Exclusive: Comedian Margaret Cho on surviving in the world of Trump
“I love a pun,” Margaret Cho says passionately, two minutes into our interview. “What I love best about humour is just a stupid pun.”
This is what comes through most in the interview with Cho – that despite the often dark and personal content of her work, she always wants to find the stupid humour.
PinkNews had the chance to chat with the five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee ahead of her UK stand-up tour Fresh Off The Bloat, and talk about AIDS, Tilda Swinton, a certain POTUS and the power of positivity.
Fresh of the Bloat, for example, is a pun on the title of the US sitcom ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ which follows an Asian-American family moving to Florida from DC to set up a restaurant. It’s the first Asian-American family to air on network prime time since Cho’s own 1994 sitcom All American Girl.
That show was a “miserable” experience, Cho says. She has been public about the negative impact it had on her, including experiencing racism and criticism of her weight from network executives.
The dangerous weight loss techniques she used would land her in the hospital with kidney failure, and not long after, Cho became addicted to drugs and alcohol.
It hardly sounds like the basis for a comedy show, but Cho insists Fresh Off the Bloat is a celebration.
“My new show is all about being fresh off drugs and drinking and suicide and coming back to life – finally fished out of the river Styx. It’s meta. It’s magical. It’s me.”
Comedy is so important to Cho, she says, because it allows her to communicate with people who wouldn’t usually listen.
“That’s the mark of a good entertainer. You’ve got to be able to speak to people who are not you, who don’t necessarily know you, who don’t know anything about your life.”
Her stand-up allows the famously brazen Cho to talk about racism, sexism and homophobia to a diverse audience, including many straight, white men, and she hopes she can get some education in with the laughs.
“Because I never went to school, I like to pretend that I’m a teacher and play school; that’s what I’m about. It’s so silly but it’s a fun thing.”
There’s one issue that features heavily in her new show, because she wants to open up the conversation about it.
The AIDS crisis.
“I feel like a lot of times people forget about AIDS, they forget how terrible and devastating it was, and so I think that this is a good reminder that there’s a whole generation of people that we lost to that disease,” she says.
Cho’s family owned a gay bookstore in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s, so the crisis loomed large over their lives, particularly affecting her mother.
“People are very secretive about it too, because then there was a tremendous amount of shame associated with that kind of a death. So people didn’t memorialise their lives as they could have.”
But how does she find the funny side in issues that are so profoundly not funny?
It’s about the stupidity, Cho says – the absurd situations she seems to inexplicably find herself in.
As an example, she talks about the situation last year, when she got involved in a debate about whitewashing with Tilda Swinton which was quickly branded a ‘viral celeb feud.’
Cho says that, although the issue of racism in movies is serious, she couldn’t help but laugh.
She recalled that she told Swinton: “I just think Asian actors should play Asian roles, and if you don’t think so, you can just go and sleep in a museum.”
She laughs, remembering Swinton’s ongoing performance piece where she napped in glass boxes in famous museums and galleries.
“That’s not art, you’re not an artist. You’re just tired!” she says.
Cho had another odd encounter only last month, she tells me. Asked to perform at a fundraiser, Cho was told not to mention Donald Trump at all, which was highly surprising considering her reputation as a political comedian.
“I was like, why are we doing that? So anyway, I got to the event late and I was running down under the underground to the dressing room, and I walked past this huge crowd of people.
“And in the middle was Ivanka Trump.”
She’s right. Surreal as it is, you can’t help but laugh.
Of course, we couldn’t interview Cho without broaching the subject of a certain POTUS. Cho has been far from quiet about her disdain for Donald Trump and his actions, but her main concern is his apparent lack of a plan.
“He has no idea what he’s doing, and he’s using America like a plaything.
“He’s using the world like a plaything.
“He does not want this job and he is terrified all the time and the stress of it is really killing him. He’s never been a politician, he’s never even been an honorary mayor, he’s never done anything political.”
For Cho, there’s just one silver lining to Trump’s reign, one good thing that’s come out of it: the resistance. She says she’s loved the past weeks of Pride events, which have often been strongly political.
Cho spoke at the LA Pride Resist March alongside Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and Chris Rock, and said the energy was incredible.
“There was a long period where Pride was just a very corporate event where they were trying to catch the ‘pink pound’, as it were, and now it’s like, no! We’re here for a political purpose and I love that.”
Proudly and loudly bisexual, Cho has been fighting for LGBT rights for a long time, from her youth marching with ACT UP and Queer Nation on the behalf of those living with HIV and AIDS, to the more recent campaign for equal marriage.
After same-sex marriage became legal in California in May 2008, Cho was licensed by the City of San Francisco to perform marriages there.
But throughout all of this activism, all of her personal ups and down, after a 25-year career – does she not find it exhausting?
“I’ve been happy to have a very long career, and so you have to balance your own sort of activism and anger with a healthy dose of gratitude,” she says.
“I’m very grateful that I’m able to do what I do, and I love what I do, and I’m proud to have been doing it for long.”
And long may she continue.