Photo: Margaret Cho as Brown Finger in Tooken

Twenty Years Into Her Career, Margaret Cho Is Just Getting Started

From her standup tours to the Golden Globes to her new comedy Tooken, Margaret Cho is an unstoppable force, and one that tells us she might be going behind the camera soon.

Margaret Cho is parked outside a Laemmle’s in North Hollywood. Cho is accompanied by her assistant Sarah, and they are being driven by Cho’s boyfriend. Tonight is the premier of Tooken, not to be mistaken for the title given to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt before it hit Netflix. Tooken is a new send-up of Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, in the tradition of The Naked Gun series but closer spiritually to Scary Movie. The sub-genre of comedy that this film belongs to could be labeled with the qualifier “raunchy”. In a raunchy comedy, the jokes are easy, the tropes familiar, and usually incorporates body stuff. For example, this particular raunchy comedy has a running joke about erectile dysfunction and the protagonist’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of his ex-wife’s new partner, Reno Wilson.

Cho plays the wealthy mad antagonist, a kind of Mad Magazine James Bond villain named Brown Finger, for reasons I will leave you to speculate on. “The part was fun because I was playing a man,” Cho says, which was different and exciting for her. “But it was really fun; I got to wear this really ugly Steven Segal french braid which is disgusting. It’s actually a lot easier to turn me into a man than a woman.” If you’ve been paying attention to Cho’s stand-up, this level of raunch actually fits nicely in her wheelhouse. Whether talking about gay classifieds or her persimmons diet, Cho has always embraced the scatalogical and the taboo, pushing the edge as far as possible for laughs.

A cursory look at what Cho has been up to lately, one might think that she’s been slowing down. Her last comedy tour was her Mother! tour in 2012, and her most recent acting gig was a small part on Drop Dead Diva. This is actually what lead her to her part in Tooken. Co-star Lee Tergesen, who once played the older-brother character named Chet on the Weird Science TV series, contacted Cho to see if she’d be interested in doing Tooken, directed by John Asher, who played Gary on that show. Other remarkable appearances have been on 30 Rock and the Golden Globes to lampoon North Korea.

But in actuality, Cho has been a perpetual motion machine, working constantly and taking anything she can get her hands on. She’s been touring internationally, developing a Showtime special with John Asher for later this year, at one point had a reality show and a podcast, in addition to these cameo appearances. “They’re all great, I would take on anything, all the things I’ve been able to work I’m so grateful to work on, all the while trying to develop stand up, my starring thing. That’s my main show. And then it’s an honor to do this work on all these other projects I believe in and am very inspired by.”

Before Cho can exit the car and be received by the private screening of her new film, I ask her if there is anywhere where she feels the film has maybe gone too far. While the film is full of moments that will make the audience groan, shake their heads, and still garner some genuine belly laughs, there are also moments that one might think would give Cho pause. One of the running gags throughout the film seems to be Tergesen, spoofing Liam Neeson with a perfect impression, having a lot of insecurity and perpetually threatened by the size of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend’s penis. The main cast is white, and the new boyfriend, played hilariously by Reno Wilson, is black. His character is a former porn star and throughout the film reveals himself to be a cad, and a cheat. If this were the first time this ever happened in a film, or in comedy, or even on stage in front of white audiences, if this were an isolated case, it would just be a strange, funny joke.

But white insecurity surrounding black male sexuality has been a stereotype for over a hundred years. Tooken does not rise to the occasion to attempt in any way to subvert this ancient racist trope. Cho doesn’t see the humor of Tooken that way. “I don’t know, I thought it was all just very broad, very ridiculous comedy, and for me that sort of has no color or political correctness or any kind of dignity whatsoever. It’s all ridiculous and silly and I was playing such an outrageous character, that it goes beyond, so over the top, beyond any kind of realm of class or taste, just really fun and ridiculous. I think that’s what’s great about it.”

Cho perhaps comes from an old guard of stand-up comedians, influenced by George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, where nothing is off-limits, and defending their right to freedom of speech for the sake of comedy. Perhaps policing what a stand-up comedian does for the sake of political correctness is a newer phenomenon brought on by an even more progressive Millennial attitude. Things are changing, and audiences want artists to get it right. But if you look at the raunchy-no-holds-barred style of Cho’s earlier work, you shouldn’t expect her to be polite or apologize. Especially when you take into consideration her response to her Golden Globe cameo.

After North Korea hacked Sony Entertainment’s emails, and threatened the United States with 9-11 style attacks in response to the Seth Rogen movie The Interview, in what was a very strange and scary unprecedented moment in American pop-culture history, it seems reasonable that comedians might respond with satirical comedy. Cho portrayed a representative of the North Korean media, demanding to be photographed with Meryl Streep and casting a funny pallor over the ceremony with criticisms that the event was not to North Korean standards. Critics of the performance said it used harmful Asian stereotypes to make jokes, but Cho’s response adequately shut the criticism down. Per her Twitter: “I’m of mixed North/South Korean descent – you imprison, starve and brainwash my people you get made fun of by me.”

Tooken‘s climax involves (spoiler alert) a giant prosthetic Tergesen penis, after his Brian Millers Liam Neeson parody character takes too many fictional erectile dysfunction pills. Millers uses the penis to stab Cho’s Brown Finger character to death. It is difficult to watch one of the boldest, charismatic, probably revolutionary women in comedy executed by a penis, without thinking it has a deeper meaning, but Cho does not see it that way. “Oh, it was great,” she says. “He looks like he’s riding an ostrich Halloween costume. I think he actually hurt his back. It was really heavy, so we did a lot of practice beforehand, with stunt co-ordinators. We were all really physically in this and it was hard work but a lot of fun.”

In spite of everything, it seems Cho really just values hard work and the chance to be creative and do comedy and does not shy away from anything. I ask her what the next five years holds for her, in an ideal world. “Standup comedy,” she says. And, “I hope to be able to develop a presence behind the camera. I have sort of an inkling in direction, and other things, to be producing, more acting, I just want to do more.” But first, she will no doubt sit with her friends and watch the finished product that is, of course, Tooken.