When stand-up comic Margaret Cho gets on stage, she does what she does best: she tells jokes and fills the room with laughter like no other. Comedy is “a way to diffuse pain and tell great stories crafted from suffering. It makes it all worthwhile,” she tells Star2 in an e-mail interview.
Cho concurs that comedians have licence to make people laugh, although sometimes the jokes are on them. “Yes, I think we can get away with a lot!” Asked to define her brand of humour, the Korean-American comedienne issues a cryptic warning: “It’s the kind where no one is safe.”
So look out, Malaysia, because Cho is coming to Kuala Lumpur next month with her new live show Fresh Off The Bloat.
Cho, 49, admits she dabbles in a lot of stuff. Her philosophy in life after all is, “Do everything”. She is currently working on another book (this time about her rehab) and a show about her mother. “So there’s a lot happening. Music is a constant companion and, yes, there’s acting stuff always,” Cho says.
Living in Los Angeles, California, Cho has been doing stand-up for 15 years. Her hit tours include I’m the One That I Want (2000), Notorious C.H.O. (2002), Cho Dependent (2010) and PsyCHO (2015). She also has five Grammy nominations for Best Comedy Album.
Cho often makes herself the butt of her own humour, so one wonders if she exaggerates her life experiences. “There should be some truth to everything you say – that’s what I try to do! The truth is always funnier,” she says.
As for whether she draws a line at what remains private and should not be told for laughs on stage, Cho replies, “I think everything is fair game!”
Coming back to life
About Fresh Off The Bloat, she explains: “I retain a lot of water so therefore there is bloat. I talk a lot about the #MeToo movement and my own experience with abuse. There’s also a lot of self-destruction in there. I love to implode.”
On her website, she describes this show as her “sickest show to-date”. She writes: “My grandmother said, ‘You look bloated, as if you’ve been found dead in a lake after several days of searching.’ (Koreans are the most savage of all the Asians.)”
For the show, she hints at “being fresh off drugs and drinking, and on the brink of suicide” and “coming back to life”. On what audiences like about her latest show, Cho says: “I think people fall for the danger in it. There’s a lot of risk and people always want a reason to get out and laugh for a few hours.”
Cho has many tattoos on her body. “My first was a huge bodysuit from Don Ed Hardy (a famous American tattoo artist) and I just get them. I love them.”
She adds: “I have no stories about my tattoos. I didn’t even pick most of them. My artist friends just drew on me. I have President Washington (image from the US$1 bill) and President Lincoln (US$5 bill) on my right and left knee caps.”
Asked whether she considers herself “a wild child”, Cho replies matter-of-factly: “I’m a wild old lady.”
Those ol’ days
Cho was born in San Francisco, California, and grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a racially diverse neighbourhood of “old hippies, ex-druggies, burn-outs from the 1960s, drag queens, Chinese people, and Koreans”. Her parents ran a bookstore in San Francisco.
In her younger days, Cho auditioned and was accepted into the San Francisco School of the Arts, a public high school for the arts. After high school, she studied drama at San Francisco State University but did not graduate.
She says: “I was 14 (when she started doing several stand-up comedy acts) and I started at a bar above my parent’s bookstore.” She went on to launch her stand-up comedy career. Her appearances on television and university campuses were a boost to her career as well.
But Cho says she was not funny as a child. On the contrary, she was actually “extremely shy”.
In 1994, Cho won the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian. In 2010, she appeared in the opening act for Jerry Seinfeld and later on a Bob Hope Special. Cho was also a frequent guest on The Arsenio Hall Show.
In 1994, ABC developed and aired the sitcom All-American Girl based on Cho’s stand-up routine featuring an East Asian family. Due to poor ratings and major content changes in a single season of 19 episodes, the show was cancelled in 1995.
After the show’s failure, Cho became a wreck after getting addicted to drugs and alcohol. Eventually, she sobered up and went on to host the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 95 show with Steve Harvey.
In 1997, Cho had a supporting role in the thriller film Face/Off starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. She played the role of Wanda, one of the fellow FBI agents of Travolta’s primary character.
Cho was also in the supporting cast of the series Drop Dead Diva (July 2009).
In 1999, Cho’s I’m the One That I Want won New York magazine’s Performance of the Year award and was named one of the Great Performances of the year by Entertainment Weekly. In 2002, Cho wrote and published her autobiography, I’m the One That I Want.
Everything, she says, inspires her. The late Joan Rivers always inspired her. Even Cho’s mother inspires her. In some shows, she does impersonations of people (famous or otherwise). She has even made fun of her own mother! “That’s my favourite (impersonation),” she gushes.
Cho found it “silly and fun” to play the then leader of North Korea) Kim Jong-il in 30 Rock (in April 2011). For this role, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in 2012. Later, Cho also portrayed Kim Jong-Il’s son, Kim Jong-Un.
Cho’s stand-up comic acts tend to be saucy and explosive. Asked to comment on that, she replies: “I’m a carnival unto myself.”
Recalling her early days as a stand-up comedian, she says: “I actually was very successful very early on and have been able to maintain that my entire life. This is rare, and I’m so lucky.”
Cho is exhilarated about bringing her brand of comedy on tour. “Yes, I want to go everywhere,” she gushes. So, what would she be doing if not comedy? “If I didn’t do comedy, I’d be dead. Comedy is in my blood.”