was really important. I’m really happy that I did it but I’m really lucky that I got out alive and I got out relatively unscathed. It’s a miracle.
The title inspiration for the show came of course from Eddie Huang’s memoir, but also from your Grandmother, who told you that you ‘look bloated as if you’ve been found dead in a lake’. Is the show as disgusting as the inspiration?
There’s a lot of stuff about my family in there, which is pretty savage, and also funny. But it’s also about the bloated nature of American politics. There’s a lot of stuff about Harvey Weinstein which is very important with what’s going on at the moment. I’ll be talking a lot about sexual abuse and rape which are big topics for me as a survivor myself. It’s a big step in the way you look at the world. It’s something I’ve been on about for many years and I’m glad that it’s getting this kind of attention.
Speaking about Harvey Weinstein in particular, what impacts do you think high-profile exposure can have on the subject of sexual abuse?
Think about all of the countless women who have no voice and have no way of speaking out. There’s so much to think about in terms of where we are in society and how we deal with people like that. It’s got to come out in the open. It’s the best thing for it. It’s terrible for all the women who endured that but it’s the best thing that can happen because it did happen.
It happened to powerful women in the world. Look at Angelina Jolie, she’s the biggest star, and she was forced to be silent. There are people who are defending him! People like Donna Karan and Woody Allen. It’s so insane. You can make fun of what’s happening there but there’s got to be a respectful way to talk about it. I feel like I have that because I am a survivor and I know what it means to speak out against your abuser and to talk about what’s happening here.
You use comedy to kick taboos in the balls, and to give political and personal issues a platform, but you’ve also said that you view comedy as a ‘good distraction’.
In comedy and in humour you can find hope. When we laugh we can actually feel optimistic about our situation, whatever that is. It’s something that helps you, something that is really life-changing. It’s about community too in that we can laugh and stand together on this. So I think that comedy can be a really powerful force.
'What I love about my art form is that it’s funny and then it hits you with deep-throat honesty. '
You’ve consistently appeared on screen but it’s been over a decade since you’ve taken a lead role with such personal connotations. What is the significance? Why now?
This was a show that I wanted to do for a long time, it was the right time and the right project, and just the right… feeling around it. I wanted to devote myself to it because I was at a point where I thought, ‘I could do more here’, and now I’m doing more and it’s great. I loved this project, I worked really hard on it and it’s a very new kind of project for me.
‘Highland’ has contextual similarities with ‘All-American-Girl’ in terms of bringing Asian-American families into the spotlight. Could we consider ‘Highland’ to be a sort-of sequential ‘fuck you’ to All-American –Girl now that you’ve got the power to have creative control?
Yes, it’s exactly the thing that I always wanted to do, that I always wanted to make. I have complete control. I’m lucky that I get to do this and I’m really happy about it.
You co-wrote the script with Liz Sarnoff. Her previous works, ‘Lost’, and ‘Alcatraz’ have carried a real dark psychological edge. Has she carried this over into the ‘Highland’ script?
Definitely. There’s a lot of darker content here. Certainly, from what I’ve done in my acting work this a really great opportunity for myself and everybody in the cast. We really love the project and we really love each other.
Is ‘Highland’ then intended to garner a more serious approach to the themes of substance abuse than your stand-up show?
I think so, but it follows the same kind brand. What I love about my art form is that it’s funny and then it hits you with deep-throat honesty. There’s a couple of things happening when you’re trying to be a good comedian and that’s that really dark edge that I think is very important because that’s what life is about.
Soon you will be making an appearance on the in your first sci-fi action film, Netflix Original ‘Bright’. Set for release in December 2017, starring Will Smith. It’s quite different than anything you’ve done before.
Well I love David Ayer, I love his movies, I love Suicide Squad, he’s a genius. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done. Actually, the way that we made it was as a sort-of hard-core, gritty cop drama. We were not aware of, or physically around, any of the incredible special effects. You saw elves, and you saw orcs, but they never jumped out of this context of a cop drama. I had so much fun and I’m looking forward to doing more action movies.
How was it working with the Fresh Prince?!
I was so starstruck that I kept forgetting my lines and I had a lot of words to remember. I could notdo it because he was right there. It was like, ‘What am I doing here?’. You think that when you work with somebody like that it’s gunna be fine, it’s easy, and then he’s there. I was totally nervous. He’s great to work with and we had an awesome time.
'People talk about feminism and how there’s so much equality but you need to say, ‘wait a minute, that’s not true’.'
You’re clearly naturally musical, and your most recent album ‘American Myth’ secured you a third Grammy nomination, but what is it about music that drew you to use it as a political platform?
I just like music. I love making music, it’s part of my life. It’s a very social part of it, you know, it’s what I do with my friends. I’m surrounded by performers so we’ll get together and make music, it’s really special.
What do you think your music achieves that’s different to other forms of comedy?
It’s a challenge to make things fit into song-form, it’s always different thinking ‘How can we make this a song?’ Jokes are just made to make you laugh. A lot of people say that stand-up is the hardest thing a comedian can do; I don’t actually think it’s that hard, probably because I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s something that you kind of get a handle on whereas songwriting has taken me much longer to figure out.
Do you think you’re so comfortable with stand-up because you just don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks? *laughs* Yeah, I really don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m old now so I don’t give a shit. Which I think is good but I think you also have to be compassionate, especially if you’re talking about sexual abuse. You’ve got to have the experience. You can’t really talk about sexual abuse until you’ve been a survivor. You don’t have the right to make fun of these issues if you don’t suffer from the consequences of them. So it’s about not giving a shit and also about giving a shit, you have to care about what people are feeling, and understand what they’re feeling.
People talk about feminism and how there’s so much equality but you need to say, ‘wait a minute, that’s not true’. I’m offended when men are making jokes about it so blindly not understanding the impact this has on so many people, and how triggering it is for people who it’s happened to. It’s really scary.
You’re notoriously vocal about your opinions on Present Donald Trump, and politics in general. Why do you think American sentiment fostered the success of somebody like Trump?
It comes down to racism and the bizarre inability to credit Obama with success because he is a black man. It’s like a weird backlash against race where it’s so misguided. Nothing makes sense about this. Nobody likes this president anywhere. You know, the people who voted for him are deeply embarrassed, I think, about their choices and they now have to suffer from them, we all have to suffer from them. It’s absolutely crazy that Donald Trump’s president at all, and really, something needs to happen.
President Trump and Kim Jong-Un are both about to push the ‘Big Red Button’, condemning the world to nuclear oblivion. You can call one person, dead or alive. Who would you call and what would you say?
Oh god, I don’t know! Someone who could come to the rescue… Maybe Gorbachev? He might be the right person to say “Hey, we don’t need a war” to. He might be able to save us.