Margaret Cho is a rock star. No, literally. For years, her singular brand of performance activism has seared many worlds: stand up comedy, film, television, books, blogs, politics and she has now extended her reach into the realm of music. Her first musical comedy CD Cho Dependent (with collaborators such as Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, and Andrew Bird) drops in stores on August 24 and takes on many familiar Choian topics such as sex, gender and queerness in the iconoclastic way that has become her custom. Cho is another powerful, articulate ally for the queer community, women, women of color, and any and all people who just don’t generally fit any kind of predisposed mold. This kind of empathy and allegiance to her audience has justifiably gained Cho an army of devoted, diverse fans, President of the United States Barack Obama chief among them.
When compiling this update to PopMatters’ first annual 100 Essential Female and Male Acting Performances, I knew I wanted to include Cho’s unique blending of performance styles in her second stand-up feature The Notorious C.H.O. because of the sheer fearlessness of it’s star. While not a traditional acting performance by the usual, unimaginative definitions, Cho’s work in the film is somewhat of an anomaly: a daring, funny, touching, and incisive call to arms for equal rights featuring an Asian American, the daughter of immigrants, overcoming barriers that would destroy most people (and in fact almost destroyed her), to become the woman at the center of the sharply-drawn action. It is a highly evocative image that Cho conveys, a bawdy message of humanism that doesn’t discriminate based on size, age, race, gender, sexuality or belief.
When I saw this film in the theaters back in 2002, I sat gobsmacked in the suburban Detroit theater, rendered wordless at the passion for justice and equality I saw onscreen and the comradery Cho’s work inspired in such an oddly diverse audience of young, old, black, white, gay straight, and male, female movie goers and everyone in between. The mismatched crowd laughed their asses off as Cho tackled everything from terrorism to fisting to imitating her famously loved, lovingly-lampooned mother being goaded into riding a camel with the promise of a buffet lunch with equally adept comic precision.
It is very hard to make people laugh, educate and politically arouse them simultaneously, so to accomplish such a synergy and capture it on film is a particularly amazing feat. Cho actually uses the film medium to make change, what a novel idea! This is the kind of acting that redefines what film performance is for me and raises the bar for other comedians who think they should film their live act. Cho’s odyssey through and smashing of so many cultural stereotypes and various systems of oppression contains all of the elements I believe a truly great performance should: it is radically political in nature, expressively celebrating many diverse points of view with humor, brains, guts and heart.
For my money, Cho is one of the most radical feminist performers working today and one of the only highly visible public figures brave enough to continue to vocally and justly confront hate in a very public, inspirational way, but also in a hysterically funny and kind way. Her performance in The Notorious C.H.O. is acting, is highly charged politicized performance art, and Cho should not be discounted as simply a racy stand up comedienne when such stylistic elements as voice and gesture are expertly utilized by the actress throughout this complicated, earnest role that only she could play. I called up Ms. Cho in late May for a chat about rock ‘n’ roll dreams, pressing plans to reconnect with her inner 1970s fag hag and her latest run in with Obama.
I saw you were just sitting in the front row for a Presidential speech at the White House for Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. That’s so exciting! Please dish, how did you land the front row?!
(laughing) Well, I’m such an old groupie, I just know how to get the lead singer’s attention. It’s something that’s in my DNA. Like I’m just programmed that way. Evolution granted me those abilities. I got to the front and it was like, really incredible. Fortunately, that was documented by everybody else because it was an Asian American event, so there was a lot of cameras. However, I did not have one myself. Obama came out and during his speech he winked at me and I was like ‘I can’t believe the President just winked at me.’ I was so blown away and its just really exciting. Kal Penn, who’s my good friend who works at the White House, was watching the speech going ‘who is he winking at?’ Then Obama came down off the podium and he was talking to me and he said he was a big fan and he thought that I was really funny and I was just really moved. I worked on his campaign and so it was a real proud moment when he was elected because it was something I had worked on and I had really been passionate about. During that whole period, I had never gotten to meet him because he was out campaigning. Kal and I were campaigning for him separately, so we never actually hooked up or connected, so it was really rewarding to learn that he was a fan, it was a tremendous gift. I was so honored. It was a really special moment for me.
One of the classic parts of your act is the anecdote about how when you were growing up there were no positive images of Asian women in film and pop culture. How has this changed for the better or worse as you’ve grown up? What performances did inspire you to act when you were younger?
