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'I Want to Talk About How We Can Use Our Anger to Heal': Badass Comic Margaret Cho Dishes

The groundbreaking comic talks race, sex, white fragility and hollering to be heard on the eve of her 'PsyCHO' tour.

Photo Credit: Mary Taylor

Over the years, comedian Margaret Cho has been called many things. Trailblazer. Fearless. Dangerously funny. But what she is can be summed up in one word: ajumma.

Ajumma is a Korean word that defies translation, though it sometimes comes out as “auntie.” Politely, an ajumma is a middle-aged woman wearing white footie socks with cheap plastic sandals as she stands, hands on skinny Korean hips, shouting her displeasure at the world. But the word has also come to be associated with formidable female lung power, because the ajumma refuses to be quiet. She not only owns her bawdy sexuality but doesn’t care if it scares you, because she is not here to please men, look pretty, or be rescued. These are strengths rarely possessed by the delicate or girlish. Margaret Cho has been this kind of woman most of her life.

Not only has she been outspoken about her own experiences with childhood sexual abuse and being raped during her teen years, she has recently — and dramatically — stepped forward in loud defense of Planned Parenthood. No celebrity has been as willing to take the heat that comes from being unambiguously aligned with the mission of the embattled women's health care provider. Margaret Cho now fills that void, sparring on Twitter with conservatives such as Adam Baldwin and Dana Loesch, and fending off veiled death threats from online trolls. To one detractor, she responded: “I feed, clothe, entertain homeless people on street corners #berobin. You take away low cost healthcare for women in need. Who's the Christian?”

She is a complex creature. Raw and real, Margaret Cho sports dramatic ink in places that peek out from demure sleeves, appearing every bit the badass big sister to a whole new crop of female comedians. She’s been performing long enough to make her a bona fide comedic institution: the sitcom she starred in two decades ago, “All-American Girl,” is widely acknowledged as having paved the way for NBC’s hit “Fresh off the Boat.”

After kicking off with a new special that just aired on Showtime, “PsyCHO” — the title of her new tour — is about to hit the road. As Cho puts it on her website, "This show is about insanity, and about the anger I feel about everything happening in the world right now, from police brutality to racism to the rising tide of violence against women. It makes me so crazy — hence the title: 'THE PSYCHO TOUR,' because there is no 'i' in team but there is 'CHO' in psycho."

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Paula Young Lee: You’re pretty awesome. How do you feel about becoming, for lack of a better word, one of the elder stateswomen inside the field of comedy?

Margaret Cho: I love it! I think it’s great. I have to say that ajumma status is so ... cool. You know what that is, right?

PYL: Yep. We could have an entire conversation just about that, being an ajumma when you’re a teenager.

MC: I’ve always been an ajumma, but when you get older, the culture we were brought up in works in our favor where aging is good, combatting the Hollywood idea that aging is bad. I’m very grateful for that.

PYL: Do you feel it’s changing your comedy? For example, do you feel you have to be more mature?

MC: I think you try to create work that is really brave and funny and exciting. You have to constantly recreate yourself in show business, which is a very fast thing, especially now with the tremendous speed of social media. There are so many personalities, so many different kinds of comedy that you can access, so it’s definitely important to stake your claim and say who you are. But that’s the nature of comedy. You always want to be improving and growing and changing with what’s happening in the world. That’s when comedy is most effective.

PYL: There’s been a lot of conversation right now about PC culture and how it’s affecting comedy in particular. Do you feel that you consciously or unconsciously rewrite jokes to respond to that?

MC: Well, everybody gets a voice, and you kind of wing it constantly, but the loudest voices complaining about PC culture, oddly, are from white people. White fragility! White people are so sensitive about race and racial conversations. I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells when I’m around white people. It used to be so much easier when we all we had to do was walk on their backs. [Eds. note: A reference to Ashiatsu, an ancient massage technique associated with Asian women walking barefoot on clients’ backs.] But calling it out and talking about it ... I think it’s great, because there are definitely racial problems in this country. Comedy is a way we can figure out how to solve it, and how to solve it without making people really angry.

PYL: I agree completely — I think that comedy can be a great bridge builder between opposing factions. I was struck by a comment you made on Seth Myers’s show: “Whenever white and black people fight, Asians and Mexicans never know what to do.” I think a lot of Asian Americans feel as if we’re stuck in the middle as an all-purpose placeholder, so I was grateful to you for saying out loud, “Umm, are we white?” Did you get backlash to that comment?

MC: Backlash? No! It was so incredibly true that nobody protested! There is this weird idea of — of where do we fit in that spectrum? Where do we actually have the ability to talk about race and be understood? Asian Americans and Latinos face that kind of thing. We have a similar racial history, we’re all from different countries and different backgrounds yet [have] similar migration patterns and ideas about where we fit in the racial conversation.

PYL: You really talk quite frankly about race and sex without becoming racist and sexist with the jokes. Is this something that comes naturally to you, or is this something you consciously craft? Maybe a bit of both?

