Margaret Cho: Notorious and on her own terms

By Jeff Walsh

Margaret Cho is a force to be reckoned with. Her new movie and double-CD, "Notorious C.H.O." show the queer Korean-American comic at the top of her game, with the CD taped at Carnegie Hall, and the film recorded at a sold out theater in Seattle.

The show is a brazen look at her sexual experiences, explorations, and relationships unlike anything else out there. From routines on performing oral sex on women, getting fisted, going to a leather bar, and how her ideal lesbian partner would look like John Goodman, Cho offers a no-holds-barred tour of her sexual thoughts and past. But the show also has more poignant, touching moments, such as how she remembers the two teenaged drag queens, Alan and Jeremy, with whom she hung out while growing up in San Francisco, and how the two gave her a sense of self and belonging.

In her first movie, "I'm The One That I Want," she talked about her short-lived series, "All-American Girl," and her battles with eating disorders and body image. She also released a book of the same name.

After All-American Girl, Cho seems determined to make it in show business following her own rules. Both her movies were made by her own production company, rather than going the HBO special route most comics follow. She also wrote a screenplay for a movie that she says will appear to gay teens, in which she plans to both star and produce.

In a recent phone interview with Oasis, Cho talks about her connection to the gay audience, her own experiences growing up, and whether there's anything she won't say onstage.

I just saw the movie the other day right near Polk Street, which is your old stomping grounds.

Absolutely. I grew up right there at Polk and California, so the Lumiere is where I used to see movies all the time.

I'm curious about how your career has evolved, because normally when I think of comedians, I think of HBO specials or something along those lines. And, a lot of comics have told me the comedy album wasn't really hot anymore, but you somehow put out a full-length movie, double-CD treatment and, to my knowledge, are the only one pulling it off... how did that happen?

It's all self-generated. I mean, I have been working as a comedian for 17 years and what I do is really outside of the industry. I don't really think about doing specials just because I don't want to cut my shows down at all, because when you're doing a special like that, unless you're Robin Williams or something, you have an hour. I don't ever want to do an hour. I want to do a show that's 90 minutes plus. So, that the show can't be fit into the format that's out there for us is what makes me want to do movies. And I have my own production company and I've made both films by myself. This time I'm working with a distributor so it's a little bit different, but I really don't work within the industry that exists now, so I'm not really privy to the same set of rules.

So you're making the industry work for you instead of working within the industry...

Right, and that's something that I've always had to do. It's not like I ever fit in anywhere, and I could never really get anywhere with just working and playing the same game.

Just from my own experience seeing comics, it always an evolution where you are getting a fair percentage of old material, and then new stuff cycled in, whereby every time I see you, it's 90 minutes of fresh material, seemingly within the realm of an overarching theme. How does that evolve. Is there times when you are just in clubs developing it and then the big tour occurs?

Yeah, which is what I'm having to go back and do now. I have to go back and develop a show, work it out and make it so it will be like the last two. So, I'm going into a heavy touring schedule of small schools or theaters and clubs all over the place, just looking to try things out, just so I'll be ready for a new show next year.

Is it a conscious thing that each show has a theme. I mean, Notorious C.H.O. is very driven around issues of sex...

But that's just what was going on at the time. I was having a lot of different difficulties and weird experiences with relationships, so that's what that was about...

I'm just curious, since you said your next show is political in nature...

I think that's what it is. I mean, you never know. I'm just developing more of a consciousness around politics. I think everyone pays more attention to current events these days, certainly after 9-11. So, I think that's what the show is... we'll see.

And if won't occur that you come up with some great sex story, and be all 'Damn, why didn't this happen in time for the sex-themed show?'

No, it will work itself out. I'm open to anything.

My favorite part of Notorious CHO is the stories about Alan and Jeremy just because it was just a great way to keep their spirits alive and show how their impact on your life still affects you... I know you avoid labels, but did you identify as a gay youth?

Yeah. Absolutely. And I always had gay friends. And I always had that feeling about myself, that I was not like everyone else, that I had this thing of isolation. So, I really identify with gay teens who are going through that right now. This kind of weird feeling of not belonging, and wanting to, and not sure how to go about being ourselves.

Since our readers are located in the midwest and in a lot of remote places, people would think that growing up in San Francisco would be ideal because it's this gay mecca. Was that your experience?

I think it was really great when I was a kid but then, at the same time, I think kids by their very nature are really narrow-minded and homophobic and racist and really awful. I think children are the worst. So, you can be in a very oppressive situation and be in the most liberal city in the world when you're a kid. My salvation was that I was being taken care of by these wonderful gay men who worked at my parents' bookstore, who were my caretakers. So, I grew up as a product of this gay society, but at the same time, I went to school and had a lot of problems just like anybody else. Even though the liberal atmosphere is within the adult population, I think kids are always narrow-minded. Kids are terrible to each other, and find ways to torture each other no matter what.

And, did you date men and women throughout high school?

I had a couple relationships with women after I was a teenager, but it never really went anywhere. My relationships with women always degenerate into these horrible experiences, which is why I don't identify as either gay or straight, because I have misery with both sexes. I don't know which one is better for me.

You don't identify as bisexual either?