You know, it’s interesting, I don’t really know where I got inspiration from. I think probably the thing that maybe made the most impact on me were Richard Pryor’s films. They’re what inspired me to create that sort of niche for myself, making stand-up comedy films of my shows every year. His films were so inspirational to me, he was a major person that I looked up to, also Eddie Murphy, who had stand up films as well. Raw, which I think is a great, great film and of course Delirious, which is phenomenal. They were inspiring. I think things have changed to some extent. You see a lot more people of color in television and in movies, but its not gone to, like, the lead characters yet. There is a gang of supporting actors who are Asian American, African American; different races, different backgrounds. It still hasn’t moved completely forward. There’s better visibility. To me it’s not ideal but it’s better.
Your performance in The Notorious C.H.O. is such a joyous celebration of equal rights. What does the term feminist mean to you?
Thank you, I love that film. Feminism to me is really just a state of being, a state of awareness of what society is doing towards women and talking about equality. I think feminism to me extends not just to my gender but into my work in the LGBT community, my work towards marriage equality, work in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. To me my political life is all feminist, its where it’s all rooted. I think its something that’s still in need of discussion. You know, people want to talk about how we live in a “post-feminist” or “post-racial” world but I don’t think that is true at all. I think there is a lot of sexism but its not as easy to identify and not as easily discussed. Its more about invisibility of women or invisibility of people of color that we need to combat, which is a harder thing to define than outright sexual harassment or discrimination against race. Sexism and racism can get very covert in the modern world and harder to identify but it doesn’t mean they’re any less present.
It seems like so few artists are willing to express a politically radical side anymore. I mean, even Jane Fonda, who I think is awesome, is like totally PC now. What are the pros and cons to being a really outspoken, opinionated woman of color in the public eye today? How do you think your acting career has been affected by your activism?
Well, its interesting, I think people always assume that I’m mad. I’m not. (laughing) I’m, like, cool with everything and people always assume I’m an angry person. Still, I am critical of certain things. I’m critical of certain stances. Now living in the South—I live in Atlanta where we film Drop Dead Diva—I’m very aware of the divides of race and divides of culture and homophobia and sexism. Its a reality and I have to comment on it, I need to talk about it. I don’t know how its affected my work as an actor, just because I’m mostly in the realm of stand up comedy, where opinion is valued and it’s fine. You can talk about things and you can have a career and still be very progressive.
When you look at people like Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, their careers are built on a certain political, progressive outlook. Even though those guys are progressive, I still have issues with their ideas about certain things. I think being progressive hasn’t necessarily hurt me, but it makes me more easy of a target. When the country was seeing more right wing in the earlier of the century, I got a lot of hate mail. A lot of that was directed towards my race or towards my own queerness, because I identify as queer. You really see how homophobic and racist the country is when you’re a target of those types of people.
Entertainment and the Closet...
Hate is lame enough, but I can’t even imagine what it must be like to receive hate mail...
It’s weird. I also have compassion for people. Down here in Atlanta, its like a huge Tea Party place. It’s super tea part here, there are big billboards about it and everything. I’ve met a lot of these people. You end up working with people like that. I think their problem isn’t really that they’re bad people but that they’re so afraid of disappearing. Their ways of life, their ways of thinking and their values are not being reflected back at them in society so they feel the sense of non-inclusion that we as queers, we as people of color, we as political progressives have felt in the past. Now, the shoe’s on the other foot and they feel not included. They feel like the other, which is really interesting. Still, I have empathy, even though I don’t share their point of view and I am terrified of their point of view actually. I find it really racist, really homophobic and really terrible and full of hate. But at the same time, I can understand that it comes from the place I come from too, the fear of non-inclusion and the fear of not existing. Fortunately, they are dealing with that now.
Speaking of being invisible or vanishing, I wanted to talk to you about the entertainment world and the closet, which is a part of your recent concert film Beautiful. What do you think about all of these actors, musicians and performers—who will remain nameless—who are still playing straight until their careers are stalling, when they promptly come springing out of the closet?
I actually think its different in every field. Acting is the place that I see the most closeted people. In the acting world, there is the most unwillingness to come out and then when people do come out, the ability to be free becomes a major part of their identity. So there’s a lot of actors who are not willing to do that. Then there is this kind of consciousness around that if you’re a gay actor, you will not be able to play straight roles. Which I think is bullshit because we see straight actors play gay roles all the time. Why is there not the ability to cross over? I think that that world, acting, is pretty homophobic. I think music is more receiving to a certain extent. In music, that sexual fluidity, in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s always been a “thing” it’s always been cool. You look at David Bowie in the 1970s and his sexuality was so cool. Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and people like that, their sexual fluidity was a part of who they were, or Prince, even. Although, Prince nowadays is quite homophobic, which is quite strange to me. (laughing) He’s become such a homophobe and I love Prince so it’s such a disappointment!
