Margaret Cho's Fresh Off the Bloat Puts Asian-Americans in the Spotlight
Margaret Cho has mastered the art of the Kim Jong Un impression. With a quick jerk of the head, her face transforms to take on the cartoonish look of glee she imagines the North Korean leader will wear when (or perhaps if) he meets U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore next month. It’s a convincing act of mimicry, but Cho admits, “I do a terrible Trump.”
Nonetheless, Cho, 49, is at the top of her comedic game as she brings her new Fresh Off the Bloat tour to cities across Asia. From the 47th floor of a hotel overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, Cho tells TIME she’s ready for anything — and after a yearlong recovery from substance abuse, she’s making a raucous return to stand-up with all the brassy bawdiness that made her famous. Renowned for her ribaldry, she’s putting on an R-rated show.
Cho had her first go at stand-up in San Francisco, where she was born and raised by Korean immigrant parents. First rising to fame in the 90’s playing a rebellious teenager in the sitcom All-American Girl, she has dabbled in burlesque, music, acting and fashion along the way. But it’s this no-holds-barred comedic style — no doubt influenced by close friend and mentor Joan Rivers — that has been her mainstay for the past 35 years.
As both a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a bisexual LGBTQ activist, facets of her life that she speaks very openly about, Cho has a knack for pairing the personal with the political. Her new show, which will also be performed in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Taipei before returning to the U.S., rushes head-on into issues of politics, feminism and sexual identity. Nothing is off-limits, and she’s not afraid to crack jokes that make some people uncomfortable.
“You have to be able to be completely offensive and completely wrong, but that’s the joy of it,” Cho tells TIME shortly before taking the stage in Hong Kong. “That’s where the mastery of it all comes in; knowing what you’re doing and playing with fire.”
Here’s what Cho said about Asian-American representation, how to find humor in North Korea, and her definition of what’s “appropriate.”
Tell us about your new show, Fresh Off the Bloat.
There is so much talk about #MeToo and Times Up, both movements which I think are incredibly pivotal in so many women’s lives and people’s lives. I have so much to say about it. And this tour is very Asian-American focused. There’s so much about whitewashing and Asian-Americans in Hollywood. That’s a big thing, too. So I’m really enjoying that I get to bring it [to Asia] now.
What’s it like being a comedian in the age of Trump?
It’s crazy doing comedy with Trump in office. There’s people who get in trouble for things like Kathy Griffin. For such a laughable president, he has no sense of humor about himself at all. Comedy really does help to process it all. But it’s really bizarre. Comedy in general has become a lot more vital. And a lot more women’s voices have been so prevalent. There’s a lot to say. It’s a great time for comedy.
What did you think of Michelle Wolf’s roast at the White House Correspondents Dinner?
I thought Michelle Wolf was great. I thought, this is exactly what should’ve happened. And perfect, and so funny, and so righteous. [The White House Correspondents’ Dinner] is the hardest thing for a comedian to do. It’s one of those things that fills all of us with dread, like that’s the one gig you don’t want to do, especially in a Trump presidency. But she did amazing. I’m a really big fan.
You’re well known for impersonating Kim Jong Il on the show 30 Rock. As a Korean-American, do you have a personal stake in these jokes?
Oh yeah, I feel very personally invested in talking about North Korea. I feel like this is a mission to kind of have some say in the human rights violations there. So to do it with comedy, there’s a way to fight what people are going through, what [Korean people] have been through by being separated for so long. It’s a very strange situation, but it’s very funny too.
If you could do a show in North Korea, what’s the first joke you would make?
My Korean name is Moran, which was the name of Kim Jong Il’s production company when he was a film director, which is another weird thing, so maybe we would talk about the Korean film industry. I have no idea, I’ve never even thought about that. You would have to include all of the iconography of North Korea.
Is Asian-American representation in entertainment improving?
It’s actually getting a lot better. There’s no way Hollywood can justify casting Scarlett Johansson or Tilda Swinton [in Asian roles]. They can’t. And when they do, they see those movies fail miserably. I think Hollywood is really starting to understand that they can’t do that kind of stuff anymore. We’re going to see a lot more Asians and Asian-Americans on the big screens.
As Asian-Americans, we have to just claim it. We have to claim what we want. And we need to get away from this idea of being the model minority or doing what our families want us to. I’m getting a lot of inspiration from Little Tay, like this 9 year old kid who’s just telling everyone off and getting her mother fired. That’s how we have to be. That’s the future.
You’ve been open about your own experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In light of the #MeToo movement, how do you responsibly make jokes about such sensitive topics as sexual abuse and harassment?
We’ve been held back by society for so long and been unable to speak on these issues. Finally, it’s possible. The #MeToo movement is so incredibly important in getting these ideas across, that we can tell our stories and try to find a place of peace with it. I think that I’m only offended when the perspective comes from an outsider — somebody who has not experienced sexual abuse or has not experienced this kind of behavior from people — that to me is where I would draw the line about what is appropriate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.