“It’s So Fun To Tell People That They’re Racist”: We Talk Whitewashing With Margaret Cho

By Sophie Verass, 18/7/2016

I first fell in love with Margaret Cho, when she played an intimidating Fashion Week coordinator named Lynne on Sex and the City. It was a bit part, but she still dominated the episode. An assertive Asian woman who was frank and funny, was not a typical side-kick for Carrie — once again, Margaret Cho was pioneering diversity on screen in her typically loud and unapologetic way.

Of course, the fact that Cho often appears as a sidekick is part of the problem. Cho first appeared on TV starring in the 1994 sitcom All American Girl, which was one of the first American sitcoms to prominently feature an East Asian family. When she’s not doing her day job (making people laugh by insulting politicians and/or the patriarchy) she’s campaigning for gender equality, LGBTQI rights and taking the racism of white celebrities playing Asian characters on film very seriously.

Cho made headlines earlier this year for pissing off a whole audience when she tried to make, quite possibly, the most unfunny of non-funny topics into comedy: sexual assault. The crowd booed and TMZ got a hold of the footage, and then incredibly, she made her way back to the comedy club in New Jersey, apologised and explained herself to the offended hecklers. I wonder, is trying to make light of subjects you advocate a perpetual challenge for someone like Cho?

Junkee: If you read the Vanity Fair article about Margot Robbie recently, you’ve probably been discouraged from doing your show here in September. According to the author, apparently we’re 50 years behind America, are you now worried about that?

Margaret Cho: I don’t think that’s true because you guys don’t have guns, so you’re very far ahead in some ways. I guess America has marriage equality… But the gun thing, is a very big deal here and you have a whole generation who has not even experienced anything like a mass shooting.

I’ve been to Australia a few times and certainly there are some different kinds of issues that Australia faces that we in America have also — issues like racism, sexism. And y’know, I guess we have the same issues too; we have Bill Cosby, you have Rolf Harris. So there’s a parallel. I certainly would not say Australia is behind — although I’d love to see marriage equality happen there. I just think, are you really going to let New Zealand fuck you like that, Australia?

I just watched your very engaging ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ episode with Jerry Seinfeld, and a big part of that feature was you making amends with an audience in New Jersey who kind of revolted during your show in March this year. Was that important to you go back and confess guilt, or just something fun for Jerry’s program?

Oh no, I was going to do that without the program, but Jerry decided to come along because he liked the idea, and it was something that had never happened before in the history of comedy. Comedians never return to where they had failed the audience, which really, I believe was true. And Jerry is great, Jerry’s been a great friend for many many years. But it was also the forcefulness of my own need to shift an idea of awareness and thinking about the topic of rape and certain subjects in comedy clubs, why are they uncomfortable to make into comedy. So that was a big deal too.

It was also important because it’s a stand-alone comedy club; it’s a small community and owned by a comic. It’s very important to support these businesses because this is where comedy comes from. So I wanted to go back and repair that relationship the club has with the community. That was my number one goal which I think I accomplished.

The thing with stand-up comedy is that generally, it is very controversial. Is it difficult being a comedian and trying to test those boundaries, discussing things like sexual assault and race issues in a ‘fun’ context?

It’s just about you having a point. There has to be laughter in it or else it’s not valuable to the artform. So there’s ways of getting there and often these comedy clubs is where it begins, where you can test your material. I get these different experiences and different kinds of reactions from people and it builds what I’d like to do in my shows around this topic. And it’s a huge topic every where and it needs to be addressed.

Let’s talk about Hollywood whitewashing, because you are very vocal about this issue and have protested it on social media. It seems to have affected many casting decisions recently, why do you think that is?

This is a long generation of tradition that’s happened in Hollywood and in other film industries all over the world, ever since the birth of cinema. You see people take ethnicities and put them on and take them off like costumes. And it’s so normal in cinema that it happens, but until now it’s hasn’t been properly addressed as racism. And that’s just the plain and simple fact of what it is. But there’s a refusal to acknowledge that in these industries, and especially when it’s a big part of film history. Really, it’s a big part of the wrongness of history as well, so we need to figure out how to shift that.

Do you think there’s going to be a change now?

There has to be because I have a lot of panicked film stars — I cannot name names — who are asking me for help of what to fix, or how to speak about it. And I don’t have any advice for them except just don’t do it. How about let’s have Asian characters played by Asian actors? Let’s remember that it would not be acceptable for anyone to do blackface in this day and age — why is it suddenly acceptable here?

What does the industry look like in terms of diversity to you? I saw an interview with you on The View recently and Whoopi Goldberg said, “there are lots of Asian American actors, we need to give them more parts”. But are there?

No [laughs]. Well, there’s a lot of actors, but there’s not a lot of work there. It’s a different industry now than it was, say, even 25 years ago when I was doing more television. There’s many more avenues and there’s many more platforms to use and to make a statement with your art. So you’ll see a lot more diversity there.

And the film industry is waking up to this, and of course doing damage control as quickly as possible. But still, it’s not working. Because I think people boycott films now, and I don’t call for boycotting, but I can certainly talk about the unfathomable racism behind it. I mean, that’s just the best [laughs]. It’s so fun to tell people that they’re racist.

I’ve never understood why people in privileged positions can’t ever poke fun at their own privilege.

I know, it’s hilarious.

Speaking of diversity, I’m interested in how you debuted in comedy and in particular stand-up. Stand-up is like mainstream sports, it’s so dominated by men. Did you find it challenging to prevail in an industry which discourages women from participating?

Not really, I really like it. I think it’s very hard, but that’s why I find it fun. I mean, I understand that there’s a great deal of sexism there, but there is also a lot of work for women. So, that’s appealing. It was very easy for me to get started and I had a lot of women supporting me too. A lot of women are very supportive of other women in comedy, and I think we need each other to figure it out.

I’d love to know what the vibe is like in the U.S. currently. As a politically in-tune person, can you tell me about the general conversations being had about Donald Trump as the Republican candidate. Are citizens fearful, shocked, what?

Well, he’s really not appropriate for that kind of a job. I’m not entirely sure what he’s appropriate for, but certainly not the presidency. It’s not necessarily easy to understand any of this, it used to be that presidents had dignity and importance to match that profession, so that’s completely gone out the window. And now it’s gone to somebody who can’t even blend his under-eye concealer into his make-up.

Will he be a subject in your stand-up tour you’re bringing here?

I will be looking towards Australian politics. I’ll be looking into gay rights and marriage equality, because it really is the one thing that has to happen. Particularly because Australia is so gay. I don’t know if it’s because I’m surrounded by the gay community when I go there, but I mean, you even have a Queensland — that’s very gay to me. It will be good, I promise!