Margaret Cho

[Comedian/Actor/Musician]

“Even if you don’t like it, you have to laugh.”
The wisdom of Margaret Cho:
North Korea is country music
Comedians are the working class of show business
Many comedians are not funny in real life

People often tell me that I remind them of Margaret Cho. There are similarities: I’m an Asian American female comedian with a dry sense of humor, a fondness for tattoos, and a proclivity toward impersonating my Asian mother in my stand-up, as Cho often does. I am in the beginning of my work as a comedian, but Cho became known in the ’90s as one of the handful of female stand-up comedians of color, and despite the years of tolerance and diversity-awareness since Cho began, a career as an Asian comedian remains, in the best cases, a niche—and in the worse cases, a ghetto.

Cho’s early success eventually led to the short-lived ABC sitcom All-American Girl. Executives quickly asked her to “tone down” her liberal comedy, thinking it too much for network television, and so the show was canceled and Cho returned to stand-up. In recent years, she has released music tinged with comedy but not overwhelmed by it. Her Grammy-nominated 2010 album, Cho Dependent, presented her collaborations with many of her favorite musicians, including Fiona Apple, Tegan and Sara, and Jon Brion.

Over the years, Cho’s comedic voice has also advocated social activism and self-worth. Her anger, bluntness, and fearlessness have won for her a leadership role among women and the LGBT community. Cho currently stars in the Lifetime television series Drop Dead Diva (a legal comedy/reincarnation fantasy now in its fifth season), and her current stand-up tour, “Mother,” heads to Europe this winter. I spoke with Cho in her hotel room at the New York Hilton on a humid June day.

—Anna Suzuki

*

THE BELIEVER: As a comic, I always have a fear of performing to a low-energy crowd. How do you deal with that?

MARGARET CHO: I think the best way is to go into questioning. You drop the jokes and instead you get into “What’s happening here?” and you engage people. Gaze right there into their eyes, and then their body, because people can be really complacent and zone out. I get really mad if I see texting. I’ll immediately go, “What are you doing?” And sometimes they’re actually just tweeting about the show or about me, or taking pictures. But it’s like, you’re robbing yourself of the experience of even being here, because you’ve gotta show other people you’ve got a Facebook status—you’re here or check in that you’re here—and that’s a weird symptom of the disease of our society, that we’re constantly distracted. I come from a time from before cell phones. My youth—all of my twenties, some of my thirties—came before we had texting or email, even. So that, to me, is a relatively new development in society, and I’m still a little bit not used to it.

BLVR: And do you change your delivery vocally, to wake up a crowd?

MC: I guess it would change. You have to get really into the moment and get into what’s going on. Then maybe you can put jokes in there. It’s more like, can you make jokes in the moment of what’s happening? It’s the best thing if you can. Most comics want to perform and get it over with. But the better solution is to really find out what’s happening, because otherwise it can really drain you. Plus, you’re doing them a great favor by performing. People don’t understand you’re doing them a huge favor by being there and bringing some joy into their lives.

It’s a social contract. When we enter this comedy place, the audience is supposed to sit there and enjoy it, to the best of their ability, and the comic has to perform to the best of their ability—and then we come together in this social contract as soon as we enter this thing that’s called comedy. I always hold up my end of the bargain andI expect the audience to, too. And if they don’t, they’re really going to know this is a problem, that they are violating the social contract of what we have decided when we come to the show. Even if you don’t like it, you have to laugh. I’ve sat at comedy shows and not thought anything was funny but I’ve laughed just to be polite. I’ve been rudely offended and really disgusted but I will laugh because I’ve agreed to come here. So in a sense it’s like, I don’t care if you don’t like it. You have agreed to come here and therefore you have to endure this because that’s what we do here. Once you can get used to that—being in the moment—you get a lot of power and control. One guy who’s great at that—I learned it from Greg Proops, who’s one of the greatest comedians of all time and my good friend. Another guy who’s very good at that is Louis C.K. The ultimate master of that is Paula Poundstone. She is just a genius at engaging people in the moment. Marc Maron is great, too.

And about this social contract of what comedy is: I’ll get into full-on fights with people about it, because they get really angry. They think that if you’re a comedian you’re there to please them, and you have to be self-deprecating. Especially if you’re a woman. That idea—“I’m not here to serve them, they’re actually here to serve me, and we’re all here together to serve a higher purpose”—takes a little bit of responsibility off of it. I don’t know if you get really nervous, but I used to get really, really nervous when I was starting, but now I’m like, “We’re here together.” They should be nervous.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Anna Suzuki is a comedian and actor living in New York. She tours, and hosts monthly comedy shows at the People’s Improv Theater and Pete’s Candy Store.

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