By Jason Tanamor
I had been trying to set up an interview with Margaret Cho for some time, almost four years. For whatever reason, it never happened – until now. Thanks to a publicist I work with and a new comedy special, I finally accomplished this task. It was definitely worth the wait.
Zoiks! Online recently talked to the legendary comedian about her life on TV, her life on stage, and the fact that she really is an all American girl.
Q – What specific moment made you decide to do stand-up comedy?
A - I have always wanted to do it, as long as I could remember. I just knew that was who I was, and what I would grow up to be. I watched a lot of comedy as a child, since my father was a stand-up comedy fan. We watched George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Robin Williams together and I just knew that was what I wanted to do.
Q – You’ve been performing stand-up for more than 20 years. How has the stand-up landscape evolved from when you first started in comedy?
A - It's gone through a few ups and downs. When I was starting in the late ‘80s, there was still a big stand-up comedy boom, and there were lots of clubs all over the place to work at. People were going out to see comedy regularly, and there were many television shows devoted to stand-up like “Evening at the Improv,” “Comic Strip Live,” “MTV's Half-Hour Comedy Hour,” etc. There were stand-up performances on the late night talk shows and everyone wanted to be on Carson. This was the big deal - to be on Carson and have him call you over to be on the couch. In the ‘90s, there was a lot less comedy on TV and in clubs, but then 'alternative' rooms started popping up, and the whole 'indie' thing was born. This was the 'punk rock' phase of comedy - where it was important to be funny, but you also were encouraged to have an underlying message - that comedy was a true art form that could embrace pathos and sadness - in fact should embrace those things - comedy and tragedy should work together to be truly valuable. So the alternative thing grew and grew and that changed comedy a lot, also in the way that clubs were booked and the way that certain stars emerged. Nowadays, I feel like there's another stand-up comedy boom happening. There are a lot of great people out touring, in the same way bands tour - playing rock venues and living the rock life. I like it this way because I really think comedy is rock and roll.
(Photo by Austin Young)
Q – Is there material that you’ve done back in the day that you look at now and think, ‘wow, those jokes just plain sucked’?
A - Not really. I am very proud of all that I have done. I can't say I remember anything that sucked. I have a fairly high quality control in my work. Of course, there were lots of stuff people didn't 'get' - but that has nothing to do with how good I was. It's always right to blame the audience I think.
Q – You’ve done a lot of television. In fact, most people who have heard of Margaret Cho mostly know you as an actress. Do you consider yourself a comedienne or an actress?
A - I am a stand-up comic - I don't like the term comedienne because it seems dated, like I have to wear a rhinestone bow tie. So, I am a stand-up comic. I am also an actress but somehow that seems less prevalent in my career, although I have done a lot of acting, I tend to tour as a stand-up comic more than I take acting gigs.
Q – Your sitcom “All American Girl” was one of the first ethnic programs on television. Do you think a show like that could make it on TV today in terms of how the world looks more liberally at racism, or even homosexuality?
A - I would love to see a show like “All American Girl” on TV today. I think it would have a much better chance of survival because we are seeing different faces on TV, especially because of reality programming. When we were on the air in 1994, we were so scrutinized for so many reasons - cultural accuracy for one, which is ludicrous because we don't demand 'cultural accuracy' from white people on television. We had so many situations where 'political correctness' was used against us. We were accused of racism merely for existing because people were so unused to seeing Asian faces on television that everyone assumed it must be racist. Still, a whole generation of kids watched us and it had a profound effect on them, helping them feel like they existed. It was powerful in a lot of ways.
Q – In 2008, you had a reality comedy show called “The Cho Show.” Why was this show so much different than “All American Girl”?
A - It wasn't that different really. It was my way of recreating the real all American girl - how it should have been. It had my real family, both biological and queer - in that my parents were in it as well as my family of gay friends, so it was the ideal version of “All American Girl,” if I had had some control over things. It was also a scripted/reality show, so essentially it was a sitcom with real people, as we all played ourselves.
(Photo by Ron Jaffe)
Q – I’ve interviewed Henry Cho and asked him a question about Asians in stand-up comedy. Since you and Henry are pretty much the only two Asians I know in stand-up, I was wondering about your thoughts on why there are not that many Asians doing stand-up comedy?
A - I love Henry. There are a lot more Asians doing comedy today. There is Bobby Lee, Aziz Ansari, Ken Jeong and Charlyne Yi – and many more. I feel there are fewer Asians in entertainment because Asian-American culture simply won't allow it. Worried parents rarely encourage their children to go into these fields and kids in Asian culture do not defy their parents so you have a whole lot of kids going into medicine and law that do not want to be there. It's very sad. I think that there should be more Asians in comedy and I try to help out the newer ones as much as I can.
Q – Your name is synonymous with Roseanne, Ellen and Paula Poundstone. Being in stand-up for so long, how do you keep things fresh and exciting so you don’t come across as someone like Gallagher?
A - I try to do different things like dance and music and find new ways of being a comic. It's important to challenge yourself as an artist and create new versions of yourself.
Q – You have a new comedy special coming out called, “Beautiful.” How is this special different than the previous four you’ve put out?
A – It’s all new material, my first big touring show in years, so it's great. There are so many jokes, really dirty ones. I am very proud of this one.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous." Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jason Tanamor