Margaret Cho is the ultimate iconoclast. Without her, the comedy world, and the World at large would be a much more boring and far less insighful place. Not to mention the inroads she forged for so many female comedians, Asian comedians, and other “outsider” entertainers whom came after her.
I first inteviewed Margaret in 2001 and because of that interview have the perspective of the passage of time to understand how this incredible comedian has grown in so many ways. Although she has always been hilarious and talented, now, 11 years later, she has a solid sense of self, peace, real joy and perspective that has come with surviving many obstacles and doing things her own way.
I find Margaret to be an incredibly underrated entertainer. As Margaret speaks about in our interview, Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general has typically tried to change her into something she isn’t rather than recognizing the beautiful, intellligent, and incredibly talented entertainer she is, just as she is.
I came away from this interview recognizing how fortunate the World is to have such an awesome, and seemingly enlightened human being in the World. Not to mention her neverending efforts towards equality among the GLBT population, women’s rights, and even financial equality through her support of the Occupy movement. Can she run for President please?
Where many people have failed at their endeavors in the entertainment industry, Margaret has endured. Not only has she been successful in stand-up and film, but she’s a talented singer with a beautiful voice.
Like she said in our interview, she just does what she wants. She’s done it her way and not many people can say that and mean it?
Moot: Do you have a nickname or anything like that that your friends call you?
Margaret Cho: Well, you know Kathy Griffin calls me Maggie.
Margaret Cho: Yeah! She’s probably the only person who does. It never really stuck.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. Sometimes people have called me “Peg” once in a while. But you know, in general, people have always…
Moot: Called you Margaret.
Margaret Cho: Called me Margaret, yeah. It’s kind of formal, I’m a little bit of a formal person.
Moot: Really? For a very informal person, which is very interesting.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, so there’s a kind of formality that the name is sort of, even like the whole thing, Margaret Cho, it has kind of always been one name, instead of a first name or a last name.
Moot: Cool. You know, I have been reading your blog for months now. You’re a really good writer.
Margaret Cho: Thank you!
Moot: You’re welcome! Do you write a lot and is it something you’ve done for a while?
Margaret Cho: Yeah! I’ve been blogging for at least a good 10 years. Although, you know it’s pretty sporatic sometimes too, you know I’ll go for long periods without writing. Lately, since I guess like September or so, I’ve been trying to realize my writery potential and also, you know the way that writing has changed a lot, the way that we read. Most people are reading blogs, they’re not really reading books in the same way and so I thought I’d like to write a book but I think it’s more effective to keep blogging every day and then you can my blog from Kindle and then go back and read. I kind of started off in obituaries, I still think that’s kind of one of my best things, but in general I like writing about just stuff that happens. Like in pop culture and helps me write jokes but a lot of the writing isn’t so much funny but serious social commentary.
Margaret Cho: So I like having that venue. It helps me to organize my thoughts about issues. It’s a good tool for me. Usually when I go to write jokes about something in depth and then pick out what are the jokes. That’s what the writing is for. I do it every day and it’s pretty effortless. Sometimes, it takes me about five minutes. I’m pretty sure if I keep at it I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize. I think they give one for like online journalism but they don’t necessarily have one for blogging but I want them to create one!
Moot: They should totally! And you should win!!
Margaret Cho: Yeah, I think they will.
Moot: Well you know today is Valentine’s Day and I read your blog and your feelings about Valentines Day in the past and your “monster” as you called it. What are you feelings about Valentine’s Day today?
Margaret Cho: Well, I mean, I think it’s, again it’s one of those created holidays that unfortunately makes people feel really bad! A lot of people have a lot of negativity around the day because it focuses on what you don’t have. And for people who do have that, for a relationship they want to celebrate, it kind of forces this obligation to spend a lot of money and spend a lot of time celebrating that when really your relationship should be celebrated everyday.
