Nothing about Margaret Cho made it look like she had a chance in hell in Hollywood. Chubby, Korean, and bisexual (she admits to all three) in a business that typically has a hard time swallowing that list, Cho’s rank as one of the biggest female comedians on the planet is the result of a one-woman battle, built from her fi rst stand-up comedy gigs in a club near her parents’ book store in San Francisco to tours with Jerry Seinfeld and a showcase full of awards. For a while, Hollywood won. After a failed TV show attempt, where suits told her she was “too Asian” then hired a coach to train her to be “more Asian,” Cho battled with an eating disorder and alcohol abuse. She returned with a vengeance in 1999’s I’m the One That I Want, her fi rst truly hilarious special, which savaged the suits she experienced in Hollywood. Her follow-up, 2002’s Notorious C.H.O., spawned a best-selling book, DVD, and CD, as did followups Assassin and Revolution. Along the way, she dated Quentin Tarantino and Chris Isaak, launched a clothing company, and took up belly dancing.
Over the last few years, the 39-year-old comedian has also become increasingly linked with the world of ink. She sports original tattoo work by Ed Hardy, LA Ink’s Kat Von D, and Chris O’Donnell. We chatted with Cho about her tattoos (about 50 percent of her body is covered), her spring comedy tour, Beautiful, the secrets of joke telling, and her theories on the proper way to get trashed.
INKED: Your new tour is called . What can we expect?
CHO: I got the idea for the show after a radio interview. The DJ asked me, ‘What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and you were blonde, with blue eyes, and 5’11” and you weighed 100 pounds and you were beautiful.’ I said, ‘Well, I probably wouldn’t be able to get up because I’d be too weak to stand.’What an asshole.
I know. But I feel bad for him because that’s the only kind of person he thinks is beautiful. If he doesn’t think I’m beautiful, he is fucking missing out. So the whole show is about wanting to be taken seriously as a beauty. And tattoos are a part of the show. A lot of women my age in Hollywood are getting plastic surgery. But instead, I decided to get tattoos. I want my body to be completely covered when I’m 70 so people won’t be looking at my wrinkles. They’ll be like, ‘Oh my God. Look at her lizard tattoo.’
When did you get your first tattoo?
Just a few years ago. Ed Hardy did it. It covers most of my stomach, my back, and my ribs. It was a huge, ambitious piece for a fi rst tattoo. Since I was a kid, I wanted a Japanese body suit. A guy who worked for my dad has a body suit from Ed. He’s the guy who put me in touch with Ed when I wanted my own.
Are you good at getting tattooed?
I’m a really long sitter. I can sit for fi ve, six, seven hours because I’m really impatient and I want it done. I don’t want to have to keep going back. But tattooing is so hard on the artists’ eyes and their backs. Ed said that he didn’t want to tattoo anymore because he absorbed the pain that people felt. He didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore. It’s sad because he is the greatest, but you can understand that.
When you’re getting tattooed, do you feel like you have to entertain the artist by telling jokes?
Not at all. I try not to distract the artist in any way. I do my best to be quiet, and avoid pulling away or wincing. That’s why I make crazy faces.
Were you worried about the faces you were making while being filmed for ?
No, it was great. I love that show and I love Kat. And I love that there are these great women tattooers so I was totally willing to do anything.
Have you ever seen a tattoo on someone and thought, ‘That is the worst tattoo ever?’
Well, my manicurist has this Tweety Bird on her hand. I don’t agree, but I’m never going to say it’s bad. I just wouldn’t do that. Don’t get me wrong. Hands are great to tattoo. Tattoos are great everywhere, even the face, but some tattoos don’t seem to have any emotional resonance, like a Tweety Bird. It’s just a weird choice, but people get what they get. I love most people’s tattoos, even if they’re faded and blurred and old.
You talk a lot about your parents in your routines. How do they feel about your tattoos?
They were really freaked out, my mom especially. My dad saw it coming because the people who they hung around with when I was a kid were tattooed. My mother was like [in Mom voice], ‘Oh! I no like this. I don’t like tattoos.’ But she has her eyebrows tattooed, her eyeliner, her lipstick, so she’s familiar with tattooing too. I mean how do you get your eyelid tattooed? She has eyelid tattoos!
Your dad wrote joke books and you’re a stand-up comedian, so being funny is in your DNA. Give us some tips about telling a joke.
Know the joke you’re telling and don’t laugh while you’re saying it. It’s very important not to laugh.
What’s your favorite joke?
One of my favorites is from The Marijuana-Logues with Doug Benson. He says, ‘I just got some Marvin Gaye weed. It’s called Marvin Gaye weed because after you take one hit, you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’’ And I love how Chris Rock responded when someone asked him, ‘Do you think America is ready for a black president?’ He replied, ‘Well, why not? America was ready for a retarded president.’
Are comedy tours anything like rock ‘n’ roll tours?
They’re nothing like rock tours. Last year, I did a rock tour and shared a bus with the Dresden Dolls. On comedy tours, it’s just me and my tour manager on a plane fl ying between cities. In rock ‘n’ roll, you’re on a bus watching Jackass ’til six in the morning with the crew. Rock tours lend themselves to alcohol, sex, and drugs.
You perform all the time in front of thousands of people. Our readers usually only have to stand up in front of people at work or AA meetings. What are some tips on getting over stage fright?
Put yourself in the audience. Think, ‘If I were sitting down I would totally listen to me. I’d be interested in what I was going to say.’ It takes the sting out of it. It becomes less scary. And if you know what you are going to talk about it’s less scary. A lot of times people aren’t prepared, and that’s when they get nervous. It’s too nerve-racking to pull something out of your ass.
You run in celebrity circles. So many stars are screwed up these days. What is going on?
Fame has changed a lot. It’s invasive. Stars are under constant surveillance. There was a picture of Britney Spears online that showed she had a huge period stain on her underwear. I was so pissed. That’s happened to me so many times. In fact, that’s why I haven’t moved in so long, because I have the most period-stained mattress in the world. It looks like I killed somebody on it. If I took it outside, cops would put up “Do Not Cross” tape.
So how do you deal with fame?
I’m certainly not as famous as Britney, but I have learned some survival techniques. Like when you get fucked up, just take one poison at a time. Don’t mix pills with alcohol. Just take pills or drink. If you’re going to smoke something, just smoke one drug. Don’t cross breeds. And don’t smoke pot and drink at the same time. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.