Margaret Cho talks comedy, homophobia and sexual abuse ahead of her HK debut
Posted: 25 Feb 2016
One of America’s funniest and most forthright comedians, Margaret Cho has battled sexual abuse, homophobia, gender discrimination and racism to get to the top. Ahead of her first-ever shows in Asia, no topic is off limits as she talks to Arthur Tam about rape, Donald Trump, marijuana and Chungking Express...
Margaret Moran Cho ducks nothing. Sex, sexual abuse, prostitution, drugs and an unapologetic impersonation of a North Korean general are all part of the comic queen’s bag of laughs. But the one who bears the most merciless assault in Cho’s routines is her mother. Before Cho, most of America was unaware of the hilarity that can result from the bigoted scorn of a Korean mother.
Cho has always been unflinching in her execution. In the tradition of greats like Joan Rivers, Cho breaks through anxiety and tension like a comedic jackhammer, easily seizing control of an audience. Established fans will remember favourites sketches such as, “My name is Gwen and I’m here to wash your vagina!” or Cho’s contorted facial expressions as she imitates a gay man performing cunnilingus. Some may think she’s vulgar, but Cho isn’t provocative just for the sake of it. Throughout her 30 year career she’s taken a strong stance on a broad spectrum of social issues spanning from women’s rights to LGBTI equality and gun control. Most recently she has been championing rape victims and has revealed her own experiences regarding sexual abuse. Her recent series of videos, 12 Days of Rage, are of Cho talking about these experiences. Coinciding with their release, the 47-year-old recorded an anthemic tune, (I Want to) Kill my Rapist, which is set to be on her forthcoming socio-political comedy album, American Myth, which Cho hopes will match the success of her previous album, Cho Dependent, which was nominated for a Grammy.
A versatile all-round entertainer, Cho is probably one of the most well-known Asian American faces in American entertainment. Back in 1994 she pioneered the very first all Asian US sitcom, All American Girl. The series was short-lived, either because it didn’t portray the Asian American experience well enough or, according to other critics, it was in fact too Asian. Regardless, none can take away the fact Cho laid the foundation for current Asian American shows like FOB and Dr Ken. Cho is fearless and maybe she has to be. Since the beginning of her career she’s battled a number of prejudices. To this day she‘s the only openly working, queer, female, Asian American comedian that has broken through to the mainstream. She’s loud and proud, and her vulnerability and honesty have earned her ardent fans. Ahead of her two-day standup show, Pyscho, on March 8-9, we get serious with Cho and discover there’s nothing she’s afraid to discuss.
What can we expect from Psycho? Is it going to stay mostly the same from what you’ve done in the States or will there be HK-specific jokes?
It will change a lot. The show changes every day depending on where I am. I always try to make my performances very immediate for the place and the time. It’ll include a lot of my observations of Hong Kong.
I’ve always wanted to visit. I’m a big Hong Kong movie fan and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with John Woo on Face/Off. Before that I was already huge fan of all of his films and I love HK cinema. All the stars from Leslie Cheung to Bridgette Lin to Chow Yun-fat mean a lot to me. Chungking Express is one of my all-time favourite movies.
We heard that you plan to ruffle things up in Singapore following the petition to ban Adam Lambert from performing in the country because of his sexuality. What do you intend to do?
I think just being there and being myself I can try to get something going. I can’t imagine a conservative place like [Singapore], so I’m going to shake things up.
Hong Kong is not as backwards as Singapore in terms of LGBTI rights – at least homosexuality isn’t illegal here. However, the LGBTI community is currently fighting for an anti-discrimination law, something opposed by religious groups. How do you feel about that?
They are not exercising religious freedom. It’s them trying to impose their religion on others. The truth is, homosexuality is not anti-Christian. There is no reason why God would create gay people if he/she thought there was something wrong with it. There is so much wrong with the idea that religious people can exercise their rights over anyone. And if they were truly religious they would turn the other cheek.
Image: Mary Taylor
Do you think there’s now a greater acceptance of Asian Americans in the American mainstream?
There is definitely more visibility for Asian Americans in television and in film. Things are getting better, but it’s not great yet. There’s certainly a lot of white washing. We’re in a time where Scarlet Johansson is playing the lead character in Ghost in the Shell, which is a very important and iconic anime, yet they have cast a white lead to play a Japanese character. There is a lot of white washing and invisibility for Asian Americans, but things are getting better.
