It’s undeniable that comedy has changed immensely in the last 30 years, particularly when it comes to what audiences consider offensive. Lesser comics often end up dedicating whole portions of their set to complaining about how they “aren’t allowed to be funny anymore,” or that everyone is too sensitive. Margaret Cho, whose comedy has always walked on the razor thin line between good and bad taste, doesn’t have time to whine about how things have changed. She’s too busy relishing the challenge today’s audiences present.
“I love it. [The current culture] urges comedians to do better,” Cho says. “We have to be better and more skilled at what we're about because cancel culture is real and strong. It calls out a cheap laugh. You're actually beholden to this idea of excelling, even if it's offensive, you want to really do it justice. Those kinds of things can evade judgement, if you’re really good at something you can get away with a lot. So I think that what we’re all trying to do is be better comedians.”
Since comedians are now being forced to up their game it has led to an explosion in the amount of good comedy in the world. And when you look at today’s world, there is plenty of fodder out there for quick-witted comics like Cho to skewer. “Everybody looks at the news on their phone [these days], so everybody is caught up,” Cho explains. “You have a daily platform to do really great work if you can. And [the material] doesn’t [grow stale] because there’s always something to say and there’s a growing message that you can keep coming back to.
“I think it’s appreciated,” Cho continues. “It doesn’t grow stale because we’re always fighting these eternal wars—whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia—in a different way every day.”
Cho’s way of looking at comedy is very of the time and place where she grew up—San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her parents owned a bookstore and it was there that Cho met people from every possible walk of life. It was at Paperback Traffic where both Cho’s political activism and her love of comedy were born.
“The guys that worked for my father were all following Harvey Milk and getting involved in very early gay politics in the ‘70s,” Cho says. “And also looking to deal with the destruction of AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And so it was a very politicized time to be gay.
“You needed humor to survive because it was such a devastating time to grow up,” Cho continues. “You had all of this heartbreak, all of this sadness, that started with Harvey Milk’s assassination and then it grew with the decimation of our community from AIDS. You had so much to cope with that if you survive you had to laugh, or else it would kill you.”
This theme would continue throughout Cho’s career. Basically any time that she was touched by a tragedy, that tragedy would find its way into her act. Her sense of humor didn’t just serve as a coping mechanism for some of her darkest times, but it also helped her rebel against some of the conservative notions that came with being raised Korean American.
“It was kind of a thrill revealing so much as it goes against my upbringing as a Korean American,” Cho says. “Because we're very shut off and very private and oftentimes people in my family are so disconnected from their emotions they can't even identify it. Maybe it's an exhibitionistic desire to shock people with a kind of emotional nudity, the kind of raw, naked feelings I think are really valuable.”
The honesty and vulnerability presented by Cho in her comedy may have been startling at first for much of the Korean American community, but as her career took off, most ultimately embraced her as she broke down barriers within the entertainment industry.
It wasn’t until later in life, long after she had been established in her career, that Cho decided to take on another major cultural taboo —getting tattooed.
“I always knew I would be tattooed because I was influenced by the people that worked for my dad in San Francisco,” Cho recalls. “They were getting full body suits from Ed Hardy and Bill Salmon. This was a big fucking deal. That was something that influenced me. I knew that I would be tattooed, but I didn’t know when it would start.”
It was around 2002 that Cho finally started on a body suit of her own when a friend took her to Tattoo City to be tattooed by the legendary proprietor. Hardy started her off on her tattoo journey by adding some Japanese style snakes and flowers to her stomach and back. Cho hit the ground running and she has been collecting work from some of the world’s most established artists ever since. In addition to Hardy, Cho has work from Kat Von D, Shawn Barber, Mister Cartoon, Kim Saigh, Eddie Deutsche and many others.
Cho’s family took her choice to get tattooed in stride. “They knew that it was going to happen,” Cho says with a laugh. “This is a familiar journey for them.” Other places have not been quite so forgiving.
“The way it affects me is when I go to a Korean bath house, because it’s very taboo to have as many tattoos as I do,” Cho says. “Then they look at you like you’re Yakuza, which is ridiculous. I’m such an old Korean lady, I’m not a gangster. Well, I’m gangster in some ways, but not that way. (Laughs)”
Cho’s career has been constantly evolving as she adds new skills to her repertoire, not unlike how she keeps adding to her tattoo collection. After starting her career in stand-up Cho was the star of the first sitcom to be based on an Asian American family (“All-American Girl”). From there, she wrote a couple of books (“I’m the One That I Want,” “I have Chosen to Stay and Fight”), performed burlesque and recorded raps. She’s even appeared on TV as both Kim Jong-Il and a singing poodle.
Most recently, Cho has dipped her toe into the world of podcasting with The Margaret Cho. It seems like every comedian has a podcast these days, but don’t expect The Margaret Cho to be just another comedy podcast.
“It’s a podcast featuring people that everybody knows, very famous people, and then people that people should know,” Cho says. “It's a lot of different people from Quentin Tarantino to Jonathan Van Ness to Karen Kilgariff. I do love comedians too, these are people from different areas of entertainment, people from all types of places. So I like that it's a reflection of my social life.”
While Cho definitely has a knack for podcasting—the confessional style of her humor is almost custom-built for the medium—don’t expect her to retire from stand-up any time soon. She’s been hitting the road with her “Fresh Off the Bloat” tour for almost two years now. After years of drug addiction, Cho is approaching this tour with vigor as she gets an opportunity to look at traveling in a whole different way.
Many assume that all of the boredom and downtime on the road can be a trigger for an addict, Cho sees things a little differently. “It’s way harder to travel as an active addict,” Cho laughs. “It’s way hard when you’re high and trying to get a flight, trying to go through customs with drugs is really hard. Being dope sick in a new and foreign land is something that nobody should have to go through.”
Everything changes, that’s the one definitive truth in this world. The trick is being able to change with it while still maintaining a sense of self. Margaret Cho has done just that throughout her career. From stand-up to podcasting and every stop in between, Cho has found a way to make us laugh for over 30 years, regardless of how bleak the world around us may be.