Interview: "Notorious" Margaret Cho

Cho-Stopper: AAV Interview with Margaret Cho

By Yayoi Lena Winfrey, AAV Contributing Editor


The Notorious CHOIn the elevator from the ground floor entrance to backstage at Seattle's Paramount Theater, the divine Ms. M (for Margaret) makes a face at associate producer Ran Barker, then turns to face the camera on my shoulder and jeers "It smells like someone's been smoking weed in here!"

We’re on our way to the dressing room in preparation for two concerts Cho will film for her newest movie, The Notorious C.H.O. I'm along for the ride as a second-unit cameraperson capturing the behind-the-scenes excitement on this rainy November day in 2001.

As I peer through the lens, however, I catch an up-close and personal look at The Notorious One and note noting that she looks tired more than excited. Someone reported later that Cho soaked herself in a tub of ice that afternoon in order to wake up for her show.  And it's no wonder the girl is weary.  Her grueling tour would eventually cover 37 cities that year.


Nothing Sacred

The first comedian to hit the road following the 9/11 attacks, Cho came under intense scrutiny and even overt criticism for not mourning longer. In fact, one of her routine's jokes alludes to her performing sexual acts on 9/11 rescue workers.

Is there anything this bawdy, funny lady feels is too sacred to joke about?

"I don't know," Cho replies when recently asked. "I just want to be funny. I don't really care about taboos necessarily."

In her new film, she describes both sexual organs and exploits in explicit detail.  Publicity for the film has placed a premium on its raunch factor, encouraging comparisons with Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.   However, Cho's significant contribution to the genre is the introduction of a unflinchingly female perspective, one that she applies to the satire (and discomfort) of men in such gags as "If Straight Men Had Periods" and "If Gay Men Had Periods".

"It's not interesting to me to be safe in any way or to not take risks," declares Cho. "I haven't encountered anything that I wouldn't necessarily talk about...unless it was boring."

Recently, a news article in a London paper contemplated whether or not Cho would be punished for her 9/11 gag the way Politically Incorrect’s Bill Maher was dismissed for remarking that terrorists were not cowards.

"Bill Maher was penalized pretty heavily," says Cho, "whereas I can sort of say what I like because my shows are my own. I don't have to answer to a higher authority."


Her Own Boss, A Different Direction

Being her own boss has worked well for Cho. The past few years have seen the cherub-faced comic on a comeback trail. Following a string of successful college campus performances, Cho filmed her stand-up act titled I'm The One That I Want [see profile below]. An autobiographical book with the same name followed. Now, with a second film in release, Cho feels vindicated for the horrifying period following the cancellation of her failed TV series All-American Girl. Depressed after losing the show, Cho descended into a drink-drug-sex-bulimia binge for five years--nearly killing herself.

The racism behind the forfeiture of the sitcom and its subsequent effect on Cho were prime subjects for I'm The One That I Want, but the material she now covers is different.

"The first film was a story about race and Hollywood...this one is much less [about that]," says Cho.

Indeed, in Notorious, Cho barely mentions her Korean heritage or the way Asian Americans are treated in the entertainment industry.

Notorious is "basically a comedy show about...just what's happening in my life at this point in time," says Cho, observing that, "it can take almost a year to write a show depending on what I'm doing."

What Notorious gives us is a kinder, gentler, perhaps more introspective Cho.

"[It's] more like personalized politics," she says. "It's about the revolution that's inside of us...It's not as political, not as racial as my previous work..."

Ironically, the title parodies the rap artist Biggie Smalls, The Notorious B.I.G., whose violent murder several years ago remains unsolved amid rumors of a racist conspiracy. Nonetheless, the "revolution" inside of the Cho of today is sexual, and the film is likely to reinforce her fan-base outside the Asian-American community, especially among her devoted gay and lesbian audiences.


Still Lonely

Yet, there's no denying that more Asian-Pacific Americans are Cho fans now than when All-American Girl was considered an embarrassment to the APA community.

"I think it's my longevity," says Cho seriously. "I've been kind of around a long time. A lot of people grew up with me."

She says she plans to incorporate more Asian heritage and politics again in her future work.

"I'm looking forward to a new show which is about race," says Cho, "[It] will focus more on race because it's more on my mind...from what I'm reading and what my personal life is more about."

Confessing that she's "felt really alone for so many years," Cho says she'd also like to see a greater number of other Asians consider show biz careers. The subject is briefly tackled in "Alan & Jeremy," one of the show's bits in which she recalls early attempts to dissuade her from a career once thought unsuitable for Asians.

"I encourage Asian Americans to get into the arts: to really think about how we're defined in this culture and to work for visibility," she says. "There needs to be so much more [us] in the entertainment industry."

Hailing African-American actors Halle Berry and Denzel Washington for their Oscar wins, Cho admits, "It's a small beginning, but there's so much still left to do."

"It's really great that there are actors out there like Halle...and Denzel...who have done amazing things regardless of race," Cho says. "Their achievements are above and beyond what they 're doing for race...encouraging us to go forth and do more."

Cho credits her parents with providing that encouragement in her own career. "Wonderful, thoughtful, elegant and gracious," Cho gushes, "they're my role models."

Because of their intellectual interests, Cho's parents helped her to shape her life through knowledge gained by reading. They once owned a bookstore.

"Now that they're older, they've changed a lot in the way they view me," says Cho explaining that their expectations are different.

"They started out as very traditional, strict Korean parents," she asserts. "They've mellowed so much."

Cho's mother, the butt of many of her on-stage jokes, routinely thanks fans in women's rest rooms of auditoriums for attending her daughter's show. Her devotion, and Margaret’s years of mimicking her mother in her acts, have so endeared Mrs. Cho to many fans that she’s become a part of the star attraction in her right. Theatrical trailers for the film feature Asian-American audience members proclaiming their love for the Mom "character" and opinion that these bits are the highlight of the show.

Currently on a promotional tour for the film, Cho returns to performing live concerts in August.  Meanwhile, catch The Notorious C.H.O., directed by Lorene Machado, opening July 3 in New York, followed by other cities nationwide.

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