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Monday, January 30, 2012

Margaret Cho interview

January 10, 2012

"I’m definitely a stand-up comic. That’s what I’ll always be. Everything else is wonderful and part of it, but I identify as a stand-up comedian. That’s where I come from. But it’s also where my joy comes from." – Margaret Cho

Guy MacPherson: Hi Margaret, how are you?
Margaret Cho: Hi. Good, how are you?

GM: It’s been a while. We’ve spoken twice before. Seems like every five or six years we talk. Just looking over your career again and it’s really quite remarkable. You should be sixty years old by now.
MC: (laughs) I should be. I feel it. (laughs) I’m not yet.

GM: Oh, I know! But when you think of what you’ve done and who you’ve worked with: Arsenio Hall, Bob Hope, opening for Seinfeld, and all the turns your career has taken. And you’re still relatively young.
MC: Yeah, I’m 43 so, you know, that’s not too bad, I think.

GM: I first saw you at Bumbershoot. You were replacing Jon Stewart. Do you remember this?
MC: Oh! Um, I’m sure it’s true, yes. I used to open for him, too, a long time ago so that sounds familiar. Yeah, was that the year it was like David Cross and Tenacious D?

GM: Yes, that’s right.
MC: Yeah, that was great.

GM: Do you know when that was?
MC: Uh, it may have been like ’96. Maybe ’97. Something like that.

GM: That was that whole alt scene you were a part of, right?
MC: Right.

GM: And then you shot past them.
MC: (chuckles) We all kind of did our own thing. We all changed. Our lives, you know, comics really change and they really become a different thing. You start out hanging out with each other and then everybody grows up and does their own stuff. It’s sort of interesting to look back and see who does what and what people are known for. Yeah, I was very lucky and [have] friends I love in comedy. But that was a fun time. I really love David and I love Jack Black. And Laura Kightlinger was there that year.

GM: That’s right!
MC: It was really fun.

GM: You’re coming to Vancouver to the festival in February and so are David Cross and Bob Odenkirk as well.
MC: Oh, that’s great.

GM: It’ll be like old home week for you.
MC: Yeah, yeah. I love those guys. I haven’t seen either of them for a long time. I get to see them on TV and movies. I was just talking about David and how great he was in the Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not Here as Alan Ginsberg. I always thought he was so genius and funny. And I love his acting.

GM: Who?
MC: David Cross.

GM: Okay. And of course in the Chipmunks movies. Fantastic.
MC: Uh-huh.

GM: They still play the alternative rooms down in L.A. Do you ever? Or are you too big for that?
MC: I totally do. I’ll do anything. I don’t have any kind of idea of where is good. I just do whatever I can. I perform in book stores and comedy clubs and theatres and concert halls. And to me it’s kind of all the same thing because I just love what I do. I try to do as much as I can.

GM: You started out in stand-up then branched out to acting, writing, music. Do you call what you do now stand-up or is it just performance?
MC: Yeah, yeah I’m definitely a stand-up comic. That’s what I’ll always be. And that’s the work I do that really is what defines me and everything else is wonderful and part of it, but I identify as a stand-up comedian. That’s where I come from and where my livelihood comes from most of the time. But it’s also where my joy comes from. All the writing that I do or the journalism that I do or the music that I do is still comedy to me. So it’s all the same kind of job.

GM: You’ve done six live concert films, right?
MC: Yes.

GM: All the talk these days is  about Louis CK and how frequently he turns over material. Every year he does a new hour. How frequently do you change your act?
MC: (warbled) I think it’s really important to. I do new material every time I do a big tour every year. So at least an hour a year, if not more. I think comics of my generation – and Louis is exactly that – we take a lot of pride in the writing and being prolific. And also entertaining ourselves when we’re doing it. But he’s a great inspiration to me. I’m a real fan of his.

GM: Is it hard? Is it a grind coming up with new stuff or does it come easy to you?
MC: Oh, no, no, it’s not a grind. It’s very easy. It’s more like I have to to make it interesting for yourself. I would find it really unbearable to have the same material all the time. By nature I am a writer so that kind of writerly thing in me is always trying to push forward and do something new. I take great joy in writing and continuing to grow.

GM: Otherwise it just becomes rote and maybe you wouldn’t give the same performance?
MC: Yeah. And I would be bored. We’re like painters or musicians. Well, musicians actually have it hard because they eventually have to do the same things all the time because you get a fan base and they want to hear the same thing. But with comedy, the fact is you have to constantly create new material to keep your fans. It’s a way of communicating with your fans and it’s sort of the opposite of music. They don’t want to see you do the same thing; they want to see something different.

