The Tao of Cho

Comedienne. Actor. Musician. Advocate. Entrepreneur. Five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee. When hasn’t Margaret Cho’s strong voice been part of our consciousness? It feels like she has always been here, like a friend you can always count on, lighting the path for other queer people, women, other members of underrepresented groups, and other performers, to follow.

Margaret staunchly supports the causes that are important to her: anti-racism, anti-bullying, and gay rights, all while fulfilling her successful creative side with a legendary stand up career that has yielded 10-plus comedy tours. In March, her new one-woman show, Live and Livid, comes to the Hampton Coliseum. We caught up with her via to dish on the bat-shit crazy political environment and her career in show business.

Outwire757: Are you on the road? 

Cho: I am. I’m here in Chicago waiting for takeout before heading over to my show.

Outwire757:Let’s start out with that. You’re coming here to Hampton in March with your new Live and Livid Tour, and I’m sure it will be full of Cho-isms except updated to reflect all that’s going on in the world. 

Cho: For sure. I think it’s just like the good time to get out on the road again. I’ve never experienced such a homophobic, racist, sexist time. It’s like you fight these battles your whole life, and it’s meant to get better. 

Outwire757:Now that you’re on the road again how have you audiences changed since COVID? 

Cho: I’ve toured during COVID in clubs, just working things out. And I think people are excited to be out and seeing live shows. That’s impressive, and I’m excited to perform. I think performers who haven’t been able to tour are also refreshed and excited to be out there. So there is a kind of meeting of enthusiasms. I think what COVID did, too, was align everybody to new information sources. Social media was much more current with what’s happening. Whether that’s Britney Grinder’s freedom to this ridiculous Republican senator crying over gay marriage.

Outwire757:Oh lord, that guy….

Cho: So weird. Why are you crying about straight people? Are you that threatened by gay marriage that you have to cry about it? Obviously, it’s, the weirdest need to control others. I think Republicans have a weird control kink. They need to control the gay people, and that’s even more morally questionable than drag. 

Outwire757: And then there’s that wacko in North Carolina who tried to cancel the drag show by shooting out a power substation.

Cho: And the power station also brings electricity to hospitals, to any kind of emergency facility, to your own home. 

Outwire757:It doesn’t make any sense, this crazy environment, and I’m not quite sure if social media is more to our advantage or detriment at times. It’s just sometimes difficult to tune it out. 

Cho: It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not. But I like having the information. I tend to think my sources are more correct and more impartial. But at the same time I’m also an avid watcher of the right-wing sources, conservative web sites, and I like look to those communities to see what’s going on so I can safeguard myself and see what they’re planning and what they’re saying. And it’s very shocking.

Outwire757: Know thine enemy. 

Cho: You’re right. My kink is watching them. How did they even get to that conclusion, that drag is somehow harmful? What they should be looking at is that now science is telling us that global warming is harmful for fetuses. So if you really care about unborn lives, take care of global warming. That’s going to work much better than fighting abortion.

Outwire757: It’s also true that churches are where we need to be looking for children who are being molested, and they are not legally responsible for reporting those incidents like schools and other organizations are. It’s not the drag queens. There’s never been one recorded incident of that ever.

Cho: Not a one. Again, deflecting. And then we’re in charge of defending ourselves even though we’ve never been accused. It puts us into defense mode as opposed to addressing their faulty logic and saying this is actually wrong, and you  don’t believe it either. I don’t know where they get it. 

And what about the Herschel Walker vampire versus werewolves discussion. That really kind of sent me. What about zombies versus ghosts? That’s actually a bigger battle. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to their absurd logic. 

Outwire757: I could not believe that election was even as close as it was. It was  a squeaker. And if it wasn’t for Atlanta, basically the cultural center of our country, Walker would probably be taking office

Cho: That’s depressing that it was so close. It should not have been like that. It’s really abomination. I mean, they give us so many abominations, including the abomination of ignorance. That’s really the problem.

Outwire757: It feels to me like every day we’re watching a cliffhanger unfold and what just happened with Congress passing the Respect for Marriage Act felt like being pulled back from the abyss right before we go over. But it’s not just the queer community in danger. I know you are a vocal advocate for all human rights. Where’s the intersection of all that for you?

