The comedian on her radical education, the importance of safe spaces in the “hostile and dangerous world of comedy,” and when bad taste makes for good jokes.
Many comedians claim to challenge the status quo, question norms, push the limits, and speak (funny) truth to power. But few do it as consistently, as powerfully, and as hilariously as Margaret Cho. Whether describing her first colonic, singing about her love of receiving oral sex, or taking the ALS ice water challenge in a different direction (in enema form, to be precise), Cho makes it her business to offend, and often enrage, polite society.
Though her comedy rejects judgmental moralism, it does contain an undeniably moral and ethical code sewn from Cho’s personal experience and her sense of empathy and justice. As mainstream comedy continues to promote fat-shaming, rape jokes, and homophobia, Cho uses her work to create a safe space for the very people who find themselves the butts of other comedians’ humor. She punches up, not down, taking aim at the powerful rather than the disenfranchised.
Cho was born into a time of rebellion and transgression in 1968, to parents who had emigrated from Seoul to San Francisco four years earlier. She was bullied and unhappy at school, but found refuge and friendship among the men who frequented the gay bookstore her parents owned. Her other refuge was comedy, which she began writing at fourteen and performing at sixteen.
Cho’s very identity challenges the status quo—she is a queer, Asian-American, female comedian—but she also actively confronts injustice. After Robin Williams died, Cho decided to turn her grief into action: she began to busk on her days off to raise money for the homeless, and started a #BeRobin campaign calling on others to take up the cause of homelessness around which Williams had organized.
But while Cho is often political, she is not PC. At the Golden Globes this past January, she caused controversy by appearing as Cho Yung Ja, a North Korean army general, new member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and contributor to the fictional Movies Wow! Magazine. People accused Cho of coonery and minstrelsy. Instead of rolling over, she took to Twitter, writing: “I’m not playing the race card. I’m playing the rice card.”
Cho spoke to me over the phone from her house in LA, in the midst of preparing for her psyCHO stand-up tour, elucidating the crucial difference between comedy that offends without challenging, and comedy like hers, which offends to disrupt.