in her shoes podcast

Kicking Off Pride Month With Margaret Cho

Photo: Albert Sanchez

Margaret Cho is a comedy giant and a stand-up legend who has paved the way for so many of the women in comedy we love today and shown the world what it looks like for an Asian American woman to be loud, vulgar, quirky, and outright hilarious. Thankfully for us, she shows no signs of slowing down. This Pride Month, she’s as busy as ever, writing new material, acting, and prepping to go out on tour. She’s also co-starring in Fire Island with Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang. Out on Hulu now, it’s a new gay take on Pride and Prejudice and the perfect summertime rom-com antidote to current events. She joined the Cut’s In Her Shoes podcast to talk about her career, how her family and race have shaped her comedy, the new film, and more.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lindsay Peoples: Margaret, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Margaret Cho: Of course. Thank you.

Lindsay: I like your mic, Margaret.

Margaret: It’s pink for Pride Month.

Lindsay: I love that.

I want to start at the beginning because we talk a lot at the Cut about career longevity — how you transition, how you keep going. I know that you started comedy at a very young age, and you’ve talked a lot about how it helped you through different issues and connecting with people. What drew you to comedy so young, and how did comedy really help you confront different things? Was it a coping mechanism? Did it make you come alive? What was going on in your head at that age?

Margaret: I just love the art form. Where I come from, San Francisco, there was a big comedy scene. There was a big nightclub scene. That was the big thing when you were going on a night out in the ’70s: You’re going to wear a wraparound dress and go to a nightclub and watch comedians. And then I would listen to the morning radio shows — all the comedians would do morning show antics. It was just so like a lifestyle that I could really get behind.

And I had a hard time connecting with people in school. I was obviously very queer, so I got bullied a lot. I didn’t really understand how to be friends with people who didn’t want to be friends with me. They said that I was a lesbian, which I didn’t even understand what that was, so it was painful to go to school. So I just escaped into this idea that, Well, I’m going to be a comedian. And I started very young because I just wanted to be an adult. I didn’t want to be a child anymore. I didn’t love the powerlessness of childhood combined with the horrible children. That was the worst, so I started comedy early. I found a lot of success pretty quickly. And, you know, it is a coping mechanism, comedy. But also humor is really looking for hope in a situation, so when you can find hope, you can find a way to survive, and that’s really what comedy always is for me.

Lindsay: That’s really beautifully said. Where are those kids now?

Margaret: It’s really something. Kids really have a lot of fear, and when somebody’s different, they channel that fear into attacking the one that’s different because then they will hopefully not be attacked. That’s what bullying is. It’s fear turned in on itself. It’s interesting because I’ve been in contact with some of those people.

Lindsay: Wow. You have?

Margaret: Yeah. They really have no memory. They’re very proud of their association with me.

Lindsay: Oh my God. That pisses me off though.

Margaret: I know!

Lindsay: Of course they forget the bad things they have done.

Margaret: It’s dumb. But it is interesting how people really love the idea of somebody who’s made it and their connection with them. People always come out of my childhood and teenage years to my shows and stuff. It’s funny because I don’t hold any animosity toward them because that’s just the way that … Kids are naturally fearful and naturally bully. Not to say that it’s right, but it’s just something that we didn’t even have the language to talk about. That was such a normal thing in the ’70s and the ’80s to happen in school. It was tough, but I think it’s better to just kind of … they’re doing their thing.

Lindsay: But you’re doing yours, more importantly.

Margaret: Yeah. Exactly.

Lindsay: Your comedy hits on so many heavy things though. You talk a lot about addiction, abuse, politics. Why has it always been so important for you to find the humor in things that a lot of other people would deem too complicated things to talk about but also could be traumatic as well?

Margaret: Well, those things have an emotional charge, and it’s really about trying to find hope in something, and then … Laughter is this involuntary intake of breath which you don’t expect. It carries you into life to live the next moment. So really finding humor is a way to find hope and another reason to live, so it’s quite poetic actually. Those subjects — racism, abuse, trauma — we need those things to be alleviated and to find hope in those situations, so I think that’s why it’s also like … I’m always looking for something to write about, and things that have the emotional charge — those subjects often give me the best payout.