Margaret Cho: It’s sort of like Christmas in the way you sort of have all these expectations around the day to spend money and it’s kind of like a consumerist holiday but I really really resent being a child and kind of being forced to be involved in this holiday when I think it’s inappropriate for children to have to participate. So that’s what that was about, in writing that. I don’t think they do that today for kids. I just think it’s really inappropriate.
Moot: Yeah, it’s a really horrible experience for a lot people when they’re kids!
Margaret Cho: Well also I think growing up gay, and like growing up bullied and then now I want to take all of those experiences and kind of put them out there. You never get over it. And I feel as an adult I need to get over it and I have the perfect platform to call out and blame people that were mean and just really really lash out now as an adult in full force. Because, I have no concept of forgiveness or rising above anything. Like, I think it’s really funny to stay childish and be mad still and that’s a good way to heal.
Moot: Absolutely. I think even as an adult, people who have been bullied or are an outcast as a child, as I was as well, I think you grow up and you still harbor that resentment to some extent and I think if you have somewhere to express it it’s great. And you do have this great platform. Do you think now, when you see some sort of injustice now, whether it’s something small or big, do you think that’s what kind of drives you now to speak out about it?
Margaret Cho: Yeah! And also sharing my own experiences on that type of injustice and let people know you can survive it and there is no need to rise above it. That there is no need to feel like you have to be the better person, in any way. I totally advocate like harboring anger, and I totally advocate lashing out in anger. I think that these things are very powerful cause a lot of times we’re told, “Oh you shouldn’t be angry, it hurts you more than it hurts them”, and I’m like, no it doesn’t, it hurts them! It’s very fun to be the opposite of what I’ve been taught in what I’ve been taught in kind of a new age way what anger is and I just think it’s another force that we can use.
Moot: I couldn’t agree with you more! Are you still married by the way?
Margaret Cho: Yeah!
Moot: So what’s your relationship with your husband like today? I know you guys have had an open relationship, tell me about that.
Margaret Cho: Well it is! It’s great! We are really happy, and I think we have the ideal relationship. We have total connection and committment and that’s why we last and that’s why we’re happy but that doesn’t include sexual monogamy because I don’t think that’s appropriate thing to ask of anyone. And people don’t understand what that means and I can’t illustrate it any further than that I am totally committed and totally in this marriage. We’ve been married since 2003 but we’ve been together since 1999, so I feel like I know what works. It works for me, and we’ll stay together. It’s a good thing.
Moot: Yeah, and I think if it works for somebody why question it. I think a lot of people, especially conservative, or conventional people, certainly question people’s relationships that don’t coincide with the “norm”, and you are certainly someone I would consider an “iconoclast” and someone who’s an outsider or something? Would you consider yourself an outsider or an outcast and if you do, what makes you such?
Margaret Cho: Definitely, I guess I do consider myself an outsider but then also I’m able to kind of move in circles where I am definitely listened to and my opinions are definitely projected and they’re valuable to people so there is an outsider perspective that’s very insider also because I do have a platform to be heard.
Moot: Right. And I think in your entire career so far, what would you say, if you had to put in a sentence of phrase, what has been the message of the career?
Margaret Cho: Um, I think it’s just that everybody can do it, that if you have the desire to be an idol you can be, and that the most important thing is that you’re doing what you want. That’s what I have always done with my life, doing things that I want, and I don’t let things hold me back. I mean like when I started there were no people who looked like me in the industry that I am in, but I didn’t let that hinder my enthusiasm or my auditions. So, I think especially a lot of immigrant families, especially Asian Americans in particular, they expect a lot from their children and they don’t let their children go into professions that are like music or comedy. So a lot of people abandon their plans to please their family and then are way back in their 40’s and think I’ve lived a life that I never wanted for myself and I don’t know what to do now. So, I try to get people to reject that and be what they want with their life ‘cause I always did what I wanted with my life and because I did, I got what I wanted.
Moot: I think that’s very insightful and I think that’s a great lesson.
Margaret Cho: Yeah.
