Arts & Entertainment
5 min

15 minutes with Margaret Cho

Side-splittingly funny and a no-nonsense political force

Credit: Austin Young

How much can you find out about a person in a 15-minute phone call? That’s the task put to me when I get 15 minutes with fame, interviewing the indomitable Margaret Cho.

We all know who she is, the comedian fag hag of Korean descent and Bush dissent. Four films, two books, shows across North America consistently sold out, she’s the hottest comic the queer community’s got. And she’s a no-nonsense political force to boot.

From a hotel room telephone in Atlanta, where she’s currently working on a new film, she chats with me about her politics, art and cutlery.

I call her up, and my voice shakes with nerves. I thought I was cooler than this. To relax me Cho tells me a story about her morning.

“I screamed at the room service people,” she says, “because at this hotel they make you pay 10 dollars to use their knives and forks and plates and cups, because, like, they have a kitchen. So they only brought me one knife, one fork, one cup and one plate yesterday, and then they took it… So I hauled them back and screamed, ‘give me my f-ing fork and plate back.'”

When I tell her the story worked, I’m feeling better, she giggles and adds, “Now that you know I’m such a diva that I must eat with utensils.”

Point number one: She’s gracious, and charming.

We jump right into the meat. I’m most interested in her outsider politics–good, honest, hard-hitting, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Bush, sex-loving, body-celebrating, pro-gay political humour. I ask whether on stage she’s still exorcizing the difficulties of coming to terms with being a minority, or if her humour is simply reportage of what she’s already learned and fully processed.

“Well I think that when you’re a minority artist it’s kind of a journey,” she answers, “because you’re always going to be confronted with your minority status, even if you’ve worked through it, even if you’ve had a lot of time to process and to really think about who you are in relation to the rest of the world and the world that you perform for.”

She gives an example.

“I’m here and I’m working and I didn’t have a car for a few days so I walked everywhere and this guy screamed at me from his car, ‘Me love you long time.’ It was really embarrassing because it was in this really crowded street and I was the only Asian person there so obviously he was talking to me. It was immediately demoralizing because here I am just walking around and suddenly I’m confronted with this racial sexual harassment, which people don’t often get. They usually get one or the other but don’t often get both at the same time.”

She repeats herself a little, getting a grip on the story, and continues. “Even though I’ve had a lot of time to process my experience by talking about it, it never fails to surprise me how something like that can be instantly upsetting and can automatically become fodder for what I want to do onstage because talking about things that are upsetting really alleviates the pain of it, because then it becomes this great story.”

Her tour schedule shows her at a number of fundraisers and rallies across the United States. Does the political activism get tiring?

“No, because I believe in it and that energizes me,” she says. “To see people that also believe in it is fun. A lot of people that work in these organizations are my friends and we all believe in it, so fighting for us isn’t a tiring experience. It’s energizing because it’s a chance to be together, to enjoy ourselves as a community and to talk about what is important to us. So sometimes you think about fight and struggle as being things that deplete you but really, to me,” she takes a moment to find the right words, “they fortify. And nurture. They are a wonderful way to connect and be together and it really revives me.”

Point number two: She’s grounded, and modest.

So who are those people? Who makes up her community?

“I think it’s really queer. I think that, to me, is most of it because that is where I feel most political. Within that it’s very multicultural. It’s very other. People who feel displaced and out of place, that community is there too. Then there’s women, and then feminists–who are not just women, a lot of people are feminists who are not women–and it’s liberal, so there’s a lot of different communities, but to me it’s just one community. But it’s all queer. Even though it’s not necessarily homosexual, it’s still queer.”

Point number three: She’s progressive, and inclusive.

I worry that minority or outsider status, when performed, might only perpetuate her disenfranchisement. Has she worked out a strategy to avoid this?

“It’s troubling,” she answers quickly, “and it’s almost like you don’t have control over that unless you think more expansively about yourself and what’s possible and what you can do and what you enjoy doing. To me, I’ve spent the last year or so thinking really expansively about my work and incorporating more of my body and more of my sexuality into my work, and more dance–like doing burlesque which is so exciting and so fun, incorporating a lot of comedy and a lot of humour. But burlesque sort of goes against some of the feminist propaganda that I also grew up with, so it’s a very different kind of reaction to a lot of the feminism that I have had experience with. But to me it’s so feminist. I don’t understand why it’s not more embraced by some of the old guard feminists… Moving down into the body is fun.”

I agree, saying that she gets to own her body, she gets to use her body on her own terms.

“Yeah, that’s very important. And that’s such a new idea for me. That’s another way to think more expansively.”

So, with that in mind, what is she doing now?

“I’m doing a lot of gender-switch stuff… I usually start off as a man when I do burlesque and it’s really fun to do this drag king thing. So I’m working all that out.

What’s that like?

“Oooh,” she coos in a low, dreamy voice. “It’s won-der-ful. It’s so powerful, and so exciting and fun, and really thrilling for the audience and thrilling for me.

“I think it’s weird, I feel really invincible,” she continues. “Because I can be a man and a woman and it’s such a feeling of–you know when you take away all the societal baggage about gender and you can be both–you are everything, and that is the greatest, the greatest feeling. It’s just so magical. It’s about being whole. It’s about being everything in the whole universe.”

Point number four: She’s wise, and romantic.

Not yet ready to tour the burlesque show, she’s coming to town to do a kind of retrospective show instead, revisiting “a lot of older material because it’s fun.” I wonder about some of her classic material, like shitting in the car or her drag queen friends from high school shoving ice cream cones up their asses in the ice cream parlour. All true?

“If it’s like that, if it’s something that’s really really outrageously ridiculous like that, if it’s about something like shitting in the car, it’s so true. Like, why would I lie? To me there’s so much more odd and crazy stuff in the truth than there is in fiction.”

So why is she a confessional artist?

“I couldn’t make up a better story than what actually happened.”

Point number five: She’s dynamite, and not to be missed.