Bright Lights Film Journal

“Redefine What It Means to You”: Talking with Margaret Cho

The “All American Girl” on her new movie, her influences, and the joy of high colonics

As the quote implies, Margaret Cho is no stranger to redefinition, mostly because she’s been crossing racial, cultural, and sexual boundaries since she grew up in alternative community-friendly San Francisco. “There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts from the ’60s, drag queens, and Chinese people,” she says on her thorough website, “To say it was a melting pot – that’s the least of it.” After catching fire on the college and talk show circuit, Cho hit the big time and landed on prime-time television with her groundbreaking sitcom, All-American Girl.

But then TV hit her back, hard. After the ABC network did everything from harassing her into a weight-loss crisis to questioning her cultural identity – like hiring Asian “experts” to make sure that the necessarily ubiquitous chopsticks were continually visible – Cho got even and confessional with her seminal, unforgettable film, I’m the One That I Want. A landmark standup on par with Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip or Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, Cho’s homecoming in front of her adoring Bay Area fans dug up the diamond that network television had tried to bury under its watch, and a star was reborn.

Now she’s back again with another hard-hitting live performance film and compact disc, The Notorious C.H.O., a sexual gangsta looking to bust a cap in whatever erotic/bodily convention mainstream America is still trying to hold onto these days. And although it may not be coming to every theater near you – it isn’t for the kids – it’s worth checking out if only to hear Cho rant about the beauty industry, the importance of one’s colon, and her own carnal adventures.

Scott Thill: Let’s start with your new film’s most interesting topic. What’s your take on colonic hydrotherapy?

Margaret Cho: It’s wonderful. It’s the equivalent of 20 to 30 bowel movements.

Oh my god.

Isn’t that incredible? They just get it all out. I love it! Every year, I go away to this place in San Diego called the Optimum Health Institute. It’s my spa that I go to.

Is there a certain invasion of privacy effect there?

No, because everyone is doing them. It’s not a big deal. It’s wonderful.

Where did you shoot the film?

I shot the film in Seattle and it’s just one show. I premiered I’m the One That I Want there and I really love that city. It’s a great place for me to perform and I wanted to do it in someplace other than San Francisco. It all turned out very well.

Is the audience as enthusiastic as your hometown San Francisco audience?

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s great.

Some reviewers during the Notorious C.H.O. tour felt that it was a more conventional standup than I’m the One that I Want, and a lot dirtier.

Well, I don’t think so, but it just goes more into that area. It hits sexual themes harder because it’s where I was at the time. But I don’t really think it’s dirtier.

The fact that you get up there and speak with such honesty about somewhat personal things that go on in your life is incredible to watch. How do you just, er, let it all out?

Well, thank you. To me, it’s more important to tell a good story, to have it be compelling and have it be truthful than to be embarrassed. I’m not really embarrassed easily, so I don’t really think of things in terms of being too personal or too embarrassing to share. I would just rather be entertaining and have fun and be honest. I think it makes for a better show. It makes for a better story. It certainly doesn’t faze me at all.

Have any comedians said, “You’re really putting yourself out there, whereas we just get up, tell jokes, and rip on other people?”

Well, I don’t know. I know that when Jerry Seinfeld came to see I’m the One That I Want, he was so moved and told me that I was just as good as Richard Pryor in his prime. Which is like the best compliment anybody can give to a comedian, I think. And so that’s really great. I feel really inspired by that. I don’t know. I mean, I think all comedians have a different appeal and a different way of working and mine happens to be in this confessional style. I don’t think I could work in any other way, except but to be truthful and do what I like to do.

I’m seeing a lot of those referrals to Richard Pryor and George Carlin when I read reviews of your work. Are you aiming for that kind of comedy, or is it just a happy accident that everybody keeps throwing you in there?

Well, I like it, but it just seems to be happening. I don’t consciously go out and think, “Oh, I’m going to do this like that.” I am a big fan of both of those guys. I also love Sandra Bernhard a lot. I love Roseanne. I love Rosie O’Donnell. There’s a lot of people that I’m a fan of, that I think influence what I do.

How has what you went through with TV influenced the way you approach your confessional style of comedy, if at all? And have any offers to return to TV come through?

Yeah, there have been a lot of offers to do different shows. It’s just nothing is really appealing to me. Like nothing looks good, or nothing looks good enough to want to take on all that work. I don’t know how much of that particular experience affected my style. I think it’s more that I’ve just come to it. It’s taken a long time to develop into what I do now.

Is there a dream offer that could entice you back to TV?

Well, if I did a show, I would have to have complete control of everything in it. And that’s all I really think about in terms of what would be the best situation.

Right now, we’re in a strange political era where mainstream America is having a hard time looking at itself from an outsider’s point of view. As someone who grew up Korean-American surrounded by alternative communities in San Francisco, how would you describe the mainstream attitude towards outsiders these days? Do you think it’s getting better or worse?

I don’t know. I think that there’s been a lot of difficulty in defining what is American, what is considered American. There’s a lot of difficulty with acceptance within our community of foreignness at this time, just because it’s an incredibly strange and difficult period. Especially for Arab-Americans, especially for Muslim-Americans. It’s an incredibly difficult time. So I don’t know. I think that there’s a need for compassion, a need for redefinition of what we perceive as American. There are all of these people that are absolutely American that are not thought of that way because of what happened on September 11. I don’t know, because it’s just such a difficult racial question and it’s such a difficult time.

The sense is that, during wartime, usually there’s a tendency to unify, but that unity usually has the same colored face, the same kind of attitudes. Whereas, the rest of what America basically is gets thrown out the window until wartime’s over.

Right, and that’s unfortunate. Because now is when we need the expansion of that unity more than ever.

Comedy and sort of breaking conventions seems to be in your blood. Your mom opposed an arranged marriage and your dad writes joke books. But they don’t understand your comedy and you don’t understand their comedy.

No, I mean, I think I’m probably friendlier with my family than I have been in my life and mostly that has to do with being an adult and being old enough to understand them. But they’ve never really understood what I do and they’ve never really gotten in my way, which is great. And so, I think they like that I’m happy and that’s enough for them.

Have they warmed to your comedy more as time goes on or are they still just blushing over it?

Well, of course they’re like so in love with my success and that’s really enough for now.

Have you ever thought of maybe you and your dad writing a joke book together?

No. I don’t think that’s going to be happening.

Not a chance in hell, huh?

No, I mean, it’s just a different perspective. It’s not like he does that. It’s actually more that he’s an archivist. It’s not really that he likes jokes. It’s more that he’s a historian of them. And it’s in the Korean language, which is a different. Comedy is so culturally specific, so it would be perceived differently if it was translated. It wouldn’t be the same.

What kind of advice would you give to people of color who are trapped between cultures, who are trying to find a balance between satisfying the desires of their native one while exploring the new one?

I don’t think you can really do both without redefining what all of it means to you. In a way, you just have to take what you like from both and then push forward with your own identity. There’s no real way to completely please all of the demands that Asian culture has, and then incorporate what your new American ideals are. It’s very schizophrenic to try and do both. So you have to take what you like from both and not worry too much about being judged by one or the other. It’s a very difficult situation to be in for a lot of people.

How many people after an average show come up to you and say thanks for telling this story?

Oh, a lot of people. I mean, I have a lot of really great people that are moved by my work, and in a lot of ways that have less to do with comedy and more to do with their voice being expressed. There’s a lot of gratitude there and that’s great.