Moot. We’re coming up on an election season. What do you feel about Obama and his performance over the past 4 years, and him, and moving forward?
Margaret Cho: I’m really happy with Obama! I’ve been at the White House and I’ve talked with him and I have friends in the administration and I helped get him elected. I was part of the whole campaign trail, I was there. I feel like he’s going to go another term and it’s going to be great. I mean, it’s like there’s no contest. I don’t know why the GOP even tries because everyone they put in front of us is terrible! I think, it’s like, people have a lot of frustrations with Obama, but he had a lot of things to clean up and a lot of things and a lot of things to take care of and the thing about Obama is I want him to be more vocal towards marriage equality.
Margaret Cho: And in general be better at passing legislation to help people with hate crimes, help people be prosecuted more for hate crimes, including the language that will protect LGBT people. It’s a very important thing, we also need to have marriage equality. But I’ve seen some positive things, there are things like overturning Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, that’s a big deal. He should really pay more attention to the Occupy movement, which are not gone away. The press seems to feel that Occupy is over but it’s not, it’s still happening in a lot places. So there are things that Obama can do but I feel like he’s done a great job and I look forward to another term and I’ve definitely going to be there to help in any way that I can. This is an administration that a lot of us have a lot invested in, like a lot of personal dreams and hope, so I feel strongly that it’s going to be another four years and it’ll be really, really good.
Moot: I hope you’re right! Do you think the people like the Republican party, the right wing, homophobic people, evangelical Christians, but do you think that they have mental issues or is it seriously just a difference of opinion? Because it seems to me that when you present them with the facts, they ignore them. What do you think?
Margaret Cho: Yeah. It’s both! Having, like, mental issues and having a difference of opinion but it’s also the fact that they are disappearing. The fact that when your beliefs and your people and your way of life is becoming extinct and is already in danger, it’s a terrifying place to be, so they’re trying to hang on to their family values, hang on to what have traditionally been the ideology of their family so that they don’t disappear. They’re starting to experience what gays and people of color and women have experienced for a lifetime. I’m thinking about, like when I was really really young, I was with this girl and we were at a nightclub and this old man was trying to hit on his and we were making fun of him and basically making him feel like he didn’t exist, like he was invisible, and when we went outside of the club, it was totally deserted, and he was waiting for us with a tire iron and trying to attack us. I realized, he felt for a moment what I had felt for a lifetime and like he could not take it, he could not take non-existent, he could not take not being taken seriously, the only thing he could do was like…
Moot: Lash out, mm,hmm.
Margaret Cho: Lash out, right. I think that’s a good comparison to conservatives when they feel like what we’ve felt forever, they can’t take it!! (Laughs) We have taken it for so long we’re used to it! So, I think that is what is going on, I think that’s why they lash out so violently with their language, that’s why they are so crazy. I have compassion for them, because it’s like, I know what it’s like, I’ve been there, and I don’t want to be this way anymore and that’s why they’re feeling that way too. That’s the thing, I think about because I was raised with a lot of compassion but I know what what it’s like to feel extinct. Well, extinct isn’t the right word, because it’s like we never even existed which isn’t true.
Moot: Invisible, maybe?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, invisible. That’s what they feel.
Moot: That’s a brilliant observation yeah, and I completely agree with you. I think that’s absolutely true, that’s why they are so against us, gays, or lesbians, people of color, or whatever the case may be. I think, that you have been sort of a, well not sort of, you’ve been a champion for people like me and for people are like yourself, or whatever. I think you’ve been an incredible beacon of light in the cesspool of Hollywood or whatever you want to call it. So whenever people watch you they feel like they know you of course and they love you etc. So do you realize the effect you have on your audience and the people who, really, adore you?
