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Comedian, actress, author, singer-songwriter, activist – MARGARET CHO keeps herself very busy indeed. Writing comedy since her teen years in San Francisco, Cho has never stopped moving, evolving, dipping into new territories, both personally and professionally. A powerhouse on the comedy circuit and a recognized celebrity in the States, she’s now an international star and an important role-model in terms of blasting stereotypes of Asian-American and queer women in the media (she’s the product of Korean parents and is openly bisexual). She’s also one of the most down-to-earth artists you’ll ever meet.
Completely at ease with talking about her sexuality, her tattoo fetish, her ethnic background, her desire to see more minority artists visible on mainstream TV, her eating disorder struggles, her passion for LGBT rights / anti-racism / anti-bullying campaigning, Cho has single-handedly raised the bar for all artists who are in the public eye. By being gracious and open, she has emerged into somewhat of an icon – a celebrity with immense substance and heart, admired and adored by many. And those numbers are on the increase.
Her role as legal assistant Teri Lee on hit US TV show Drop Dead Diva since 2009 has won Cho a whole new slew of fans. The show would certainly not be the same without Teri’s satirical presence, and she lends it some much-needed diversity. The feel-good show has helped increase the visibility of some very talented North American female artists, attracting guest stars from all walks of celebrity including Kathy Griffin, Vivica A. Fox, Ricki Lake, Cybill Shepherd, Wanda Sykes, Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Tilly, LeeAnn Rimes, and in Season 4 Serena Williams, Joan Rivers and Kim Kardashian. It has fast become the show to “do” and stars are queuing up to take on the legal comedy-drama series.
In 2010, Cho appeared on another US hit show Dancing with the Stars (American equivalent of UK’s Strictly Come Dancing) and won her second Grammy Award nomination for Comedy Album of the Year, this time for Cho Dependent featuring several collaborations with musicians including Fiona Apple, Tegan & Sara and Ani DiFranco.
She then made a name for herself on the hilarious TV show 30 Rock, playing the late Korean leader Kim Jong Il whom, spookily, she does strongly resemble after some makeup and THAT jumpsuit outfit.
Several TV shows and stand-up tours later, we meet up with Cho backstage at the renowned Brighton Dome after her live show as part of her new CHO DEPENDENT tour. Cho has the audience in absolute fits of laughter, as she craftily weaves some much appreciated digs at British culture into her repartee: from British perception of Asia (with faux British accent, “I LOVE Chinese things! I LOVE Memoirs of a Geisha – anything Chinese!“) and UK airport security (“I was wearing this giant pink hat and they just had a problem with that… If you come into this country with something coloured on your head, it’s a problem, and if your face is also coloured, it’s a big fucking problem. And I just forget that I am not white – because my eyes are IN MY HEAD. It was really stressful, it was real Prisoner Cell Block H for a second…”) to stinging comments on the Palins (“Bristol Palin is the temple prostitute of the right wing”) and the Tea Party (“which is so hideous. Michele Bachman is really evil, but what’s really weird about Michele Bachman isn’t Michele Bachman – it’s Marcus Bachman her husband, who is just fucking gay, but he teaches at a facility where he teaches gay people how to be straight. Oh well, I guess those who can’t “do,” teach!). She can’t help but lean towards the controversial and the crowds are with her every step of the way – she’s a delightful breath of fresh air in the sometimes overly stuffy British comedy scene.
In this interview, Cho talks about (lack of) visibility of women of colour in mainstream media, her desire to do more touring in Europe, and why forming queer cultural alliances is important.
Since this interview, Margaret has appeared in Season 4 of Drop Dead Diva and is about to launch a new US TV cookery show Blind Dinner Party. She has also received an “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series” Emmy nomination for her role as Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 30 Rock – the announcement is due on 23 September 2012. She’s also just launched her new MOTHER tour which she will be bringing to the UK this October.
You mention your mother a lot in your shows and you do a good job of playing up the ethnic stereotypes. But you yourself are far from the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. How did you manage to escape that?
I think I was really raised without supervision, so I didn’t have the messages drilled into my head. I was kind of a wild feral child, so I didn’t have any kind of guidance.
And how accurate is your portrayal of your mother in the show?
Oh, she’s exactly that way! It’s really loving, but it’s also very status conscious, really materialistic, and about the status quo and “fitting in.”
With such a background, what led you to become a comedian?
I just kind of turned into it, but I was always kind of wild. Then when I got older, I just wanted to live my own life. It’s just that I didn’t have any kind of guidance, but that turned out to be a blessing.