GM: Yeah, “play the hits.”
MC: Yeah, that’s what people prefer from musicians but as comedians we’re very lucky in that we can rewrite it all. Every day it’s new and I’m very grateful for that.

GM: Is your show here part of a big tour?
MC: No, no. I’m actually just finished with a lot of touring this past year and then after I go to Vancouver I’ll go to Atlanta, where I work on Drop Dead Diva. I’ll be there for six months and then after that I’ll continue more touring but I always have to take a break around February/March until about August to do the show.

GM: Is it like riding a bike when you get back or does it take a little while to get your chops back?
MC: Well, I never stop because I’m constantly doing shows at venues in Georgia. I do a lot of stuff at the Laughing Skull. I’ll do a lot of stuff everywhere, like Star Bar. Anything I can get to I really want to get to so I never stop. There’s never any kind of interruption in me as a stand-up comic. To me, it’s also my social life and everything that I am attracted to as a human being. All my friends are comics so that’s a natural environment for me.

GM: So does the show you’re doing here have a name like many of yours do?
MC: This one doesn’t have a name so maybe we can make one up! (laughs)

GM: Hey, let’s do that!
MC: I don’t know, the last name was so good. I don’t have a good pun. The last one was Cho Dependent and that’s my favourite one to date, so I don’t know. Um, we’ll have to create one.

GM: Cho with Me.
MC: Yeah, Cho with Me.

"I’m lucky enough to have collected work from truly some of the most remarkable artists in the world. So I think my body is like the Louvre or something like the Tate Modern or wherever. I really am kind of a walking monument to what tattooing is today." – Margaret Cho
GM: When you talk about those early days, like when I saw you at Bumbershoot, and when I first interviewed you in 2000… You look different now because of all the artwork and just growing as a person. Were you a substantially different person back then?
MC: No. Uh, no. Uh, I don’t believe so. I kind of always feel the same. I just never really changed that much because I haven’t had significant life changes. I haven’t had children, I’ve been in the same relationship since 1999, so that’s not changed. I have, I guess, been more going in different areas of art being around a lot of tattooers and painters and that’s been a major joy for me. I guess I’ve picked up some hobbies along the way; did a lot of belly-dancing, did a lot of burlesque, but for me it’s an extension of stand-up comedy so I always feel kinda like the same.

GM: I heard you on Maron’s podcast. I’m thinking of the sexual stuff as well as the tattoos. If the Margaret Cho back in ’96 had seen the Margaret Cho now, would she be shocked? Or was that in your mind back then as well?
MC: Oh, no, no. I mean, I had grown up around tattooers and people who were getting tattooed really pretty intensely, like getting huge body suits from Ed Hardy. And I knew Ed Hardy as a child. So I think it was an eventuality that now it’s really just a great, great passion. But it’s a limiting one because as an actor you can only tattoo so much of your body because you want to remain somewhat changeable. So I have to be mindful of that. The sexuality, I was doing kind of crazy and wild stuff in the ‘90s. I’ve sort of been involved in that kind of stuff forever. I’ve had many, many friends and partners in the sex industry so that aspect of my life has not really changed. It’s kind of ebbed and flowed depending on where I’m at or where I’m living. The last part of the year I was living in England so none of that is happening over there. Or it is but it’s not with me. So the sexuality has always been kind of the norm but I’ve just decided to discuss it. But to me there’s not really fulfilling material that comes from it. It’s not really sexy or something that everybody can relate to. Ultimately it’s just people that are my friends. I tend to choose my friends that are similar to comics. They’re kind of outlaw, outsider art people, like tattooers, like bikers, like people in porn. So it’s my nature to seek out friendships with outsider types.

GM: So if anything you’re more true to yourself now than when you were a cleaner, fresh-faced comic back then.
MC: Yeah. And just more grown-up now. I’ve just grown into what I was going to become but I think I’m essentially the same person. I feel that.

GM: You don’t see many comics with tattoos. At least not the way you do in the general population. Why is that?
MC: Well, I think comedians, we want to maintain a kind of changeability. And most comedians are actors and so they would like to be able to slip into any body. You want to be able to change your body and change yourself to fit a role. And I have the ability to do that. I don’t show my tattoos when I work as an actor in any way. For me it’s a life-long passion and a real joy. The tattoo community is one that is as close as family to me so I’m very lucky for that.

