What does one get on mixing the puritanical, repressed culture of new immigrant Koreans with the bold, brash world of the liberated San Francisco gaybourhood, topped off with a potent dash of the comedy genes?
An unsurprisingly explosive result: the irrepressible, combative and hilarious Margaret Cho.
Cho seldom needs introducing, so we’ll make it quick. She’s the Korean comedian whose routines you know by heart (or should).
The Mommy phone call routine, “Are you gay? Pick up the phone! Only gay screen their calls!” Or The Sex on a Ship routine, “I’m just slutty! Where’s my parade?” That would be Cho. (Not ringing a bell? Hit up Youtube. You can thank us later.)
The daughter of new immigrants in California, Cho grew up immersed in the hippies, druggies, drag queens and tattoo artists of San Francisco. The melting pot that surrounded her family didn’t do anything to change their conservative Korean values, which Cho grew up to resist in a loud and public way.
Cho’s family owned a bookstore (the origin of the “Ass First” routine). And though Cho says that she and her father don’t have the same sense of humour, clearly comedy was in the genes because in high-school Cho auditioned and was accepted into San Francisco School of the Arts, with an immediate focus on improvisational comedy. That is to say that Cho started her career at age 16, which explains her impassioned and experienced onstage presence.
Cho talks from her hotel room in Atlanta, Florida. She’s touring her newest solo routine, entitled Beautiful, which debuted in Australia earlier this year. The calm, cultured voice over the telephone carries the same deliberateness as her routines, but this time she’s all seriousness and composure as she describes this empowering tour.
“Well, it’s my fifth stand-up comedy tour. It’s really a big one-woman show and we’re travelling all over with it. The show is about a lot of things but central to the themes about feeling beautiful and how political it is to feel beautiful.”
As Cho describes this exciting tour and the beautiful message it carries, it’s not hard to remember the days when Cho was struggling in a very public way. The journey from her high- school success to the acclaim of this current tour has not been smooth sailing.
Cho endured the growth and development of Asian characters on popular American television. The official guinea pig of ABC’s Asian show “All American Girl” Cho experienced pressure to lose weight and “be more Asian.” Body image and substance abuse struggles ensued for a few years as Cho fought to find her niche and not only accept, but appreciate her body and culture.
“Dance was my first marriage. It was through dance that I started to really understand and appreciate beauty. Feeling beautiful is our right. Dance helped me find that.”
Cho’s relationship with dance — bellydancing and burlesque — led to the 2007 tour, The Sensuous Woman, which mixed comedy and satire with burlesque-style dance. It was sexy and brash, everything that Cho’s fans have grown to expect and love.
Cho continues that emphasis on women’s bodies, beauty and bawdiness with Beautiful. Aware that her own confidence and personal appreciation has come so far, Cho is able to invest a deep sincerity in her performances, knowing that she’s done her time.
Cho credits some of this healing to her relationship. Yup, the slutty, beautiful and crude Cho is married.
“I’ve been with my husband for ten years. There is an unconditional support and love there. That connection, feeling supported by someone emotionally has totally enhanced my life.”
Cho is not heterosexual — but she struggles to define her sexuality beyond the term queer. Her relationship is monogamous, at this point at least.
“I think the idea of poly-relationships is great. And it’s open to me if I want that. My marriage is about ‘Whatever happens, we’ll stay together.’ But it just hasn’t come up yet. Being married is very important to me. It has utterly committed me to the fight for gay marriage.”
Cho is so committed to this fight that she’s become a Universal Life Minister, authorized to perform marriages in San Francisco.
“I have performed two wedding ceremonies so far. It’s amazing, so incredibly emotional. Everyone cries! The one was for two gay men and other for lesbians. It was great because the struggle has been so rough. It’s been a hard road.”
Politics is something Cho is never without. She brings it to the stage, to interviews and to her blog in a big way. It’s gotten even bigger since the beginning of the US election.
“It definitely provides fodder for comedy. And that’s great. I love that.”
But while Cho will take politics to the stage, she certainly leaves the stage tomfoolery behind when talking about politics.
“Jokes aside, I do take the campaign very seriously. I serve as a Barack Obama Campaign Surrogate, which means I go speak to people about the election and his campaign. Doing a show and campaigning are two very separate things. And this has become a very serious situation especially with the introduction of Sarah Palin. I’m so very disappointed in the Republicans for choosing her in the hopes that they’d appease Hilary supporters. She’s clearly the anti-Hilary with disturbingly misogynist views.”
It can catch one off-guard, such strongly spoken words coming from the comedian most known for eliciting blushing, hiccupping laughs. But they’re the same views pushing for progressive equal rights that fuel Cho’s comedy on stage.
“So Ottawa is conservative?” Cho laughs. “I don’t care! I still do what I do. It doesn’t affect the show. It won’t change how I perform. My shows about not being uptight, everyone knows they’re risqué and wild! People know what they’re getting into if they come to see me.”
In the midst of our own nerve-wracking election, bringing Cho’s fiery gender politics to the Ottawa stage might be just what the doctor ordered — with just a spoonful of humour to help the medicine go down.