No, because it's not like I get that either. So, it's more like I'm pretty open to everything, but I've also had a lot of heartbreak. So I don't know where that's going to lead me now.

I've also noticed that a lot of people on our site struggle with eating disorders and body image, which is something you've obviously discussed. Is there any one thing that made you wonder 'why am I doing this?'

I think it was just that I thought of virtually nothing else for 20 years. That had been my sole obsession for so long, and I just got bored with it. I just couldn't find any peace and I couldn't stand it anymore. I got sick and tired of feeling like I was freak because of my body, and hating myself so much, and I just wasn't able to continue. The way that I have an eating disorder, it's pretty severe, and so it was literally a choice between life or death and I chose to survive. And I'm still struggling. I still get frustrated. But it's nowhere near what it was. I'm really grateful to have experienced it so now I can help other people through it, in a very light way. I mean, I'm not a psychiatrist or therapist. I'm an entertainer. I can't really do that much for people, but at least I can talk about my experience in a way that's honest and funny.

Is there anything you won't talk about onstage? Is anything off-limits?

No, I don't think so. I'm mainly worried about being boring, but that's my main fear. I worry I'm too self-indulgent about things, or something like that. But, for the most part, I don't really have any secrets or things I wouldn't talk about it, or I don't know what they are.

Do you have people in your life who constantly feel the need to append 'and don't use this in your act' in conversation?

No. It's not really like that. It's really actually very wonderful the way people are when I talk about them. They are pleased to be a part of that. I don't have any problems there.

How involved are you in your website? Do you regularly participate on it?

I get all the e-mails and I read everything, and I answer as many as I can. But, it's hard because there are so many sometimes.

Have you ever dissected why so many of your fans are gay and lesbian?

It's just that I talk about gay and lesbian life a lot. I also talk a lot about acceptance. And I really identify as a queer artist, for sure. That's exactly what I am. I think it's a great thing to be, and I'm very proud to be that. I talk a lot about what it is to be gay and lesbian in our society today. And, I think it really shows that you don't really have to necessarily identify with a minority to want equality. We can all fight for equality no matter who we are, from all sides. I identify as a gay and lesbian activist and will always work in this community. But it's something that has to do with my heart. It doesn't make me feel like it's an odd thing that I have this huge gay and lesbian following, because it's absolutely right.

One of our readers in our message boards said they thought you seemed very angry in your standup. Do you find that to be the case?

Yeah, sure. I think that I have anger toward certain things. And that I have a lot of anger that is free-floating that isn't really attached to anything. But, as a person, I don't think I'm that angry. I think that whenever you see a woman that's powerful, automatically we associate that with anger, because women's strength seems it's only possible to do something like anger, but I just look at it as power.

What I thought was surprising was that I didn't see you on this previous tour, and I saw you recently at Gay Day at Great America (a local amusement park) and I thought you were really cranking up the sexual material for that crowd. So, when I saw the film and it was the same show, I was surprised to learn that you were touring the country and talking about fisting...

But it's something that's very commonplace within gay culture. It's something we discuss and that's happening all the time. It's something we don't see in straight movies and that's why it's so shocking, we're just not used to it.

Because my experience has been that you see certain gay comics, and when they are playing Fisherman's Wharf playing to the straight tourists, they have one act, and when they used to play at (gay cabaret space) Josie's, they'd have their really gay act.

It all depends. I think it's all valid, and you can change what you do according to your audience. But, I don't have that great a memory, so I can't think of who I'm in front of when I'm performing. I would get confused.

Are the tours cathartic in any way? I mean, by the time you write the material, and then tour it around the country, and finish the tour, do you still identify as strongly with it, or are you in a different place at that point?

I really identify with all of it. It's all from my heart, and all really true things. Things that I think about and care about. I'm always very aware of what is affecting me in the show.

What is it like for you to be on tour knowing that you have thousands of people in the audience who are entirely embracing of you, and just ready and eager to laugh the moment you walk onstage every night?

It's a great honor to be able to do that. I feel really lucky in my life to be able to do that. I really enjoy what I do. It's an awful lot of fun for me. I don't really think of the responsibility. Right now, the responsibility is weighing a bit heavy on me because I do have to go back and start the new show, and it's a lot of work to do and I don't know where it comes from. It's a natural thing that just comes out of nowhere, and I just have to trust that it's going to be there.

Do you have any other film and TV projects coming up?

I've written a film that is a comedy that's really great. It's sort of about gay youth. It's about a young girl and her gay best friend. They're sort of stuck in a very small town. They grew up from being the high school rejects into the adult reject townies. They work at Fantastic Sam's, and it's really sad, and their dream in life is to be on the Ricki Lake Show. The whole film is their journey to go on the Ricki Lake Show. It's a lot of fun. It's really funny, but I think it really hits home for a lot of kids, especially the ones I've met in a lot of gay student groups all across the country. This is my love letter to them.

And where is that at?

The script is done, and we're in pre-pre-production as far as raising money for it. Getting a crew together and casting it.

Will you be in the movie, or just the writer?

I'm the star of it, and I'll be producing it as well.

Once again, making the industry work for her, instead of working within the industry...