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Rebel 'With' a Cause: Catching Up with Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho opens up about closeted celebrities and politicians, the lack of Asian American presences in film and television, what it means for her to be a feminist and why President Barack Obama was recently winking at her during a speech at the White House.

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.

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