Cho: Yes, it’s all connected, and I think it really boils down to what does it mean to be America? What does it mean to have equal rights? What does it mean to have a separation of church and state? We’re going into this very dangerous theocratic idealization for Christian evangelicals where they’re trying to justify Nazism, Yhey’re trying to justify these kinds of horrifying scenarios, and you can’t follow their logic because  they’re moving towards an authoritarian state. I think that the problem with Democrats is that we wish that we could not dignify it with a response. But the fact is that we have to.

Outwire757: I think that’s where the progressive movement falls a little bit short, because we’re so goddamn polite all the time. It’s time for that to end. We need to push a little bit harder and step up like you do through your comedy. Who are some of the bright queer comedians that we need to keep an eye out for? 

Cho: Robin Tran is really important. She’s a Vietnamese American trans woman who is just so impressive to me. I’ve worked with her many times. There’s so much talk about trans people in comedy and trans bodies in comedy and politics, but very little heard from trans activists and performers that need to be on the main stage. We need to focus our attention not on cis voices, but on trans voices. Alok Vaid-Menon is an amazing nonbinary trans performer comedian. They’re just amazing. Patti Harrison also. She’s a trans women, very surreal, and so unique as a musician and a performer. Trans voices are bending my approach to comedy towards politics and political humor. They’re the voices that I’m really paying attention to now.

Outwire757: One of the things you have talked so much about is your negative experience on the set of “All American Girl.” In the years since then, you’ve stayed in the entertainment industry. How has the industry changed since then?

Cho: It’s changed a lot. It’s changed for the better, in a great way. I think that there’s so much more inclusion and visibility, and we’re seeing so many more Asian-American stories, queer stories, queer Asian-American stories. There still needs to be more, but I’m excited for the future of media for entertainment in storytelling. I love that there is a whole generation in between myself first doing television to now. They are really making great strides, whether that’s Joel Kim Booster or Bowen Yang or Billy Eichner, who I really love. I think there are a lot of great things happening.

Outwire757: I love those young voices that are coming up too. It feels a lot like the 70s when we had Robin Williams and Richard Pryor and those sort of people that changed the comedy game. I know you knew Robin Williams. It seems like I saw somewhere that he was like a father figure to you. 

Cho: He was a huge part of San Francisco comedy, and he was the one successful person we would see all the time. He was a father figure for all of us coming up through comedy in San Francisco which is a very tight community. I would always have to perform after him which was the worst if you’re a young comedian, Can you imagine following Robin Williams? I think that experience made me a lot more aggressive on stage. 

The first autograph I ever got was from him when I was really young. My father owned a bookstore in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, and Robin would come in. I still have it. It’s a copy of “The World According to Garp” with his picture on the cover. His story turned very tragic. But at the same time the immeasurable gifts that he gave to comedy and culture is really special. 

Outwire757: What kind of influence growing up in San Francisco’s gay culture have on you as a child and also your family? Because obviously, your parents really didn’t give a shit about their gay bookstore and clientele. When you came out to them, it seemed like they were accepting. But correct me if I’m wrong that when you came out as bisexual, they had a little bit of a struggle with that? 

Cho: They don’t understand bisexuality because it doesn’t exist to them. They only understand gayness like the lesbians with tweed jackets and suede elbow patches. They only understand academic lesbians and gay painters. They don’t really get that those archetypes of queerness are so stuck in gender and the 70s. They also look at the community through a separatist lens because they lived in that time before AIDS when the men were in one camp, and the women in another. Yes, there was drag but drag was its own thing outside of that. That was a different era of queerness, where everybody was serially separated. (Cho has since begun to identify as asexual.)

Outwire757: I always love it when you pop up in  these great cameos or ensemble roles in television or movies. We run to the movie theater or streaming to see what you’re up to. My favorite role of yours by far is as Charlene Lee in Randall Kaisers’ “It’s My Party” in 1996.

Cho: Oh, that’s a beautiful movie. Oh my god, it changed my life! It was my it was my first real encounter with an AIDS specific movie. 

Outwire757: How did you get involved in that? 

Cho: I actually auditioned. In fact, I went through a long process auditioning with Eric Roberts and getting into these people’s lives. I got to meet Roddy McDowell. It was his last film which is incredible. Olivia Newton John and I became very good friends. 

Outwire757: OK, I see your take-out was delivered. One last question: where is Charlene today?

Cho: Charlene, I think, is pretty butch now. That hair is gone. That movie really messed up my hair. That’s all my real hair. Every day it was so big. They teased it every day. I think there’s like a bump it in it at some point. It really ruined my hair.