How were your parents about your coming out?
Well, with my parents it was weird, because they bought a bookstore from these guys who were really trying to get rid of their business because they were dying of AIDS. All these gay men around them were dying of AIDS. They found themselves in the 70s and 80s surrounded by gay men and this business they had bought into, trying to make it work. The community was really struck by this disease.
So, my parents just became part of the gay community. They learned about what it was, but they had no experience with it or understanding of it. It was like this really intense community in crisis, and so my parents didn’t have homophobia because they couldn’t afford to be homophobic. Because everybody was dying and all the people they loved around them were dying. So it was a horrible thing, but also something that they really learned from. If I had any guidance, it was from those gay men.
So, how are you feeling about your new tour, Cho Dependent?
I think it’s just fun for me, because a lot of it is stuff I have just written in the last couple of weeks, so the show’s changed pretty drastically since I’ve been performing it. Except for the stuff at the end, a lot of it is different, so I’m just excited to write new material and kind of do different things.
Yeah, you included a lot of UK-related jokes….
Yeah, I’m trying to!
And you were in Edinburgh recently?
Yeah, I was there for the month of August. It’s really a great city and it’s fun to perform there. But it’s pretty tough for queer performers. I mean, we really banded together – like me and Scott Capurro, David Mills, Hannah Gadsby and the boys from Briefs – we kind of made a queer alliance. We HAD to make a queer club because it’s super straight out there – there’s not a lot of representation for us. We band together, because we really need each other. We needed an alliance in Edinburgh, which was really nice, because I think there are a lot of great performers up there. Le Gateau Chocolat was part of our crew – he’s here tonight! [waves to Le Gateau Chocolat behind us]. But it’s definitely such a monochromatic landscape – you have one point of view that’s really heavily represented, and you don’t have a lot of people of colour, woman, queers. So the ones that ARE there, we feel so excited to be together, so lucky to be there.
But at the same time, the homophobia that exists here is different than the homophobia that exists in America. I think here it’s not about race – it’s about class, so race is often invisible. For me as a foreigner here, I feel really powerless to bring up race or queer issues, without feeling I’m doing something wrong or like something outlawed, or that that is something I’m challenging. People get pretty defensive if you start talking about race issues or homophobia because they want to feel like they are past it or beyond it. There are a lot of trends in comedy in the UK that’s really racist, really sexist, really homophobic, because they feel like they’re above it, they’re beyond it.
You’re talking about comedians in the UK who aren’t part of those communities they’re commenting on…
But, in your case, you’re simply drawing on your own backstory and personal experiences, so that makes it more acceptable or easier on the audience…
Yeah, since I’m just telling my truth. In America, the different reaction is people are scared – they would say that I was racist, that I was homophobic, that I was sexist or that I was doing something wrong. I’m in a lot of ways making jokes about the same topics, but from my perspective. In America, a kind of political correctness comes in and that’s where it’s strange. Here they feel like, “Oh, we’re past that, we don’t need correctness anymore…” So it’s just interesting to perform in different places.
You’re such a big star over in the States, and now you have the success of hit TV show Drop Dead Diva, in which you appear alongside many other accomplished female comedians. But, is it still difficult for women to get ahead in your industry in the States?
Yeah, for sure. But at the same time, I’ve had such a long career over there so I kind of know what I’m doing. I have a lot of integrity in what I’ve done. But, even so, you still deal with invisibility – you still deal with racial invisibility for Asians and invisibility for queers. It’s still kind of manageable in a sense, because the sexism is a little bit less. We actually really listen to female comics in America – female comics are more powerful than male comics in a lot of ways.
That seems very different from the UK – I recently interviewed a British comedian called Zoe Lyons…
She’s great!! She’s awesome, I love her. I haven’t gotten to see her live. I’ve only seen her videos and then I’ve just talked to her on twitter, but we haven’t met in person.
From what Zoe said, it seems like the US and UK comedy scenes are worlds apart.
It’s really different, because women have an easier time in America in terms of getting attention and acceptance in the comedy business, and actually their success is far superior and far more intense than for men. My career, compared to the average guy doing it on my level, is so much more advanced – we get a lot more work, just because female voices are really important there. So the big ones are like me and Sarah Silverman… and Wanda Sykes is huge – she’s amazing – she’s kind of like who we all want to be. We want to aspire to be like Wanda! And Kathy of course – Kathy Griffin is major… Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell… Rosie is super politicized and then Ellen is definitely different, like super mainstream. You have different kinds of views of different kinds of women, different kinds of queer women.
