For years, comedian Margaret Cho has been cracking up audiences with her fiercely political, completely unapologetic, and hilariously funny stand up. Her troubled experiences in the first Asian American sitcom, "All-American Girl," provided material for her first one-woman show in 1999, called "I'm the One That I Want."
She followed up with "Notorious C.H.O," "Revolution" (which was nominated for a Grammy in 2003), and "Assassin," using those shows to bring her outspoken brand of comedy to audiences nationwide. Cho, a strong advocate of gay rights, talks about being Asian in America, body image, queer politics, and sex.
Pop and Politics spoke with this recent recipient of a First Amendment Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California about edgy political comedy, why there's humor in feeling left out, how audiences perceive racial jokes, and what the role of the stand-up comic is.
Pop and Politics: What do you think the role of a comic is?
Margaret Cho: I think comics are social commentators. And they're very important. They're kind of the barometer of where we are, like a moral compass for society. Whoever is politically important or whoever is addressing things at the time or is very popular at the time, you can sort of see where politics are. You know, people like Dave Chapelle, coming into this stardom and celebrity because they really are tapping into something that needs to be said and needs to be thought about. And it's really important, in terms of society.
PP: Where do you typically get inspiration for your material?
MC: I think it's everywhere. It's never one place, but it's always somewhere, something, always happening, in the news, in daily life, through just living.
PP: You make the conscious choice to go onstage to do what you do. What responsibilities or expectations come with you making that choice? Do you feel that you do have responsibilities or expectations?
MC: I suppose that there are. I don't know. I can't think too much about it. I'm sure it exists, but I can't fulfill them all [laughs]. I can't picture them all or imagine what they would be. Everybody's going to have a different expectationÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ I can only just do my best and try to enjoy it.
PP: So the impetus [for this interview] was comments Dave Chappelle made recently, [about] having an experience when he looked out and realized that a lot of white folks in the audience were laughing maybe a little too hard at some of the jokes that were, in his case, about the black community. What's your first reaction to that? Have you experienced [anything similar], and how do you respond to it?
MC: Well, what I laugh at when I look at Dave is that comedy that comes from "otherness." And to me, otherness can encompass a lot of things, and still be perceived and understood. It's not that you can say that your own experience is similar to a person of a different culture or different ethnic background, but there is always going to be that otherness, there's always going to be that kind of left-out feeling, there's always going to exist somewhere an isolation, and that is something you can use to translate a lot of things. I think that's a good way to translate a lot of language -- I think the language of isolation is very universal.
Laughter is such a personal experience, who knows what exactly makes somebody laugh about something? I'm a big fan of Dave, and when I watch him, what I laugh about is that he brings to light this feeling of otherness that I understand so well. So whether you're White or Black or Asian or whatever, I think everyone's going to have that experience of being the other and can relate to that.
PP: So, this feeling of otherness, at least in comedy, can be a unifying sort of thing?
MC: That's what laughter is generally about. It's kind of an agreement that otherness brings about. And then, of course, it gets very specific if you're talking about different racial archetypes and ideas about these archetypes, and they bring forth a lot of different archetypes about the African American communityÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Who knows what anybody is laughing at? What is it exactly that makes every different person laugh? It could be for the right reasons, it could be for the wrong reasons, who knows what the right reasons are? It's your own investment to "are they laughing at the right things?" that sets your own comfort level as a comedian.
I mean, to me, I don't even really know what they're laughing at, I'm just trying to explain my experiences the best I can. To me, it's unknowable if they're laughing at the right or wrong thing, I have no idea.
PP: And how do you deal with not knowing?
MC: I talk about the very specific feelings I have about racism and how it will crop up in my life. And I think getting very specific about these things makes it a little easier for me because I'm explaining so much. When I'm talking about racism that exists for me, it's not about these very broad racial incidents that happen. It's more that I don't see a lot of Asian American people out there in the media. I don't see a lot of Asian American comedians anywhere, in any capacity. And to me, that feels very lonely. So explaining that experience really comforts the whole idea of "are they laughing at the right things?"
PP: When comics make racially based jokes, as a comic, who do you think the humor is for, exactly?
MC: To me, it's for anybody who can understand it. I mean, anybody who can relate to it and like it. And I don't think that it's something that is everybody's experience, but certainly my own. I don't even care. As long as they're laughing, and they're still there, I think it must be fine.
PP: And with "controversial comedy" that does cover topics of race, class, and gender, there can be the issue of whether it's spoofing or reinforcing stereotypes. How can you distinguish, or do you even care whether people are laughing with you or maybe at you?
MC: I think it depends on the comic. For me, what I do comes from such a place of dignity and also outrage, so therein lies the whole trick about it. You're speaking from a place that comes from such a dignified place and so it's not like they can really laugh at you, really. I don't know. You'd have to really get into people's heads to know why they're laughing at things.
And then also are they stereotypes or archetypes? That's a huge difference, and sometimes you can't tell the difference, but they really are different, whether we can tell the difference or not. It's about how people emotionally relate to them or if they discount them or not.
PP: When people come to see you onstage, do you ever fear that they see you and make generalizations or assumptions about the larger Asian community, just based on your standup?
MC: Well, my take on things is so weird and unique, and also very broad in a lot of ways, so if they only take away from my show what the Asian community is about, I think that's fine [laughs]. I mean, I'm just so not about just one aspect, but many aspects of the Asian American experience. And the broader experience of just being a woman in this culture, and being very queer and very political and very active. You know, those components, which seemingly have nothing to do with being Asian American, are very much a part of being Asian American for me.
PP: I just read your article "Beautiful." You start off pretty early in the piece by talking about a friend in a taxicab. I'm asking you questions about perceptions of strangers in the audience, but you paint this picture of a friend who doesn't quite understand you or your politics. So if a friend has trouble understanding you, than how can you expect strangers to?
MC: I know. It's weird. I mean, people don't know you or only know one aspect of you, I mean how could they know?
PP: And it doesn't sound like you grapple with that too much, though.
MC: Other people are another country. They are another world. And you never know what people are thinking. And we can never do anything about what they are thinking, really. We can only just represent ourselves as best we can.