The comedian on her radical education, the importance of safe spaces in the “hostile and dangerous world of comedy,” and when bad taste makes for good jokes.
Photograph by Mary Taylor.
Many comedians claim to challenge the status quo, question norms, push the limits, and speak (funny) truth to power. But few do it as consistently, as powerfully, and as hilariously as Margaret Cho. Whether describing her first colonic, singing about her love of receiving oral sex, or taking the ALS ice water challenge in a different direction (in enema form, to be precise), Cho makes it her business to offend, and often enrage, polite society.
Though her comedy rejects judgmental moralism, it does contain an undeniably moral and ethical code sewn from Cho’s personal experience and her sense of empathy and justice. As mainstream comedy continues to promote fat-shaming, rape jokes, and homophobia, Cho uses her work to create a safe space for the very people who find themselves the butts of other comedians’ humor. She punches up, not down, taking aim at the powerful rather than the disenfranchised.
Cho was born into a time of rebellion and transgression in 1968, to parents who had emigrated from Seoul to San Francisco four years earlier. She was bullied and unhappy at school, but found refuge and friendship among the men who frequented the gay bookstore her parents owned. Her other refuge was comedy, which she began writing at fourteen and performing at sixteen.
Cho’s very identity challenges the status quo—she is a queer, Asian-American, female comedian—but she also actively confronts injustice. After Robin Williams died, Cho decided to turn her grief into action: she began to busk on her days off to raise money for the homeless, and started a #BeRobin campaign calling on others to take up the cause of homelessness around which Williams had organized.
But while Cho is often political, she is not PC. At the Golden Globes this past January, she caused controversy by appearing as Cho Yung Ja, a North Korean army general, new member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and contributor to the fictional Movies Wow! Magazine. People accused Cho of coonery and minstrelsy. Instead of rolling over, she took to Twitter, writing: “I’m not playing the race card. I’m playing the rice card.”
Cho spoke to me over the phone from her house in LA, in the midst of preparing for her psyCHO stand-up tour, elucidating the crucial difference between comedy that offends without challenging, and comedy like hers, which offends to disrupt.
—Katie Halper for Guernica
Guernica: In your foreword to BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism From the Pages of Bitch Magazine, you write, “Whenever anyone has called me a bitch, I have taken it as a compliment. To me, a bitch is assertive, unapologetic, demanding, intimidating, intelligent, fiercely protective, in control—all very positive attributes…. These days, I strive to be a bitch, because not being one sucks.” Can “tasteless,” which is generally intended as an insult, also be a compliment?
Margaret Cho: Things that are in “bad taste” are often renegade and rebellious. They go against the status quo, and the laws of decorum and modesty. And that can be really thrilling. I’m a huge fan of the people and things that are considered the epitomes of tastelessness—things like drag and raunchy comedy. People like John Waters and Divine.
It’s always considered bad taste to comment on a tragedy right when it’s happening, but I love when something is considered too soon to talk about because then you can blast past that social censorship to get into something real. Often something that is in bad taste or considered to be in bad taste is something that’s just very true but that people are unwilling to discuss or comment on.
Guernica: What’s the saying? Comedy equals tragedy plus time?
Margaret Cho: Yes. But I don’t even think you need time. There’s no reason to wait.
Guernica: Did you expect such a backlash to your appearance at this year’s Golden Globes as Cho Yung Ja?
Margaret Cho: The response was out of proportion. But I think that sometimes people [who overreact or lash out] will hang on to their point just because they’re so embarrassed that they made it. They won’t set it down because they are the authors of these [disproportionate responses] and they have a lot to be embarrassed about.
Guernica: Was this a case of people not examine the context of comedy, and acknowledging the difference between mocking your own and mocking others? It would have been very different had a white actor played the role of Cho Yung Ja.
Margaret Cho: Comedians and people in general have a cultural right to talk about their own culture and race. My family has been deeply affected by the split of Korea, which divided it in half, basically, before I was born. There’s no way to connect with my family now who are in North Korea because it’s so isolated. We don’t even know who is still there and who is alive, and if they are, what they are doing. Comedy is the only weapon I have to battle this totalitarianism.
There’s lot of social censorship now, especially in this era of ubiquitous social media. You do have people talking about everything you do and that sort of scrutiny that we’re under as artists can be very challenging. It makes it very hard to say what you believe in and not be attacked for it. And it’s not fair; I’m Korean, but I’m not supposed to talk about my experience and my life? It’s unaccepting. People are so sensitive about race that they can’t hear someone speaking about their life in a very true way, or doing satire or political parody.
Guernica: Comedian Daniel Tosh responded to a heckler who rejected his claim that rape jokes are always funny by saying, according to an audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like, right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” Tosh’s defenders brought up free speech as if there had been some kind of state-sanctioned censorship of his right to be unfunny.
Margaret Cho: I definitely support free speech, but what he did was promote rape culture. And that doesn’t need promotion because it already exists so strongly.
Guernica: It’s not exactly edgy to make a rape joke.
Margaret Cho: Right. And there are ideas that are out there that are quite hostile. But ultimately, it’s comedy—so where do you draw the line? It’s something we all struggle with.
As a comedian you are making yourself vulnerable in order to make others happy.
Guernica: You were interviewed on CNN after Tracy Morgan said during a stand-up routine that he would stab his son if he found out he was gay. CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield said to you, “In comedy, you have to push the limits, you make fun of yourself, culturally, [you talk about] sex. Kind of all bets are off. When your colleague Tracy Morgan pushes the limits…when you hear the language and the comedy that he carried out that a lot of people found offensive, how does a comedian explain when you push the limits sometimes?” She seemed to be comparing the way you push the limits with your comedy, which delves into about being Korean and being queer, and the way Tracy Morgan does when he makes a joke based on violence against LGBT people.