GM: Do you regret any that you got?
MC: No! No, never. There are some that I think that are better than others. But also I’m lucky enough to have collected work from truly some of the most remarkable artists in the world. So I think my body is like the Louvre or something like the Tate Modern or wherever. I really am kind of a walking monument to what tattooing is today. So I’m very fortunate in that.

GM: It’s always seemed to me that it’s a tough hobby because it’s got to end because at some point you run out of space.
MC: Yeah, they run out of space but it’s actually a very long time. Because I’ve been getting extensively tattooed hundreds of hours a year for about eight years and I still have a significant amount of skin left uncovered. It takes a long time to really cover up and get tatted up. You gotta work at it. And I get places that people don’t normally get just because I can’t show them. So my torso and back and legs are where I have a lot of my work.

GM: And you’re still getting more?
MC: Oh, yes. Yeah.

GM: Do you know how many you have? And that’ll be my last question on tattoos.
MC: I would say I would have at least, if you broke it down to small images, I would have at least 300. But if you put them all together they sort of flow into maybe one. It is a body suit. I don’t have my forearms tattooed and I don’t have my neck tattooed or my hands and anything that’s really visible. Or anything below my knees. So the deniability of my tattoos is quite easy. I really don’t look like I have any when I’m walking around. And that’s my preference. My tattoos are really for myself and my love of art.

GM: You and Kathy Griffin are among a few female comics who are really huge in the gay community. Are you rivals?
MC: Oh, no. I don’t consider anybody a rival. But she’s really amazing. I really admire her and I love what she does. She’s tremendously prolific. If you talk about somebody that writes material, she does about four or five or six hours a year. She is more prolific than anyone. I love her. I love her as a person. I love her comedy. She also has done a lot of favours for me. As an actor she’s been on Drop Dead Diva. She’s a wonderful person. It’s funny, you think about somebody who’s never changed, she really hasn’t. She’s kinda remained the same person since I met her maybe 20-some years ago. She really is very true to herself and that’s beautiful to me.

GM: I doubt that either of you set out to attract a large gay following; it just happened. But can you put a finger on how that happened?
MC: Well, I mean, I’m queer. My work as a younger comic was in gay clubs and gay bars. And doing a lot of activism within the gay community. So being gay is part of my journey. That is a very important part in what defines my work. My work is about the gay community a lot of times. So it’s just something that I’ve grown up with and I’m very happy to be a part of.

GM: You say you’re queer, but you’re not solely queer, are you?
MC: No, I’m bisexual, although that is also an erroneous assumption too because I have had many relationships with transgendered people so I don’t know if bisexuality is exactly the right term because that sort of denotes that there’s only two genders, which I don’t think is true. But bisexuality is probably the closest definition of my own identity that I can come to.

GM: You’re multisexual, I guess.
MC: I guess so, yes.

GM: But you’re married to a man, right?
MC: Yes.

GM: Vancouver has a large gay community but I imagine some of the cities you play don’t. Is the reaction you get the same?
MC: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I do really great wherever I go. I’m really proud of that. It’s really a testament to working a long time and being kind of like an old-school entertainer – you want to get out there and be able to please everyone, even people who are different from you, which is a lot of the time many people who are very, very different from me. So I want to be pleasing and entertaining no matter what. And also be true to my own self as an artist and enjoy it. It’s a great thing. I wanna be good for everybody.

 "If I look back and think about who was the most influential and important I would say Janeane Garofalo, I would say David Cross, I would say Ron Lynch. And if you go back really far, you could say that the best of all was Rick Reynolds." – Margaret Cho

GM: There’s a long history of truth-tellers in comedy, from Lenny Bruce to Bill Hicks and others. Now it’s really in vogue for comics to come out and be truthful on stage to their own experiences. But you were doing it long before it was in fashion.
MC: Well, I only know how to do that. And I do lead a rather illustrious life and it’s one that I think deserves a lot of examination and it deserves a lot of attention. And it’s fun to explore that. It’s fun to be honest about things. I don’t really know how to go about my work in any other way.

