Margaret Cho unleashes her inner freak

Able to be more frank than ever before, the ComedyFest headliner dishes on sexuality, Kim Jong-il, and why standup still rules
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Comedians are the philosophers of our time, and reading Margaret Cho’s press material drives that point home. It describes her as an agent provocateur, “thought leader”, and teacher to those with open minds and open hearts. Yes, she’s a regular modern-day Socrates—at least according to her publicity team. But damned if she doesn’t come off that way on the phone, too.

The 43-year-old San Francisco native has long outgrown her alt-comedy roots and become a brand: she’s a comedian, an actor, an author, a musician, an advocate, a naughty vixen. You can’t pin her down, try as you might. At the end of the day—and the start of any new day—she is and always will be a standup comic.

From Lenny Bruce through to Bill Hicks and right up to Louis CK, there’s a strong tradition in the joke game of long-form personal-truth tellers who captivate an audience through stories from their lives or political rabble-rousing rather than the classic setup-and-punch-line delivery. Add to that list Cho, probably the best-known female practitioner of the art form. But what else could this Socratic comic do?

“I do lead a rather illustrious life and it’s one that I think deserves a lot of examination and it deserves a lot of attention,” she tells the Straight from her home in L.A., channelling the great Greek, who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “It’s fun to explore that. It’s fun to be honest about things. I don’t really know how to go about my work in any other way.”

Since she first performed professionally at the age of 16, that life has been pored over from every angle in nine comedy tours. And while her looks have changed (300 tattoos will do that to you), Cho remains pretty much the same person she’s always been. She couldn’t have been so frank and honest on the Bob Hope special she did back in 1992, but that inner freak was still there, looming.

“I was doing kind of crazy and wild stuff in the ’90s,” she says. “I’ve sort of been involved in that kind of stuff forever. I’ve had many, many friends and partners in the sex industry, so that aspect of my life has not really changed. It’s always been kind of the norm, but I’ve just decided to discuss it. But to me there’s not really fulfilling material that comes from it. It’s not really sexy or something that everybody can relate to.”

Like fellow comedian Kathy Griffin, Cho is a bit of a hero in the gay community. But why? Is it her outrageous stage shows or her tireless activism on its behalf? Or just the well-known fact that she’s bisexual?

“Although that is also an erroneous assumption, too,” she clarifies, “because I have had many relationships with transgendered people. So I don’t know if bisexuality is exactly the right term, because that denotes that there’s only two genders, which I don’t think is true.”

When she plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts as part of the Vancouver ComedyFest, no doubt her peeps will come out in droves. But Cho doesn’t limit herself to the Vancouvers, San Franciscos, and New Yorks of the world. Her tours touch down in the fly-over states, too. What then?

“I do really great wherever I go,” she says. “I’m really proud of that. It’s really a testament to working a long time and being kind of like an old-school entertainer—you want to get out there and be able to please everyone, even people who are different from you.”

Despite a recent musical fling, which involved recording with Fiona Apple, Tegan & Sara, Ben Lee, and Grant Lee Phillips, Cho isn’t interested in a career change. She’s not looking to be taken seriously as a musician—or any of her other career offshoots.

“I’m definitely a standup comic. That’s what I’ll always be. And that’s the work I do that really is what defines me,” she says. “Everything else is wonderful and part of it, but I identify as a standup comedian. That’s where I come from and where my livelihood comes from most of the time, but it’s also where my joy comes from. All the writing I do or the journalism I do or the music I do is still comedy to me. To me, it’s really the same. I don’t feel like I want to cross over. That would be weird. I love being a comic. The whole point is to not be taken seriously!”

Even when she’s taking on a serious subject, Cho wants the laughs in the forefront. Last season, she played the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in an episode of 30 Rock. To most in the West, he was a cartoon character, an abstraction. But to the Korean-American Cho, he was all too real.

“There’s a lot of people in my family I’ve never even met,” she says. “Half of my family is in North Korea and I don’t know them. And that’s just really sad. I have a lot of anger towards the whole issue of North Korea.”

Yet she enjoyed lampooning Kim. Comedy, she notes, has the unique ability to shine a light on topics that are otherwise too painful or boring for the average person.

“I felt like this was my Evita,” she says. “I appreciate the comedic icon that he became, because it brought people’s awareness to it. I’ve known about North Korea forever. It’s something my family’s discussed always. But it’s nice to have the whole world behind you and know that this stuff is really crazy.”

And while not immersed in her own projects, Cho remains a big fan of her peers in the comedy community. Hearing her expound on it, you sense just how deep comedy runs in her veins. She’s loving the current comedy explosion not only as a professional but as a fan.

“It’s a real boom, but it’s because the level of material is so sophisticated,” she hypothesizes. “The people who have been doing it have raised the bar. You have a level of work that is just phenomenal. That’s never happened before. I’m so lucky as a comedy fan to be around now and see people that I love.”

She is generous in her praise of others, citing surreal artists such as Neil Hamburger and Tim & Eric (“They’re like a sort of Dada movement in comedy”) and more firmly rooted comics like CK and Marc Maron as leaders in the field. As for Sarah Silverman, who falls somewhere between the two poles, “she’s really a genius. I think we’re just living in a good time for comedy and a good time for audiences,” Cho adds.

And she has no plans to stop, channelling a little Descartes for good measure. “To me, comedy I equate literally with existence. So it would feel like I didn’t exist if I didn’t do it.”

I joke, therefore I am. What’d I tell you?

Margaret Cho is at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on February 19, as part of the Vancouver ComedyFest.

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