Since I began writing blog posts for Culture Vultures, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with a wide variety of talented and fascinating people. With some interviews, my prior knowledge of the person – either from personal interest or by reputation – gave me a sense of what we’d talk about. With others, the project or program the person was involved in provided a framework for the conversation content.
But Margaret Cho seems larger-than-life to me. She plays State Theatre this Sunday, and the idea of a conversation with Cho both excited me and made me a little nervous.
I’m familiar with her work as a stand-up comic. I know the character she portrays in the TV show, “Drop Dead Diva”. And I learned about Cho’s life and what she’s involved in by from reading her website and following her blog.
She also did a hilarious, tongue-firmly-in-cheek turn as Kim Jong-il last season on 30 Rock.
But I had no idea what’s behind her public face.
On stage, she is intense, fearless and exceptionally funny, and I assumed that these polished performances require a lot of prep. I asked if she approaches her shows and tours with a theme in mind. “I just write different things,” she told me.
Cho’s father, who is an author of novels, memoirs, joke books, and also an archivist, genealogist and historian, played a huge part in Cho’s destiny. “He showed me how to use a typewriter. And we have similar prose styles,” she explained. “My father taught me to be writer.”
From early on, hilarious stories about her mother made their way into Cho’s shows. I wondered, perhaps from a maternal vantage point, whether her mother minds being a prominent subject. “No, she loves it. She thinks it’s really funny,” Cho told me. “She often has suggestions for things I can use.”
I asked Cho what makes her laugh. “I like comedy that is really smart and positive and shows strength,” she explained. “I definitely have a more dark sense of humor, but I love it when the underdog prevails.”
And the comedians that Cho admires most are female. “My favorite comics are women – Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers. Those are the ones I pick out.”
“Joan Rivers really built the idea of a woman being able to be very honest and relentless and funny. She was the architect.”
I have watched Cho often enough to believe she has few boundaries. I asked if there is anything she won’t talk about on stage. “No,” she said. “No taboos. The main thing is to have sensitivity and compassion for people and be nice. I don’t feel like I’m caustic. I’m just challenging ideas.”
If you follow Cho’s stand-up career, you may notice that her focus has changed somewhat. She once drew mostly on her personal experiences. Now Cho routinely brings to light more global issues, and those are often things that others choose not to talk about publicly. I asked her what brought about the shift. “I think it’s just growing up,” she told me, “and starting to think more about the larger world.” And have her fans come along for the ride? “People have been very supportive of everything I do,” she said. “Very supportive.”
Lately, Cho has been on a passionate quest to raise awareness about women and body image. On stage and in her blog, Cho regularly discusses the inappropriate way that people casually discuss women’s bodies. “People talk – especially online – about women’s bodies in a terribly mean way,” she said. “I wrote a long thing on my blog on what the press said about Adele,” she told me, “I want to motivate people to shame that kind of behavior.” Editor’s note: salty language–and incredibly passionate arguments on body image– in the above link. Click at your discretion!
As a person who struggled as a teenager to find a comfort zone, Cho has, according to her online bio, become somewhat of a “Patron Saint” for the disenfranchised.
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“I have learned to just enjoy myself and who I am, and I am trying to give young women the power to protect themselves from these pervasive negative ideas and find their own sense of beauty.”
Cho’s professional life has taken her in many creative directions. Cho starred in and was Executive Producer for sitcom All-American Girl in the mid-90s, staged a one-woman Off-Broadway show, I’m The One That I Want, which was later made into a book and feature film, hosted the True Colors Tour to benefit the Human Rights Campaign with artists Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and others, did a VH1 series, The Cho Show, showed her stuff on Season 11 of Dancing with the Stars, and co-stars on the Lifetime show Drop Dead Diva, which returns with Season 4 this June.
Cho has also received two Comedy Album Grammy nominations, most recently for the 2010 record, Cho Dependent, a collection of music featuring collaborations with Fiona Apple, Tegan & Sarah, Andrew Bird, Grant Lee Phillips and more, released on Cho’s own label, Clownery Records. The songs are funny, but the record also showcases Cho’s talent for singing and playing guitar, banjo and dulcimer. A follow-up, also chock-full of duets, is in the works. “The hardest part of making the record is deciding what is going on it,” Cho says. “There is so much material.”
I asked Margaret if there is anything she hasn’t done that she wants to try.
“Stand-up will always be my job,” she explained. “But music is a lot of fun,” she said, “and I would like to do more acting in a substantial way, a different way.”
“In general, I would like to do more of what I’m doing now.”