No holds barred and funny as hell: the fierce humour of Margaret Cho
One of America’s most politically outspoken standups is finally bringing her savage brand of comedy to Britain
If you have never heard of Margaret Cho, think the caustic, crude comedy of Joan Rivers, the politically-charged jibes of Bill Hicks and the quick-witted improvisation of Robin Williams – all rolled into one but with a feisty Korean twist. Now the US comedian is about to embark on a UK tour, starting in Edinburgh on 25 November and ending at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 10 December.
Cho is a five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee and a household name in America, and earlier this year Rolling Stone magazine named her as one of the 50 best standup comics of all time. She has worked with all the above comics, and others such as Jerry Seinfeld, but says her greatest mentor and influence was Rivers. “I try to carry on her legacy,” she says. “I feel like I learned everything I know from her.”
For a comedian like the openly bisexual Cho, famous for her brazen take on sex and politics, there has never been a better time to hit the road.
With the daily tweet-fest that is the presidency of Donald Trump and the sexual harassment revelations rocking Hollywood, Cho says the material is flowing like never before.
“There’s a lot about Trump, a lot about race and sexuality, and politics. I get to talk about all that kind of stuff, which I think is really important,” she says.
Cho, 48, is also open about having been sexually assaulted and raped by a family friend as a teenager. The allegations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have inevitably brought that back – but for her, comedy is healing.
“I never thought I would see anything like this in my lifetime. I’m a survivor of this kind of stuff so it’s really amazing to see it happening,” she says.
“It’s disgusting, but that’s what’s great about comedy. You can take something really terrible and make it funny. And that’s magic, that’s what we all strive for, to take things so dark and so difficult and make them very light,” she says. Dealing with difficult subjects, sometimes in difficult circumstances, is trademark Cho.
At a recent fundraising bash in Washington DC she was waiting in the wings with fellow headliners Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno when one of the theatre reps rushed up and whispered in her ear: “Whatever you do, don’t talk about Trump!”
Cho recalls: “Everyone suddenly seemed really scared. It was so weird.” At first she thought it might be the president himself. But as she looked out into the audience, Cho clocked his daughter, Ivanka, with husband Jared Kushner, one of Trump’s closest aides.
She thought about it for a split second, but carried on regardless – lambasting, with her signature savage humour, Trump, Weinstein and “all the bad in our society”. “I won’t be asked back,” she says, laughing. “But that’s OK with me.”
Cho is now looking forward to getting better acquainted with Britain. “Britons know their comedians very well. You see comedians change their shows and come back with a new show every year. So there’s a connection that they have with their audience.
“Comedy in pubs is really there to be the social instigator, and get people talking to each other and getting the social feedback working. Comedians have a different role in society there than they do in America. It’s definitely much more involved.”
Cho draws heavily on her childhood growing up in and around a gay bookstore in San Francisco, which her parents bought when she was seven.
“We sold a lot of gay porn, and that’s pretty crazy for a very Conservative Korean family!” she jokes. It was here, though, that she learned the pain of losing friends, most of them to Aids.
“Aids changed my entire world. That’s the thing I haven’t dealt with as a performer yet. I hadn’t figured out a way to talk about it – until now.”
Like many comedians, it’s her own troubled past that has perhaps been most influential in Cho’s work – in particular her struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.
“Comedy is really about coping. It’s about coping with your own suffering, and your own pain. How do we find a way through that? That’s what comedy is in general. It’s a way to cope. It’s finding a way to survive with all of this happening,” she says.
Sometimes that suffering has spilled over on to the stage. At one sell-out gig in New Jersey last year half the crowd walked out midway through when she appeared to slur and forget her punchlines. Grainy video footage of the event shows fights breaking out and Cho ranting at “over-privileged white people”. At the time she put the fiasco down to grief over the death of fellow comedian Garry Shandling, but not long afterwards she dropped off the circuit altogether.
“I spent about a year and a half in a very closed-off rehab”, she says. “I just didn’t want to go back into the world.”
Now she feels like she’s “come out of the craziness and into the light”, and is ready to make her most troubling experiences part of her standup routine. “The worse the subject the funnier it is, that’s what I think,” she says.
The title of her new show – Fresh Off the Bloat – is itself a reference to being fresh off drugs, alcohol and “the brink of suicide”. For the UK shows, Cho has been busy rewriting a big chunk of her act to catch up with the constant flow of sexual harassment allegations dogging the entertainment industry.
She’s no stranger to Hollywood herself. She was in the film Face/Off with John Travolta and had her own TV sitcom in the 90s, All-American Girl, where she played the rebellious daughter in a traditional Korean-American household. Former boyfriend Quentin Tarantino famously directed one of the episodes.
The pair, she says, recently talked about the Weinstein allegations and their wider impact. “It’s very difficult because it involves all this amazing cinematographic history too. But I think it’s going to be a continual reminder that there’s a lot of bad in our society, and especially in industries like entertainment where there’s so much feeling of absolute power that people have. So I think there’s a lot more to come out. I feel like this is just the beginning, and I’m really grateful for that.”