We have in rock ‘n’ roll, people like Adam Lambert, which is so thrilling. I’m glad that people like Ricky Martin have finally come out. That’s really cool. I think even though he was not able to do so at the height of his 1999 big stardom, because all of that was sort of hooked in with being a heartthrob. But I can look at Adam Lambert and see him as a heartthrob and that’s very rock ‘n’ roll. Just being in music and working in music now I know more about the music world than I ever had and I see that there is just so much more fluidity. You have newer people, like a great band called Of Montreal, where Kevin Barnes openly sings about bisexuality and gender fluidity. I think that’s so tremendous. So, I feel a lot of faith in the younger generation and in music. In rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a lot more homo-acceptance, queer acceptance than there is in acting and I think in the acting world it’s pretty tough.
Do you think being queer in the entertainment world is a different ballgame for men than it is for women?
Yes, absolutely. I think that in the acting world for sure. Look at Anna Paquin and how her being bisexual is going to totally boost the whole True Blood phenomenon. Bisexuality, in general, is something that men cannot lay claim to because people tend to skew that bisexuals don’t exist, even in the queer community, there’s a prevailing notion that bisexuality is just a fear-based answer when you’re truly gay. There’s definitely a double standard. Women are much more able to express that fluidity of gender and something like bisexuality for female actresses is tremendously exciting, whereas for male actors… I don’t think of it as a problem and I don’t think of it as strange.
Basically if everybody came out of the closet, I think it would solve everything because then people would see ‘oh, I’m a big fan of this actor and he’s bi or he’s gay but I totally believe it.’ Its not about sexuality. Sexuality is a part of who we are but it doesn’t necessarily identify our work or affect our work. Because if you’re an actor, what you bring to the role is what is written for you and you express that. It doesn’t necessarily define who you are, it’s just bringing your experience to something someone else wrote. Its a very tricky thing, but if everybody came out, it would be solved.
What is the gayest thing you’ve done lately?
Let’s see…I do a lot of gay shit. I’ve been doing a lot of fag haggy things, like hanging out with couples, like I’m friends with one guy and I’m trying to get him to let me fuck his boyfriend. (laughing) That’s like real old school, 1970s fag hag shit. I’m bringing that back. I’m bringing that back, the old school fag hag whose trying to get you to let her fuck your boyfriend. If your boyfriend is kind of bi or curious about it, let me fuck your boyfriend, let me fuck your boyfriend. That’s pretty gay. I’m trying to bring it back to sort of a Waylon Flowers and Madame kind of fag hag-ism. (laughing) I drink a lot of real fruity drinks and stuff, you know, things in a coconut, and then let me try to fuck your boyfriend. That’s pretty gay.
Lets talk about marriage, Proposition 8 and your involvement with the queer rights movement. What are your current thoughts on where same sex marriage is going next, especially in lieu of the recent spate of conservative opponents to same sex marriage being caught having gay sex?
Yeah! To me, that’s just so ludicrous and sick. Its so weird and its so typical that people who are the loudest opponents of gay marriage are closeted gays. To me gay marriage or marriage equality isn’t necessarily about relationships or about marriage. Its not even about gay people. Its really about the definition of equality and what equality means. You cannot say that equality extends to everybody in the country when you’re only giving it to people who are straight. Its just an incomplete definition of the word. You’re not respecting the Constitution, you’re not respecting the idea of America or the values of this country when you don’t respect the rights of queers. This country is supposed to be free, we’re supposed to be equal. So to me, the gay marriage debate is so basic and so much more about the very nature of the Constitution and why we’re here in the first place. It blocks out any arugment that anybody has. Its something that is beyond argument. Again, people are so homophobic and afraid of disappearing, being afraid of being found out—whatever the reason—when people are afraid of gay marriage, there is something going on behind that I think.
If I did not ask about your mother and father readers would probably be really pissed. What are Mr. & Mrs. Cho up to?
They’re doing very well, they’re living in San Diego. They just joined a country club where they play golf like crazy. I think they’re super upset about Tiger Woods and still cannot deal with it. My dad is way, so gay for the PGA, like, they can’t really deal with the whole Tiger Woods thing, I think they’re still kind of freaked out, as most Korean people are because Korean people think of Tiger Woods as Asian, which he is, people forget he is Asian. He’s much more Asian than people think! My parents are still in mourning about that… but I would have fucked him. I totally would have done whatever I could to fuck Tiger Woods, I just never got to go to the Masters. I didn’t make it to Augusta. I’m down with fucking him, but my parents are upset. (laughing)