Now that it seems like America is ready for Asian faces on TV, would you consider making a show again?
Well yes, I’m currently working on a show in development for Amazon. The show is called Highland. It’s going to have an entirely Asian cast and it’s going to be about the marijuana boom in California, which is a really big deal.
Can you tell us a little bit about the plot of the show?
I play a recovering drug addict that works in a family-owned dispensary. It’s all about family, Asian American families and Asian American families in the marijuana trade. A lot of people still consider it an illicit drug trade even though it’s legal now. There are a lot of Korean American doctors giving prescriptions for marijuana, so I think it’s interesting when you consider conservative Asians are getting involved in this kind of business.
Are you big into pot yourself?
I am, but I’m also not. I never smoke when I need to work. I never mix the two. Pot is better than alcohol. Alcohol is very devastating for a lot of people, especially for Asians.
You’re quite the activist and your latest campaign, 12 Days of Rage, and your song (I Want to) Kill my Rapist is very empowering to women that have been victims. What’s the story behind that?
Twelve Days of Rage is a video I would do every day where I would talk about the instances where I have experienced sexual abuse and trauma. I think it helped start the conversation about what is rape and what does it mean when it happens. When I was a teenager we didn’t even have the word ‘date rape’. It wasn’t something that we could claim or talk about. Now, we have more of a conversation going on. The more that people understand what it is, the more we can fight it and keep it from happening.
Do you think victim shaming and blaming is still prevalent?
It’s still on a lot of people’s minds. We continually blame the victim even if it’s subconscious. We also have to realise that rape is not just a women’s issue, it can happen to anybody. This is a really healing thing when we open up the topic for discussion.
How has your mother reacted to your abuse and has she heard your song?
I’ve had multiple abusers and we’ve talked about my abuse for years. Asians often deny that anything like this is going on. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with them for 30 years. They don’t want to forgive anyone, they don’t want to blame anyone, but at the same time they battle their own culture.
How do you let go?
You don’t necessarily have to. You can hang on to your emotions, but when you can let go of the rage, it helps. It’s appreciated when
it’s talked about and it helps give a voice to other victims.
We recently interviewd Quentin Tarantino and since you’ve dated him in the past, we were wondering what your take was on people calling The Hateful Eight misogynistic.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I can’t imagine that that was Quentin’s intention. I know him very well. I know that he is a feminist and believes in women’s rights.
How does Donald Trump make you feel? Who you are endorsing for the presidency?
I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders and I’m working on his campaign. I like Hilary and I’m friendly with her and she’s a great politician, but I feel like Bernie is more… I have the same feeling with him that I had with Obama.
Donald Trump is scary, he’s very terrifying. He’s proliferating racism, Islamophobia and general hatred of immigrants. It’s really ridiculous because America is a country founded by immigrants. You’re seeing a lot of xenophobia, a lot of racism and a lot of angry white people. And now, Trump also wants to reverse the ruling on gay marriage. I think what Trump is trying to do, is trying to get everyone to side with him. In order to do that, he’s tapping into the lowest common denominator, which is hatred.
I always thought the term ‘fag hag’ was a term of endearment in the past, but in modern times and in your bit, you’ve described it as being somewhat passé.
I don’t like the word ‘fag’. I think that is my primary issue with it, a term that has been utilised to hurt and marginalise gay people. At the same time, it’s part of gay history. As an alternative, I’d like to appropriate the term, ‘gay bae’. I think that’s a sweet one.
There is still a long way to go and we did achieve gay marriage, which is a huge step towards equality. Now we have to look toward gay adoption rights and look at hate crime laws from state to state. We only have 16 states protecting the LGBTI community, so I would like to see that shift.
For Hong Kong audiences that are less familiar with you, how would you describe your show?
I do very hard and intense standup comedy that’s motivated by anger, but also in the pursuit of equal rights. There is a lot of talk about sexism, racism, homophobia and a search for equality and a search for making society your own; if you’re an outsider, to make you feel like an insider.
How do you think your comedic sense has evolved over the years?
I think my level of skill has gotten much better. I’ve done comedy for over 30 years and I’m very good at judging audiences and making sure they have a really good time, no matter where it is – in the US, Europe or Australia. I look forward to the challenge and the opportunity to do it in Asia.