GM: But you get what I’m saying, right? It is more in vogue now, don’t you think?
MC: Yeah. I think comedy nowadays has become more sophisticated because the people who have been doing it have raised the bar. You have the level of work that is just phenomenal. That’s never happened before. I’m so lucky as a comedy fan to be around now and see people that I love. There’s people that I love that are also very different, that are not necessarily what I do. Like, I love Neil Hamburger and I love Tim & Eric and I love the explosion of the surreal. That to me is really incredible. They’re like a sort of dada movement in comedy and I appreciate that so much as an artist and a fan. And of course then you have the incredible truth-tellers like Louis CK and Marc Maron and Sarah Silverman, who often is not acknowledged but she’s really a genius. So I think that we’re just living in a good time for comedy and a good time for audiences.

GM: Yeah, it’s a real boom.
MC: It’s a real boom but it’s because the level of material is so sophisticated. And I think a lot of that has to do with Janeane Garofalo. I think that Janeane had a tremendous influence on everyone because she was about elevating the intention of what we could do and what was possible. If I look back and think about who was the most influential and important I would say Janeane, I would say David Cross, I would say Ron Lynch, actually. He was pretty major, too. There’s a lot of people who taught us a lot. And if you go back really far, you could say that the best of all was Rick Reynolds.

GM: I don’t know him.
MC: Rick Reynolds was an amazing comic in San Francisco in the very, very early ‘90s and he had a show called Only the Truth is Funny. And it really changed everything. It changed the way that people did comedy. I don’t know if he’s performing still. He was very influential. And of course Bill Hicks. Tremendously influential and somebody we all worked with and we all loved very much. He would have been 50 this year. We celebrate his life still. He was a tremendous, great force in our work.

GM: And so much of his stuff still holds up.
MC: Yeah, absolutely.

GM: You have been political. You’ve done shows largely political in nature. Now that Obama has been in for a few years, are you still as political in your material?
MC: Oh yeah. You know, because it’s very much about examining what’s going on and the kind of backlash to him with the Tea Party movement. But to me, politics and comedy are very important together. It’s a good combination. They really exist well side by side. I feel like my politics has become very much about the personal, about queer stuff, about race. So it’s always political.

GM: It says you’re also doing songs about agedness. How do you define that?
MC: Asianness?

GM: No, agedness.
MC: Oh, just being old. (laughs) Just being part of the world for so long. It’s such a weird feeling to still go and go and go and go. I appreciate it and love it very much. But it’s a strange feeling to be this old.

GM: Tell me about it. You played Kim Jong-Il on 30 Rock. That whole North Korea thing just fascinates me, I don’t know if it fascinates you being Korean.
MC: I find it really pretty tragic. There’s a lot of people in my family I’ve never even met. Half of my family is in North Korea and I don’t know them. And that’s just really sad. I have a lot of anger towards the whole issue of North Korea. I enjoyed playing him. I felt like this was my Evita. If I can’t play Imelda Marcos, I can definitely play Kim Jong-Il. So that was really great. But I did have a lot of anger at that situation. And I still do at North Korea and how closed off it is. I appreciate the comedic icon that he became because it brought people’s awareness to it. I’ve known about North Korea forever. It’s something my family’s discussed always. But it’s nice to sort of have the whole world behind you and know that this stuff is real crazy.

GM: Would you ever go there?
MC: I would like to. I don’t think I would be allowed in. I don’t think it would be possible for me to go there. I would like to.

GM: Because you’re an entertainer? Or because you’re an American? Because I know some tourists go there.
MC: I don’t know. I don’t know. I have no idea, actually. I don’t know if I’d be let in. I don’t know if they let everybody in.

GM: You do a lot of music. I’ve seen your videos. You obviously were musical as a child. Did you take piano lessons?
MC: Yes. I took piano. I play guitar and banjo and trying to come around to the dulcimer, which does not agree with me but I will force myself to master it. That and the keytar are two instruments that I fight with all the time. But I do love to play music and I do love to sing. And that is part of my work. A small part, because I also like the ability to change material and do things differently. Like, in stand-up comedy you can change it up. In music, it’s not as easy because in music you record things and it’s very structured and you work with other people so it’s a lot of different kinds of writing.

GM: Do you want to be taken seriously as a musician or is it more of a lark?
MC: Oh no. I mean, to me it’s comedy. It’s still stand-up comedy. My songs are jokes. Longer jokes. I don’t know what being taken seriously as a musician would be. I think it would be weird because I’m just a frickin’ comic and I do comedy in my music. That’s the whole point. The whole point is to not be taken seriously! (laughs)

GM: But you’ve worked with some pretty great musicians.
MC: Oh yeah. Because I love music. And I’ve been around backstage at music shows for as long as I’ve been backstage at comedy shows. So the people that I know in music are so important and close to me. And some of them are very, very big stars but they’re really my friends and they were really excited to become a part of something that I wanted to do. Because we got to hang out and be creative together in a very different way.