MC: I don’t know, I think maybe it has to do with identity and the understanding that this is a woman of color talking about race. As a woman of color you have little more permission to go deeper and question things because your identity, in a way, is a shield. But if you come at it from a minority status, my person, who I am, softens the blow of whatever it is that I’m saying, because I am that.

PYL: I love your impression of your mother. It really is spot on ... you manage to capture the essence of Korean mother-ness. I always wondered what your mother really thought about it in private.

MC: She loves it! She’s the star. She’s so many different things, so talented, and yet because of her age and her identity she never gets celebrated. So this is an unusual case where I’m able to shine a spotlight on her and she just revels in the attention. She thinks it’s so fun.

PYL: So you’re close to your mother?

MC: Yes — to both my parents. They’re really incredible people.

PYL: And they’re not upset you didn’t become a doctor?

MC: Well, I think they are upset, but now they realize that actually, maybe, it’s better!

PYL: You’re remarkably successful, so that makes you like Psy — your parents can only be a little bit angry at this point! I was going to ask you: Is there mudang in your family? [Eds. note: A mudang is a Korean shaman; the gift runs in families.]

MC: Not in the immediate family, but there are definitely some distant mudang relatives, for sure!

PYL: I was wondering about that because you do have a shamanistic function. I think this in general is true of all pop cultural icons — which you are — we just don’t call it that. The ability to channel and mediate is what the mudang does, and that role is traditionally ascribed to women.

MC: Right.

PYL: This is also the age, when you hit your forties, when the mudang powers come into play. The older woman is at the height of her powers, which is the opposite of what Western culture posits.

MC: Yes.

PYL: All these issues regarding sexuality, independence, communication, spirituality — all these things come into coalescence. I was wondering about this vis-à-vis your upcoming tour; from what I’ve read about it in press releases, “PsyCHO” is your way to confront the morass of American society and then channeling your anger.

MC: "Psycho" in itself is a feminized way [of] talking about insanity or perceived insanity. It’s always like, “She’s a psycho bitch” or “psycho ex-girlfriend” or whatever. In the film Psycho, the Anthony Perkins character becomes his mother to be a killer. So it’s a bit of feminized hysteria, which I think is the same thing. The show is trying to harness that feeling: how do we make sense of everything that’s happening, whether it’s all of this violence against women we’re seeing, which is starting to become institutionalized, with ISIS using rape as a way to justify their own involvement or acting like it’s part of their religion? Or somebody like Bill Cosby, who did something that nobody would believe for so long because people couldn’t imagine that he [could do] this, even though all those women had the same story and the same things to say and they named him, yet nobody believed them. There are so many different instances — I get so frustrated about it. So I want to talk about how we can use our anger to heal. There are a lot of different aspects to the show. ... In my own life, there is [the loss of] Robin Williams and Joan Rivers and so I guess it’s also about the passage — about becoming a mentor after your own mentors die. You have to become that. So I think that’s what I’m trying to do.

PYL: These past few days, you’re been sparring a lot due to your support of Planned Parenthood.

MC: Yes. I stand with Planned Parenthood because it's the only healthcare alternative for many women. They do Pap smears, breast exams as well as provide pre- and post-natal care, not to mention birth control and STD testing — all vital to women's health. Abortion isn't federally funded, but all these other things are. When people disagree, they only attack me personally — they offer no cogent rebuttal. Merely Bible verses and death threats, which prove how wrong these people are. It's sad how ignorant and bigoted some people are. 

PYL: That goes back to my initial question about how you feel about becoming an elder in this community, and becoming an icon and being a person who has to lead the way for the younger generation. I don’t know if you’ve ever envisioned yourself as a role model but, whether you like it or not, you are one.

MC: You have to be the unni. You have to be the elder. [Eds. note:The unni is the eldest of sisters; the noona is the eldest sister with younger brothers.]

PYL: Are you the unni in your family?

MC: Yes! Well, I’m the noona, because I have a brother. But I am the unni of my comedic generation. I was born in the '60s, so a little bit older than the others.

PYL: I’m always struck by how vulnerable you appear onstage. That [quality] makes you very relatable, but it makes me wonder about the toll it must take on you psychically.

MC: There’s vulnerability — so I have to make sure the audience is certain that I know what I’m doing. There’s vulnerability there because my heart is open, but at the same time I definitely have a lot of "weapons" at my disposal. I have all the language, I have all of the moment — I have all of that to spar with somebody, to take anything on.

PYL: You have a lot of confidence. Are you a born performer, or did you have to learn that as a skill?

MC: I think I had to learn it. But I started so young that it might have just been that I kind of had to grow up and make people understand that I was worth listening to, even though I was a child.

PYL: You have to holler.

MC: Yes, you have to have a very holler-y sensibility. So they know there’s something worth listening to.

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas Best Book award of the Society of American Travel Writers. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee.