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MARGARET CHO

AUGUST 26 2016


Margaret Cho is taking revenge on rapists, one laugh at a time

Margaret Cho is a funny woman but her comedy is fuelled by a sense of rage at the bad things that can, and do, happen to people.

Sarah Thomas

Margaret Cho is quite apologetic about only now making it over to Australia with her latest stand-up show, the PsyCHO Tour, after already taking it across the US, Europe and Asia.

"I don't know why Australia's last," she says. "It's not last in my heart, but it's just worked out that way, unfortunately."

 

Cho has a very big heart, as it turns out. The comedian and activist is a fiercely bold and controversial flag-bearer for empowerment and equality. Over three decades in comedy, the 47-year-old Korean-American has remained a loud, taboo-busting voice for the marginalised, speaking out against rape culture, homophobia, racism and bullying.

The PsyCHO show, touring nationally and as part of the Just For Laughs festival at the Sydney Opera House, is an ever-evolving work. She says she tailors it to what's happening in the present news cycle, or political issues relevant to where she's performing.

 

In Australia, she applauds our stance on gun control: "Australia has a generation who have grown up without that kind of gun violence that we see daily in America, unfortunately.

"There is no awareness or thought of it and I think that's beautiful and that's something that I would like America to get to, but we've never been able to in any way.

 

"The violence has got worse and worse as the days progress and it's a daily thing now which is really upsetting. There's a lot to be discussed there and why this is happening."

A consistent feature in the show as it's travelled the world, she says, is dissecting the "strange phenomenon" of Donald Trump and how he's rather spectacularly damaging the credibility of US politics.

 

"He's gross," she says. "I mean I don't understand exactly what he's doing but it's a real mockery of American politics, that this office was once thought of highly. If you were running for president you really did have a great sense of the great dignity to that process, but it's been entirely lost. That's just gone out the window completely.

"It's crazy but he's just bizarre. His entire campaign is bizarre. His entire appeal is bizarre. The way that he looks – he doesn't blend his eye make-up into the rest of his orange face. He needs a moistened make-up sponge. I'm like, 'Does he have a mirror?'

"And then he sexualises his daughter, which is very upsetting to me. It's so gross, who does he think he is? It's gross. It's a gross campaign: it's racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, you name it, everything that's wrong."

Last year, Cho launched a campaign of her own, for survivors of sexual violence. It was a drive on social media tagged #12DaysofRage, the launchpad for Cho to reveal her own experiences of abuse and inviting others to share theirs.

She spoke about how she had been molested by a family friend between the ages of 5 and 12, and also said she was raped in her teens by another attacker.

At the time she released a song I Wanna Kill My Rapist, where in the accompanying video Cho and a band of young girls are warriors, taking justice into their own hands, amid lyrics including, "Now you're dead/Gun to your head/Cause what you did/I can't forgive."

The song, a pleasantly plodding alt-rock anthem – its subject matter aside – features in her PsyCHO show. She says tackling such a heavy topic can be done with some levity, but is also geared towards being healing and empowering.

"I'm a survivor of different kinds of things that have happened to me over my lifetime and I know that predators really exist in the shadows," she says. "When you can shine a light on it, it's very important."

She says the response from her audience has been strong, with fellow abuse survivors stepping up to engage with her.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming. You find that sometimes people can't even share their secrets with people who are closest to them and they reach out to me with these kinds of stories that have happened to them.

"I would never betray their truth but it's alarming how many people have so much secrecy around their lives or have to still maintain life with their abuser, which is awful. There are so many things that are so bad, that I can't understand why this would happen, especially to a child, to anybody really, it's awful."

Cho says wanting to leave her childhood behind was the driver for pushing her into comedy, having dropped out of high school and instead performing as a 16-year-old in a comedy club above her parents' bookstore in San Francisco.

Success came quickly – she won a slot to open for Jerry Seinfeld, who became an early supporter of Cho and remains a somewhat unlikely mentor and friend, given his mainstream fodder, to her some three decades on.

Cho's frank and controversial content and messages are unsurprisingly a magnet for internet trolls, but she takes the tack of not engaging due to some pretty powerful ammunition up her sleeve. She says if people attack her, she has acquaintances who can quite readily deliver a troll's personal information such as social security, home and work details.

"There is a civility that I want to maintain, because I have too much of an advantage. You can scare them really badly, but I don't want to do that. That's really awful, no matter what they say about how fat I am. I don't care," she says, laughing. "Calling me fat does not equal me having all of your business, all of your pin numbers, all of your codes. I really have too much power in that arena."

Power, reclaiming it and the rejection of control over women is the heart of Cho's work, but at the same time she says she hopes that her stand-up audiences get an "abdominal workout" from laughing so hard.

"[I hope] that it's enjoyable as entertainment but then maybe you might find something in there that could actually genuinely help your life, which I always look for in every entertainer and every artist.

"In whatever they do, you do want to say, 'Oh well, this is inspirational and aspirational too, like a life lesson.'"