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Interview: Margaret Cho opens minds through comedy


MCF: Margaret Cho

The Englert Theatre — Thursday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Photo via Margaret Cho

“Optimist” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of comedian and provocateur Margaret Cho. But her work, spanning three decades of dives into familial ties, racism and sexual assault, has always had resilience as its core. Little Village caught up with Cho to talk about aggression, sheet masks and performing during “difficult presidencies” before her Thursday, April 6 appearance at the Englert Theatre as part of the upcoming Mission Creek Festival.

Do you change your set per state?

Yeah, of course! Every show is different every night. It’s alive; it’s always growing and changing. Even in the same city, it’s different each time you come back. I’ve performed in Aspen a number of times, and I add those experiences into my stand up, make it more personal. You try to make [the set] personalized to where you are.

Do you go to college campuses, and, if so, what reception do you receive?

Yes — It’s good! I started in colleges. I was doing colleges all through my development as a comedian and I love it. They’re a very good audience. It’s a very exciting time for people, and it’s always memorable for them later, even many years later — people mention they saw me and never forgot.

What do you think people most misunderstand about your work? What would you like people to know about you?

I don’t know, gosh … I get called aggressive, but I think that there is a heart of real purpose throughout my comedy. I want to improve the world, so while there is aggression in my work, there is a sense of wanting peace and wanting tranquility too.

What does peace and tranquility mean to you?

No wars! And equal rights for women!

The term aggression is often applied to women in negative ways. What does aggression mean to you?

I think just speaking your mind and not being afraid and not backing down; not changing your opinion to suit the status quo. It’s all about being true to yourself.

It’s strange, but I’m tempted to call you an optimist. Would you describe yourself as such?

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Yes!

What does it mean to be a provocateur today, and how has that changed?

I think it’s really important! I think that one of the things that flourishes during a difficult presidency is comedy, and I certainly know that — I started doing comedy during Reagan, and certainly through both Bush terms, Senior and Dubya — you do do a lot of talking about politics. It’s really great, it’s really important, and it’s really healing.

In what way?

Right now, we’re talking a lot about Planned Parenthood and how people want to defund it, and the majority of their work is treating yeast infections, not doing abortions, you know? It’s important to put your opinion out, and … also talk about that — they treat yeast infections, they help people. [Sharing that information] heals the relationship people have with Planned Parenthood.

Has your job changed with the new administration?

I’ve always been this way; I’ve always been rooted in politics and feminism. That’s not changed.

The government has checks and balances; does comedy?

Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe — there is a certain amount of public posturing you have to do if you’re a public figure. I don’t know; I don’t really care: I think a lot of people are more careful these days because words can get you in trouble — although with this administration, we have a president that can do and say whatever he wants. Under his rule, I don’t know what the rules are; anything goes. It’s wild.

Are you performing anything from [Grammy-nominated 2016 album] American Myth?

I’m not — just doing stand up comedy; [I’m] working out a show I might do in the fall, but there’s no name yet.

What does song allow you that stand up does not?

There’s a rhythm and cadence you have to adhere to in the song, which I like. I like those kinds of boundaries. It makes it exciting; it’s different.

What advice would you give to young Asian Americans trying to make it in comedy today?

Get out there and do it. It’s so good! Our voices are really important and needed. There has been not as many Asian American women in comedy — though now we have Ali Wong: She’s so great; she’s my little baby. I really adore her and am grateful for her and I’m grateful to any Asian American women out there. There should be more.

During the #12DaysofRage campaign, you were once described [by the New York Times’ Alli Maloney] as, “… an empathic artist who needs her fans for sanity as much as they need her for release.” Would you agree with that observation?

I agree with that. I love stand up comedy — it’s always been my art form, my expression, my true love. I do shows every day. It’s something I will always do. I feel like, of course I need my fans to help me as much as I can help others — we get a continual feeling of togetherness, which I really love.

How has your relationship to your body in your work changed over the years? I’m thinking about the ways it’s been presented in your acts as a vessel, a tool, the stage itself.

Oh, I’m way more comfortable. As you get older, it’s true for most people — I’m very satisfied with where I am in my body. I don’t care about adhering to any standards, I don’t care about that stuff — I’m joyful to be alive.

One of my students just opened up an Asian beauty store here in town. Asian beauty and skin care routines have become super popular in the last few years — any thoughts?

I love it! It’s another representation of hallyu, the Korean new wave of exporting lifestyle, tv, drama, beauty — it’s amazing. The way we treat beauty is different there — it’s a big deal everywhere, but in Korean culture, it’s affecting exporting and commercialization and the change of the culture.

Will you be sticking around to check out any of the other acts?

I’d like to try! I’m really excited and looking forward to it. I’ve been to Iowa City before; when I came through last time it was full of motorcycles.

Motorcycles?

Tons of them.

Katie Prout is a writer, runner and MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has been featured in ‘The Toast,’ ‘North American Review,’ ‘LitHub’ and elsewhere. Follow her at @katie_prout. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 217.


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