Then of course you have collaborations among female artists, and not only comedians. For example, your collaboration with musician Ani DiFranco on your Grammy-nominated comedy album Cho Dependent…
Yeah, that’s really cool. That’s a great thing to be able to go into. Ani is great, and Tegan and Sara. So I have a lot of great really close connections in music and in comedy with women.
How do other Asian people react to you challenging stereotypes of Asian women?
Yeah, they sometimes don’t know what to do with it, and are kind of scared. Sometimes people say that I’m racist because it’s more like a voice that they are not used to hearing. But then, they are used to hearing a white person making fun of it, saying it, so that’s why they get defensive. So it’s weird! They’re like, “Oh, wait…” because I’m talking about it from what I know.
In your show, you voiced your frustration that actors of colour are often limited to the role of sidekick on the screen, but is that still a reality of the industry?
It’s just something I have noticed over time – like, that’s kind of all I’ve done and that’s what people of colour do in Hollywood. And I think it’s funny, because it’s like it’s such a familiar thing – we know that’s what we see. There is a long tradition of that, to acknowledge the tradition of people like me, which comes down from Hattie McDaniel for Gone With The Wind. You have these mammy characters who are very integral, all these peripheral characters we have been playing, and it’s a solid body of work, you know. I acknowledge we are a part of it, even though it’s racist, even though it’s fucked up, but at the same time it’s all anybody knows of people of colour.
Even if I do something that’s really mainstream, there is still this need to explain why you are there, there’s this need to talk about your background. It’s just because the perspective of television is FROM a white perspective and TO a white perspective. So when you introduce people of colour, it’s always going to be in a kind of a way where you are telling their story in the dialogue in the story of the show. I’m not sure when that’s going to change…
Do you think there’s going to be a turning point?
I don’t know – I don’t know, because it’s been that way since I’ve been in it. I’ve definitely worked a lot more as I’ve got older. I also know that it’s something that I can’t see changing from my perspective, just because I’m so used to it. I don’t know… would there ever be a [mainstream] film that’s going to talk about a person of colour’s perspective from their perspective? I guess maybe the first film I can imagine is Precious. And then you think about Tyler Perry’s films and then you think, “Okay, well that’s from a black perspective to a black audience, that’s kind of something that makes sense to me and I can identify with.” Or you think about The Joy Luck Club. But even still, people latch onto it and think, “What perspective is this from?”
You could argue that things are changing in Hollywood, because actresses such as Sandra O and Maggie Q are playing leading Asian identified characters. But, if you look closely, it’s as if the Asian qualities are toned down in their onscreen characters…
It’s diluted, and they are still sort of sidelined. I love Sandra, I think she’s great, and I love that show because Grey’s Anatomy has probably more inclusion than any other show on television. But Hollywood is still a weird place for people of colour.
You’ve pushed so many boundaries in your own shows and your own life, and you’re doing so many different things. Where do you see yourself going next?
I want to work in Europe more – I do really well in France and I do well here. This is my first venturing out – Edinburgh and London to something else… something different. And so I’m really happy with that and I really love working here, learning about race, learning about queer politics, learning about gender politics and how different they are here.
Yes, there isn’t the same openness or history of socio-political movements here as back in the States…
It’s weird because they don’t like women in comedy here, but I think what’s good here, especially in comedy, is they are like, [in a mock-British accent] “You’re not really a woman, because you’re American and exotic, so we don’t want to think of you like a woman.”
You do a British accent really well!
It’s hard! I actually can’t do it when I leave. This comes from listening to it all the time…
It bordered on Australian at one point…
I know, it does, because I worked there a lot too!
Have you been out in London this time?
We’ve been going to some cool places. We went to Duckie last night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. That was amazing, really cool, I’ve been there a bunch of times and I love it!
Finally, do you have a message for people who want to do what you do?
I think people should just do it! I think we need more queer voices, we need women of colour, we need women in general, we just need progressive voices and people should step forward and do it. Comedy is such a white man’s game and we have got to change that. I think there has got to be other perspectives and the most important perspective has got to be “the other” – it’s the best thing. For me, I always try to mentor young gay guys, like I always take people on the road with me and I always try to create these queer alliances with people. You need to support other queer artists, like Hannah Gadsby is very important, Scott Capurro is very important, Le Gateau Chocolat – this kind of amazing entertainment. People like us have to fight so hard to be heard.
And the more you stick together of course, the louder the voice…