Lindsay: I was watching the episode of Solo Nation that you were in, talking a lot about your influence in comedy, and obviously your identity as well. I’m always curious because I feel like as women of color, we have a lot of experiences that we go through in very different ways but are fundamentally, at the core, very similar. For myself, I feel like Blackness is such a huge part of who I am, what I do, and obviously my identity, but there’s also so much to do with issues in my own community, in the Black community, and feeling like there’s always been a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, or like we can’t all win or there can only be one of us and a lot of criticisms of not being enough or being too much, and how do we move forward? And I was curious on your end of… I know you’ve had some criticism around like, “Is she too Asian? Is she not Asian enough?” And how have you felt like that and dealt with it in your own right?

Margaret: It’s very difficult to navigate those things because, in that way, white supremacy remains invisible. They say our problems are within our own community, but really these problems wouldn’t exist without white supremacy. What white supremacy has done is faded into the background to deceive and make us think that we’re fighting amongst ourselves. We’re not fighting amongst ourselves. This is what happens when racism is internalized and that tokenism idea, or “There can only be one” and that you can’t support other people of color because that would make your accomplishment less exceptional, and all these ideas.

It’s quite gendered, too, the way that women of color are viewed against men of color. And how do we talk about the gay community then? And the trans community, and the non-binary community? It’s a very interesting examination where it’s all about white supremacy, yet somehow white supremacy has left the chat. That they caused all this.

Lindsay: They’re like, “What are you talking about?”

Margaret: And now we’re fighting and we don’t know why, and it’s like, the way that we can look to take out all this discrimination is to really look at the big picture of it and to see that this is systemic. These are systemic problems that we need to fix. That this is not actually our communities, it’s the way that our communities are juxtaposed and pit against each other.

Lindsay: What was the comedy scene like when you first started? You’ve been such a pioneer for so many people in comedy, and specifically women of color. Do you feel like a lot has changed?

Margaret: Well, there were very few women in comedy when I started out, and there were very few people of color at all, and women of color, basically we just … we’re so few. There were probably more queer women I think because comedy at that time was such a male-dominated industry, that queer women had more of an easy time navigating it because we didn’t care what men thought. Which is still true. That’s where we have an advantage, where we don’t care what men think so that we have a leg up because we’re not constantly second-guessing what we should be doing. It’s not a gendered space in that way. But there were no Asian Americans really. It was a very limiting environment. But when you’re doing standup comedy, you’re on your own, so there’s a kind of freedom and agency there. Like, I don’t need a studio. I don’t need a network. I don’t need a production that has Asian Americans cast in it, which was fortunate, because I had stand-up comedy and that was it.

Lindsay: So how do you now find inspiration and new material? Is it more challenging? How would you say the experience is now, since you’ve been doing it for so long?

Margaret: I think I’m better at it actually. It’s not as challenging, but it’s also definitely like … You want to still be better than you yourself. Like, you want to improve on what you’ve done, so that, to me, is really my challenge: how do I do more profound work than works I’ve already done? That’s my biggest challenge, is against myself, which is a good place to be. I just want to do better than what I’ve done before.

Lindsay: You also have a podcast, Mortal Minority, and season two was about Asian American hate crimes and historical context around them. You’ve talked a lot about racism that a lot of Asian Americans have experienced. How have you personally grappled with that? And is there anything that you learned during that season that you didn’t know or realize was happening?

Margaret: Well, what I learned that was really important was that the violence and racism against Asian Americans is cyclical, and that we’ve experienced it since our appearance in America, since 1849. We’ve incurred this wrath over and over, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusionary Act, whether it’s the Japanese internment camp, whether it’s the murder of Vincent Chin, when Japanese auto companies seem to be, quote, unquote, “taking over,” whether it’s the L.A. uprising, or even now with the violent anti-Asian attacks pretty much daily happening in the time of coronavirus. I didn’t know about so many instances that happened, just like we don’t know so much about history, whether it’s Indigenous people, whether it’s Black Americans, whether it’s Asian Americans, whether it’s queer Americans, we don’t know anything about our country really.

Lindsay: I often find myself quite frustrated with how the news cycle is run, as someone who has to pay attention, because other people have the privilege of being able to say, “I won’t watch this.” Or, “I don’t want to read this.” Or, “I want to look away.” But obviously part of my job, and I think it’s really important, is to be informed. How do you handle the fact that  we go through this new cycle of ‘something bad will happen, and then a week later, people forget’?

I feel like that with a lot of mass shootings. There’ll be a mass shooting and then a week later, everybody is on to another thing. Or there’ll be a hate crime and you’ll see it on the news, and then people move on to the next thing. But for so many people of color, I feel like we are carrying the burdens of how to make this better, and why don’t more people care? And I’m curious how you feel about it.