Margaret Cho: Homophobia is a tough one. In some places it’s actually very OK to be homophobic. Comedy clubs in general are very unsafe spaces for LGBT, for women, for Asian people. So my goal in comedy has sort of been to make this a safe space for people who were like me. I’m of two minds. Because I was offended [by Morgan’s joke], but comedy is a noble art. And every comedian who does anything is serving a noble purpose.
Guernica: What do you mean when you say comedy is a noble art?
Margaret Cho: The intention is to make people laugh, to make people happy. It’s unselfish, it’s in the service of others, and as a comedian you are making yourself vulnerable in order to make others happy. And it has a transformative power. People at shows have told me that they’ve shown my videos to their parents and families to help them come out of the closet. It’s very inspiring that comedy can do that and can help people cope with everyday life and challenges through humor.
Guernica: There is this myth that feminists and lefties have no sense of humor, which is very convenient for misogynists and bigots, who can pretend that the reason lefties are not laughing at their jokes is because they don’t get them.
Margaret Cho: It is conveniently leveled against us all the time. They try to silence people by calling them “feminazis.” But I think that’s a really important thing to retain. We should retain our anger in the face of injustice and not be shamed by that.
I think I appeal to people who are living in the margins because of their identity and who need to feel freedom somewhere.
Guernica: I loved how you responded to the Tracy Morgan “joke” with your own joke and said, during the CNN interview, “I would like to have a gay child. I don’t know if I would stab my child if they were straight but there would be consequences, like, ‘Go to your room and redecorate it!’”
Margaret Cho: I like to respond with jokes and to keep it as light as possible. I was trying to diffuse the anger around it because people do have righteous rage. I think comedy is an angry art form; it’s an outsider art form. Anger and comedy are really connected. If I’m angry about something I will try to think about something funny about it to lighten the load of the anger and cope with the anger. But I actually know Tracy too, and I don’t find him to be a particularly homophobic person. That’s just the comedy that guys of his generation would always go back to. And it is quite often a hit among lots of audiences. That’s what I mean about comedy being quite a difficult place for queers and for women.
Guernica: Which is why it seems to be so important to make subversive comedy, as opposed to comedy that perpetuates existing social and political dynamics.
Margaret Cho: I think so. And mitigating that or creating a truth around that is probably my work. Trying to find a place that does feel safe in this pretty hostile and dangerous world of comedy. Because most comedy out there is fat-shaming and homophobic and rape-culture-promoting—that’s why it’s always felt so hard for me in that world, because you have to face all of that all the time if you’re a woman of color, if you’re queer. I think I appeal to people who are living in the margins because of their identity and who need to feel freedom somewhere. That notion that we’re in the post-racism, post-sexism world is so not true.
Guernica: You can be raunchy and tasteless in an empowering way, or you can do it in a hateful way, and they are not the same.
Margaret Cho: It’s a different thing. And sometimes it’s not clear on paper but it’s very clear in the context of where it’s happening.
Guernica: You were on the board of directors of Good Vibrations, the sex-positive, San Francisco-based sex-toy shop. What was that like?
Margaret Cho: I really loved doing that. I thought it was a great thing to be a part of. I was very proud to be asked. It’s a great organization.
Guernica: Do you have any sex toys you would recommend?
Margaret Cho: I always like the Hitachi Magic Wand. That’s the one I always come back to and will always use. There’s something about the frequency of it. And it helps people have orgasms who have never had orgasms before, so it’s a miracle for some people. It’s a very therapeutic tool. I’m really a big fan. There’s also the Eroscillator, which is actually endorsed by Dr. Ruth. And the Sybian, but that’s much too large and much too expensive for people to consider. It’s almost like a saddle, a mechanical bull. But also like a vibrator, which is great.
Silence is so often applauded and those who speak out are often called tasteless.
Guernica: Forgive the awkward transition, but how have your parents influenced your own sense of taste?
Margaret Cho: My father tried to get me to be around gay people a lot when I was young. He owned a gay bookstore and it had a lot of gay literature and art books and he wanted me to be taken care of by the young gays and lesbians who worked for him. He felt like he couldn’t give me what I really needed in terms of an arts education. I think he had a feeling like, “I’m an immigrant and I don’t really know how to teach her the ways to be sophisticated. But if I can put her in this environment then she’ll really grow as a person.” So he introduced me to this world of gay politics. And it was an exciting time because this was the time of Harvey Milk, and then after Harvey Milk was assassinated, there was so much going on around AIDS and activism. And I really developed my sense of being in that community because of my father.
Guernica: Arranging for your daughter to get tutored in culture by gay men is a pretty radical thing for any parent to do.
Margaret Cho: It’s very radical. And a really honorable thing, that he had the realization, as a parent, that “I can’t teach my kids this kind of stuff but I can find somebody who can.” That’s really awesome.
Guernica: Do you have any advice for people who are being condemned as tasteless, whether they are artists or performers or comedians or just expressing themselves on a daily basis as they move through the world?
Margaret Cho: The label of tasteful or tasteless is so often used to silence people and to maintain the status quo. It’s used to shame people for not following the commonly accepted routine, for not aligning themselves with the status quo. Silence is so often applauded and those who speak out are often called tasteless. So, I think that when you are accused of being in bad taste it can be quite positive. You’re challenging the notions of polite society. I’d like to put across the notion that bad taste is actually good for you.
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