GM: What I was thinking of was in show biz, especially, if somebody is known as one thing and they try to do something else, oftentimes there’s a backlash. “What? They think they can do this?” When really, they might be equally good at the new thing.
MC: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. I think that’s an interesting thing, that people kinda want to know you as one thing. And for me, I agree with that. I don’t want to be known as anything other than a stand-up comic, which is what I am whether I’m playing music to a joke or saying a joke. To me, it’s really the same. I don’t feel like I want to cross over. That would be weird.

GM: Will there be music in your show here?
MC: I don’t think so. Right now I’m kinda heavy into a stand-up thing, but I might. I have some friends there, Tegan & Sara, who worked on my album with me. Maybe if they’re around, they’ll come.

GM: Are they in Vancouver?
MC: Yup.

GM: Huh. I didn’t know that. I knew they were Canadian.
MC: Yeah, they’re really great. So there you go. There’s always a possibility but I, right now, have been so obsessed with doing stand-up. It’s hard to say. I’m not sure.

GM: That’s great. I appreciate your commitment to stand-up. Because a lot of stand-ups who reach a certain level of fame forget about it. They get into acting or whatever.
MC: Oh no, I could never. I love being a comic. I gotta do it every day if I can, or at least a few times a week. It’s something like going to the gym. I just can’t not do it. I would feel like I was not true to myself or being real. I don’t know. To me comedy I equate literally with existence so it would feel like I didn’t exist if I didn’t do it.

GM: Has it always been like that or has the comedy boom rejuvenated your feeling of really wanting to stand-up?
MC: Oh, I’ve always been like that. I’ve always had that ever since I started. I’d always wanted to get as deep and good and into this profession. And it is my social life and it is my art. So it’s everything to me.

GM: Last time we spoke you were quilting and belly-dancing. Are you doing any other activities now?
MC: I am riding motorcycles. I am not quilting because it is such a difficult thing to do with my allergies. It creates a lot of dust. Fiber art creates a lot of dust. I belly-dance on occasion. I do a lot of burlesque dancing lately. And especially being more tattooed you kinda want to show that off. That’s a lot of fun. And that, as a burlesque dancer I’m still a stand-up comic, too, so it’s not that different. But yes, I enjoy dancing tremendously. But the quilting is not good for my lungs.

GM: When you do burlesque, are you in a troupe?
MC: No, I dance on my own. I don’t have a troupe or anything.

GM: You were on Dancing with the Stars in the season with Bristol Palin. I know you talk a lot about her mom. Did you have any interaction with her at all?
MC: Yeah, you know she was a nice girl. Like, I felt sorry for her because she’s not a public figure. She’s a very awkward person. Like, she’s really not inclined to being in front of cameras. Her fame is really something she does not welcome and really does not enjoy. So I feel for her in that regard because that’s kind of weird to be so public and scrutinized when you don’t want to be.

GM: So you would lay off her, but go after her mom? She’s just a child of somebody famous, right?
MC: Yeah, I mean, she’s just a kid. And she’s pretty misguided but I think the whole family is really misguided. Like, I don’t believe what they do because I think it’s mostly about show business. I don’t know if they even believe in it. But it’s interesting, the symbol of them, the Palins. It’s a weird and political family because they don’t really do anything except kind of create this image. They’re not really politicians even. It’s weird.

GM: She’s fascinating and funny to go after but ultimately she’s kinda scary.
MC: Yeah, and also not really a politician. Like, there’s no real job. Everything Sarah Palin does she doesn’t finish. She doesn’t really go through with it. But she’s symbolic of the movement as a Ronald McDonald or something.

GM: She’s a brand.
MC: Yeah, she’s like a brand. She’s like a mascot but she doesn’t actually play. So that’s an interesting phenomenon.

GM: But she might, and that’s the scary part.
MC: Well, you know, I don’t know. We’ll see.

GM: Well Margaret, it’s been a pleasure.
MC: Thank you.

GM: Thanks for talking. Do I still sound like Wayne*?
MC: You do. You sound a lot like Wayne. And I’ll see Wayne the day after tomorrow. But you do sound a lot like Wayne, which is very funny.

GM: Alright, we’ll talk in another five or six years.
MC: Alright.

* Wayne is a former boyfriend of hers she told me I sounded like back in 2000.

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