The Uses of Laughter

Most of Margaret Cho's greatest comedic moments are also her most difficult to translate into print; first because she delights in the offensive unprintable, and second because her performances are exactly that: performed. Cho's famous facial contortions, the impressions of her Korean mother, and the dancer's awareness she brings to her acts are all part of her outrageous appeal, but they also disappear like smoke in an interview.

She speaks in measured, thoughtful tones, with long pauses and a soft voice completely at odds with her in-your-face onstage persona. But Cho has also been one of the country's most political comedians, and this month she re-emerges as a triple threat: With a new concert film, Assassin; a self-produced feature film premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival, Bam Bam and Celeste; and a biography with a title that is pure Cho: I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight.

Cho spoke with AlterNet from her home in Los Angeles this week, about Katrina, the connection between humor and hope, her newfound love of belly dancing, and the troubling issue of canine nomenclature as a threat to national security.

SHEERLY AVNI: I had a lot of questions prepared about your new projects -- the book, the feature film, the new comedy documentary -- but in the wake of the flood, they seem fruitless ...

MARGARET CHO: Yes, it's the worst thing. It's almost like September 11 again. And of course a lot of people who are being displaced are people who are poor and black, and it's such a racially defined thing ... Normally refugees should not be deterred by shotguns. It's a very weird situation, terrible.

In times like this, what do you see as the role of a comedian?

A comedian can be more honest, and question things more openly. Like with the issue of black people in New Orleans being called looters [ed note: see this week's edition of The Onion]. There are things that don't get addressed by mainstream pundits, which comedians address. Maybe because with the humor, we're disarming people.

When do you think it's okay to start joking about a disaster?

Oh, immediately. You have to start right at the moment it's happening, because there's nothing worse than having no hope, and humor represents hope.

After 9/11 it was so tragic to me that people like Letterman and Leno were unable to joke, they were coming across so grave and serious. That was what was so terrifying, because we had no one to look to for hope. These were the daddy-clowns, the very major figures that we look to for sarcasm, wit, satire, something. And when people were unable to come up with something, it was scary.

Yes, I remember waiting desperately for The Onion, wanting to believe they could give us some laughter, thinking they probably couldn't, and then lo and behold, their September 11th issue turned out to be their crowning achievement. How long did you wait after September 11th before putting it in your routine?

My very next performance, on September 13.

And Katrina?

Oh, the very next night. and I was talking about how people were just shooting at clouds, shooting at anything looked like weather and also that [switches into her patented Valley girl accent] me, personally, if I didn't, like, have a house and I was all wet? I'd be soooo looting. That's my TV! That's totally my Mountain Dew.

Well even in Assassin, your most recent standup documentary, you seem to be even more political than in the past. What does it mean to be a political comedian, and what kind of an impact do you think you have?

It's hard to talk about my role when I step outside of it, because I don't really have a concept of what my impact is, I can't speak about it in a way that's knowledgeable ... but I do try to represent the underrepresented and voice a political voice that is clear. The thing is that no matter what I actually say, the nature of my existence is political, because I'm an Asian American woman talking about queer rights and race and gender.

Like your joke in the movie, people think they can just walk up to you and say "So what's up with North Korea?"

Yeah, and it's a weird kind of thing, not exactly racist, but it's like the Korean thing exempts me from my Americanness. And even a lot of educated people assume that there are specific things I would know because of what I look like, and I think that is common with Americans who aren't like, blond-haired or blue-eyed.

In the intro to your most recent performance movie, Assassin, you say that you refuse to think of yourself and other minorities as "us and them." You're not gay, yet when you speak about gay rights, you say we aren't going anywhere. Where does that come from?

To me there is no divide, experience to experience, if you're marginalized, you're marginalized. But there are African Americans who will not, for example, extend civil rights to include gay Americans, and I think that's wrong, because the civil rights movement was such a gateway to equal rights, but there's so much animosity from the African community that it divides groups. But if as minority groups we were to band together we would be the majority. And it's not just African American community either. It's Latinos, it's Asians, it's all of these different ethnic minorities who are culturally quite conservative, even though they wouldn't necessarily be politically conservative. A lot of them are unwilling to accept gay marriage as part of the whole package of equal rights, the fight for equality.

And have you gotten much flak from ethnic minorities who are culturally conservative?

No, not really, but -- I'm not so aware of that, because the loudest criticism comes from these very conservative white organizations. ... The most recent was actually about my dog. Gudrin, which is a very great Norse name, and it also happens to be the name of the leader of the Bader-Meinhof gang, which was some terrorist gang in the '70s, so there were all these alarmist blogs. Most of the hatemail is generated by stupid white man hysteria.

And Bam Bam and Celeste, which opens up this weekend, is also about two marginalized people. I've seen it described a Cho-styled Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Was making that film very different from doing standup?

Actually there wasn't a lot of difference to me. The movie was kind of a long extended-play joke, to have my characters take this trip. It's similar because you need to be succinct -- to pack a lot of exposition in just a few words, so it's very similar.

What was the hardest part?

Getting the financing! I don't even know how these big shitty movies get made, when it's so expensive, you'd think people wouldn't throw money away. It was a tiny budget, but for me it was a huge amount. I mean, it was $2 million, but I could never have found that money myself.

Another question, this time more personal. So much of your act is based on issues of body image, weight issues, and your total disdain for dieting after all those years of suffering. But in the past few years you've lost so much weight and become positively slim. How did that happen?

I'm a bellydancer and that brought with it a whole physical transformation. It's the greatest thing ever, and it's exciting for me to be doing something physical because I've been so removed from my body for so long, I didn't accept it as it was. So now I'm able to do things I didn't even know I could do, and seeing a body as beautiful is very new to me.

And also, you can't belly dance if you've got no belly!

You have to have a gut, or it doesn't work. Which is great.

Back to Katrina, How do you think it will impact the current administration?

Not well at all, with all of the anger directed at him and his slowness to act in this whole direction. This and [Supreme Court nominee John] Roberts -- this will be the last straw.

What will comedians do with no Bush to make fun of?

Oh, so long as we still have Pat Robertson, and we still have all our Supreme Court judges, we should be okay!

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