Margaret Cho used to play to kids in college cafeterias but lately she prefers to perform to sold-out crowds at Carnegie Hall.
Still, this one hasn’t gone soft. From her Four Seasons hotel room in Toronto, Cho takes on George Bush, gay marriage, and the gayest thing she’s ever done.
“The gayest thing I’ve ever done is to rub the inside of my wooden bowl with a piece of cut garlic to make salad, because I didn’t want the garlic in the salad. That was really gay,” says Our Lady of Queer Raunch, in a voice far milder than the howl she employs for her standup routine.
The joke was funnier the first time around, when it appeared in her 2001 book I’m the One That I Want.
But its reiteration, during a phone conversation, points toward an eerie truth about Ms Cho. Her art, her shows and books are the real her.
Somewhere between artifice and reality, Cho has set up shop. And maybe it’s that insistence on crafting her own reality that makes her such a perennial gay favourite.
It’s also the quality that makes her an ideal candidate for reshaping a fucked-up America.
Prior to the latest US election in November, Cho’s State of Emergency tour visited swing states, in a targeted effort to get out the liberal vote.
The purpose behind this year’s Assassin tour, says Cho, is similarly political. “We can still have a democracy,” she insists. “That’s still possible. Even though it seems scarily hopeless and the Bush administration seems very ominous and frightening and evil. Anywhere that there’s humour, there’s a way to find hope.”
If humour is the hope among the ruins, then it’s a good time to be a comic in America. A panel Bush set up recently admitted it couldn’t find any evidence of nuclear weapons, or efforts to build such weapons, in Iran. But the administration issues increasingly sharp warnings, seemingly without grounds.
“It’s really disgusting,” says Cho. “Because it’s so blatantly obvious that all they care about is going into these countries and stealing their oil. It’s not to aid people. If George Bush was really concerned about aid, then he would have helped the victims of the tsunami much more than he did. As opposed to embarrassing Americans by sending Jeb Bush. I mean, that’s like sending Dannii Minogue.”
With her strong belief that the personal is the political, Cho’s work has established her as a powerful voice against ultra-conservatism. But she doesn’t shy away from commenting on libertines, either.
Cho grew up in San Francisco, among drag queens, AIDS, and the Castro. But aside from an accident of geography, she feels personally inclined to take on queer battles.
“They make sense to me,” she says. “I’m very queer, and I’m very in touch with those politics and those feelings, with gay culture and music and art. Gay everything. It all speaks to me and is important to me. So to walk this path is just what makes sense.”
She admits to only rating a “straight-up three” on the Kinsey scale. But, to judge from the demographics at her audiences, Kinsey does not a queer make. Margaret Cho is a taboo breaker and, as such, her “straight-up three” probably gets bumped.
That said, she has been married-which some lately call a queer action and some call conservative.
“I used to think that marriage was outdated,” she notes. However, after experiencing marital bliss (temporarily) herself, Cho decided “marriage is actually vital as a building block for community. And when you don’t let gays and lesbians marry, you effectively lock them out. You shun them from the greater community. And that’s unconscionable.”
As thousands of Vancouverites clamour for seats at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, it is evident that Cho has built a community of her own. One in which subtlety and irony, both outlawed in post-9/ll USA, reign supreme.
In Cho’s community, a sense of humour is a given. “Humour helps me to assimilate tragedy and give it meaning,” she says. “In its most poignant way, [comedy] comes from pain. That makes pain valuable.”
It was Cho’s personal struggles that first gave her fodder for the stage-wrestling with impossible beauty standards and racism. But it was her empathy that made Cho truly queer.
Whether the subject matter is Bush or bush, “comedy helps us define what’s happening. And it gives us a sense of hope.” It also makes Cho the queerest Kinsey Three on the block.