Margaret: It’s very hard because the trauma remains, and then you’re not allowed to heal from it, and then there’s another trauma on top of it, so it’s very difficult to manage that; to manage all of the weight of that suffering and trying to find a solution. But there’s got to be some hope through that. It’s just so alarming that some people feel so strong about the gun issue when we’ve proven time and time again, none of their solutions work.

Lindsay: Zero of them work. Zero.

Margaret: None of them work, and it’s not rational and it’s not productive, and we are the only country that grapples with this. And it’s quite a shameful thing that we’re supposed to be the most advanced. We are not. And it is so shameful, and it’s so sad that it’s the most vulnerable in our communities that … Whether it’s children or it’s hospitals or it’s the elderly, and it’s always people of color dying, and nobody’s doing anything and it’s really … Again, we’re coming up against white supremacy in a way that seems insurmountable. But there’s got to be a way. It’s just so terrible.

Lindsay: You’ve used the word “hope” a lot in this conversation. I don’t use the word hope enough, so that’s a good reminder for me. Where does that come from? Is that something from your family? Where do you get that inner hope and desire for there to be better? Because that’s a choice. That’s one hundred percent a choice, to have some type of hope for better things.

Margaret: Yeah. And it’s important. It is family related. It’s a generational thing. My family has endured so many traumas that they’ve really been resilient through, whether that’s war, whether that’s occupation by another country, whether that is coming to America, all of these traumas that are so deeply embedded in our psyche, that really have emergent, beautiful practices of looking for hope wherever that is. Even in plant life. I used to think that my grandparents were so boring because they loved to go to the park, but I didn’t realize until adulthood, they were stealing plant cuttings to propagate. So we had these huge, amazing botanical gardens in our homes that were stolen from arboretums and conservatories all over San Francisco. They just took the little crumbs of leaves and sticks that people were throwing on the ground and getting these gardens from that, and to have that passion for bringing life to things is just so incredible. So I think our story of coming to America from immense poverty, and now I can just live in my backyard; I don’t have to steal cuttings from plants, I have all of the plants purchased and thriving in my backyard, but it’s really incredible to see where we’ve come from the difficulties of our ancestors. There’s some joy in that, and there’s pride in that.

Lindsay: You’ve also talked about your struggles with body image and the idea of aspirational whiteness that a lot of women of color have dealt with. Was there a moment when you decided that you weren’t going to let yourself go down that spiral? Where you stopped caring about the beauty standards of the world. It could have obviously been a million little things, but we talk about this so much at the Cut because there does seem to be this constant disconnect with how we talk about our bodies versus the language that is used and how it actually makes people feel, and I’m always curious because I think that that’s an area that is talked about so much and still not that much improvement, at least in the actual fashion industry.

Margaret: It’s hard. It’s hard to find a place of peace within our own bodies, and again, this is where the patriarchy and white supremacy has really invaded our mindset, where we can’t accept and love who we are because of this proposed ideal that doesn’t really even exist in life. I mean, it’s a very weird thing, trying to attain something that’s not even real. To me, there wasn’t necessarily a moment where I made the decision to stop cutting my own body down or my own body image down in my mind. It’s more like a realization over time that I’m growing old in this body that I have never appreciated, and it’s so tragic because now I look back at photographs of me — which I have relatively few of, as a young person — and I really missed out on the vitality and the youthful beauty that I did possess. Now I have a different kind of beauty. But it’s a definite choice to appreciate because you realize how brief and fleeting life can be and you know our joy is so much more important than cultural ideals of who we’re supposed to be.

Lindsay: So what do you do to find joy outside of comedy? I know you’ve dabbled in some music and fashion and other art forms. What do you do?

Margaret: I have an array of very fascinating living creatures at my house. I have a dog, I have three cats, I have 28 bird feeders. I have a bog of carnivorous plants outside that eat bugs and make flowers from the bugs they eat.

Lindsay: What?! Okay, I will be Googling this.

Margaret: It’s so beautiful. They’re these beautiful flowers that are like the Venus flytraps and pitcher plants and these plants that ingest animals and bugs, and it’s really fascinating. They need so little from me, but I can appreciate their beauty, and I just give them some water sometimes.

