The personal, the political and the profane: nothing is off-limits for renowned comedian, actor, singer/songwriter, producer and writer Margaret Cho.
“I’m excited to be doing standup — my first true love,” Cho tells Xtra, on the phone from her Los Angeles home. She’ll perform her latest show, Mother — which she describes as “an untraditional look at motherhood and how we look at maternal figures and strong women in queer culture” — at the Vancouver Comedy Festival in February.
In Mother, the Emmy- and Grammy-nominated comic will touch on themes familiar to her fans: race, drugs, sexuality, celebrity, culture and politics.
For Cho, a San Francisco native born to Korean immigrant parents, finding community in queer culture predates her standup days. Cho’s parents operated a gay bookstore in the 1970s, in one of San Francisco’s main gay neighbourhoods. She grew up with the unusual juxtaposition of her Korean parents’ conservative values and the dynamic, burgeoning San Francisco gay scene of the time.
“It was a very unexpected and surprising thing for them to do,” Cho says. “It was like these very conservative Korean immigrants working with probably the most tattooed, most outrageous, most interesting art community that was happening then in San Francisco.”
In her 20-plus years since as a standup comic and performer, Cho’s staying power could be attributed to her outrageous candour about absolutely everything — from shitting herself in her car, to the size of her vaginal mound. Much of her material is based directly on her personal struggles with racism, homophobia, addiction and eating disorders.
By honestly and directly addressing her struggles in her shows, Cho has maintained a loyal fan base around the world — young, old, queer, straight, white and non-white.
“I love gay men, and I love who I am,” she says. “I am queer, I am a woman, and I am a person of colour and somebody who grew up with politics.”
While Cho first found acceptance and popularity within the queer community and among younger Asian Americans, she says her relationship with the Korean American community has been far more tenuous.
“When I was much younger and I first appeared on television in 1994 [on All-American Girl], older-generation Korean people would see me and be really upset because I was really dirty and I was really not what they had chosen for a representative at all,” she says.
While the lack of support from her parents’ generation of Korean Americans was “very heartbreaking,” Cho says she can understand their sensitivity about the community’s image in the 1990s, after the infamous Los Angeles riots.
“In the early ’90s, the only thing that Koreans were really known for at the time were the LA riots, and that was the only kind of American news phenomenon they were included in,” she says.
“I think the Asian American community at large has always been very supportive because we need each other. But Koreans are very particular about the way they want to be perceived . . . I think they would rather that I was a man,” she quips. “I don’t know!”
One of the main reasons Cho struck such a contentious note with Korean Americans was her frank discussion of sexuality, still considered a taboo topic for women by many immigrant and conservative families of Asian origin. In her breakout 2000 standup act I’m the One That I Want, Cho describes her sexual encounters with women and the ensuing hilarity.
“I went through a phase where I was like, am I gay? Am I straight? Then I realized: I’m just slutty,” Cho says in the show. The punchline: “Where’s my parade?”
Cho, who married artist Al Ridenour in 2003, identifies as bisexual, or what she calls a “straight-up three on the Kinsey scale.”
“I never think that I’m more inclined one way or another towards men or women, or towards a specific gender,” she says.
Cho also identifies as a fag hag, traditionally defined as a straight woman who is close friends with a gay man. As a bisexual, would that make her a fag hag plus?
“I guess so!” she laughs. “It’s like Amazon Prime or something, like a newly added bonus.”
Fag hags are not tied to any gender, nationality or sexual orientation, she says. “I know a lot of fag hags who are gay men, so I think identity, sexuality and gender has little to do with it. It’s just a role that you play.”
Asked about her relationship to the queer community in 2013, Cho doesn’t hesitate. “I feel like I’m really inspired by it; I feel like I really belong to it,” she says. “It’s part of my everyday life. It’s just kind of everywhere; it’s everything.”