And I grow strawberries, I grow tomatoes. I have all of these really weird cacti that lay down, so my job is taking them from their standing up position and I lay them down. They’re called the creeping devil and they move on their own. I think they’re supposed to be hallucinogenic. I don’t know, I’ve never tried. But I have a huge forest of them. I have a plant called the Welwitschia mirabilis, and it’s a plant that actually was around during prehistoric times. To me, it’s all about the plants. It’s about the animals. It’s about cultivating my happiness because you have to find that hope and happiness within yourself and within your home.

Lindsay: Do you feel like if you are doing all of those things, it helps you stay in the mindset of being creative and helps you be sharper because you’re not just focusing on what your next standup is going to be?

Margaret: Yes, because then it’s like you’re able to … It’s like a walking meditation in a sense because you can empty your mind and put your needs aside to care for another being’s needs, whether that’s an animal or a plant, or even an insect or somebody who wants to eat insects.

Lindsay: Do you walk through your garden and then you’ll think of jokes? What is your writing process now?

Margaret: Oh, no, I have different pieces of paper everywhere and then I’ll write something down or I have things on my phone or … Every device that I have has several reams of things that I should be talking about, need to think about, writing about, focusing on, so that’s it. I just have little things around that I can record all my thoughts because that, to me, is another part of the cultivation process.

Lindsay: Well, the people won’t be able to see your pink mic for Pride, but we’re at the start of Pride.

Margaret: It’s very pink. We’re at the start.

Lindsay: And what do you have planned? What are you looking forward to?

Margaret: I don’t know exactly. I’m not sure. This Pride is very … It’s fraught with a lot of concern because of the anti-gay legislation, anti-trans bias, and the fear and anger around that. So celebrating Pride, to me, is really about finding ways of resistance, whatever that looks like. I want to go. I haven’t been able to attend Prides, although I’ve done a lot of stuff virtually over the last couple of years during this pandemic, but I really hope I get to celebrate it with people. Pride becomes much more important now than ever because we’re fighting so many things.

Lindsay: I agree. And that community, in person, is so missed on so many levels. Now, we have to talk about Fire Island.

Margaret: Yes.

Lindsay: I’m very excited to see this. We actually ran a piece on Joel Kim Booster this weekend in the magazine, and it’s online on Vulture if anybody wants to read it. Tell us a little bit about the film. I know it’s Pride and Prejudice inspired. And tell us about your role, Erin. Who’s Erin in this?

Margaret: The movie is like Pride and Prejudice, but it’s gay Pride and Prejudice. It’s really about how we have gay pride, but when we go into gay pride, we’re going also into caloric debt and credit card debt, because we’ve got to show off our pride to everybody. Pride that we’ve got to buy and diet into. And the prejudice is you think that you can’t possibly have other discriminations because we are so oppressed, but really there is so much problematic behavior within the queer community, whether that’s racism or sexism or homophobia even, transphobia, all of these things. And class walls are very, very rigid, so the film is really all about that, but taking it in the form of a beautiful, romantic comedy, which this really is also. It’s a beautiful movie and it’s a great summer watch. It’s a place that I really love. Fire Island is steeped in gay history and it’s a place we’ve always gone to feel safe in the summer, and yet, What do you do when you don’t feel safe with your own community? And it’s really about that too.

Lindsay: I’m very excited to see it. It looks so good.

Margaret: It’s great.

Lindsay: So what is next for you? What should people be on the lookout for, from you?

Margaret: I will be touring for a while. I’m basically on a tour that I started in 2018 and now rejoined, my Fresh Off the Bloat tour, and that’s really great. I’m very excited about that. Andrew Ahn, who directed Fire Island, I’m doing another film with him he’s producing, so that’s really exciting. I’m excited to celebrate Pride, and it’s all something that I really appreciate, getting to go out there and perform and being able to be in shows, going to do shows. It’s really powerful.

Lindsay: I was looking at some clips, and you were laughing about your mom. I’m sure people are going to be so excited to see you on tour again.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. It’s going to be great. Maybe she’ll come. “I think you’re so funny.” She thinks it’s so funny. “I love so much.” She’s even made a TikTok with me. It’s really good.

Lindsay: Oh my God. I have to go see it.

Margaret: I love it. Tomas Matos from Fire Island showed me how to do TikTok last summer at Fire Island, so I’ve been doing that since. My TikTok is The Margaret Cho.

Lindsay: Okay. I have to go see the one with your mother. That’s amazing.

Margaret: She’s very funny in it. She’s really cute.

Lindsay: Well, thank you so much for doing this. We so appreciate it.

Margaret: Of course. Thank you.

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For Margaret Cho, Comedy Is a Matter of Survival