Margaret Cho: Well it’s wonderful, I think it’s really magical. I feel really good about it and I feel like if I can help people feel positively, I get a lot of joy from it. I don’t really know the extent of it, like I just try to do good work because it makes me feel good and if I can work things out in my head. Like even on my blog, which I’m talking a lot about on stage with the whole Adele and Karl Largerfeld thing, like I got so upset when he said “she’s a little bit fat” because it reminded me of all the times where people say you’re beautiful, but you’re fat. Like, I guess that was a compliment? So you have this groundswell of people saying, yes I can’t stand it when people say that. So when people say stuff like that in the press it really affects everybody and it reminds you of all the things that have happened to you and it makes me doubly angry because I’m a fan of Karl’s.
Moot: Yes, so it kind of hurt in a way.
Margaret Cho: I was hurt, yes. I was really hurt by it, but you have the ability to get really angry and put your words into a kind of a poetic jumble that makes sense to people but it’s really empowering. So, I’m really happy that, if I get to represent people, or whatever, I’m mostly just trying to represent myself and make myself feel better but if that can help others that’s phenomenal.
Moot: Yeah, and I know that you’ve said many times in the past about how when you were on All American Girl about how a producer or a friend or something on the show said that your head was too big to fit the screen? I remember that from your book, I’m The One That I Want, I think and you talked about that, and I recently saw an episode of All American Girl that I caught on tv, and you said well my head is just too big, or something like that. Is that something that you remember at all, that you yourself put in to be self-deprecating or was that something they put in or do you even remember?
Margaret Cho: Hmm. God, I don’t remember a lot of stuff. I have no recollection of it, I don’t know what it is. I honestly don’t remember stuff and I think it had to do with the fact that I was dieting so much during that whole period that even after, I mean I really was not eating and I had to be hospitalized and stuff and even after that I really never quite got over it and I wasn’t eating and I was taking a lot of diet pills and I think because of all of my drug use then, I lost quite a lot of my memory. And I have a really, really, laser like memory where it’s almost like a time machine, and there’s huggggge chunks of between ‘94 and ’95 that I really have recollection of and I think that’s drugs and not even good drugs, it was like diet pills.
Moot: Wow! That’s horrible.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, it’s sad because I could write and actually be a lot more articulate about some of those things but there’s really blank spots when I try to go back and think and I know it’s from drug use. It’s sad.
Moot: Yeah, it’s very sad. Do you think you’ve made peace now with your weight, whatever that may be, or do you still struggle with some sort of arbitrary standard of beauty of what do you feel about that now?
Margaret Cho: Oh yeah! I still definitely struggle with it, I think what I have is a disease. I have a disease of anorexia and bulemia, and um, you know you really don’t, there is no cure, you always have the disease. It’s just sort of whether you’re in remission or not, I guess I kind of sort of in a place where I’m not affected daily by it and I’m also older and if you’re older you’re getting more comfortable in your skin, and I’m at that point I think. But whenever it’s called to be discussed, I get really upset, like with the Adele thing. Like whenever I am talking about it I get just as upset as if it’s happening to me right then. But I have a relative peace with it but that only comes with the fact that I am older and I have to kind of deal with the age thing which is another thing that doesn’t really affect me the way it affects other women my age, they get really scared. And my peers are very, very, into plastic surgery, which I can’t really get into which is why I get tattooed, it’s my own way of getting plastic surgery, my own way of staying younger without actually going into an area of plastic surgery.
Moot: And do you think the industry has changed at all in terms of that or do you think it’s exactly the same, for the most part, about weight?
Margaret Cho: About weight? Oh no, it’s not changed. I think what has happened is it’s been like, there’s an understanding, oh we can make money by showing people who are larger. Or, we can make money by….or the thing is there is undeniable talent. Like Adele is an undeniable talent. The thing about it is she’s so assertive that she can’t be pushed to the background like Carnie Wilson. Like Wilson Phillips was great and a part of that greatness was Carnie Wilson and Carnie Wilson was never allowed to, like they would do those video where there were the girls…
Moot: Yes! (Laughing)
Margaret Cho: Like they would be totally with boys and they’d have Carnie with like a dog. It was like why can’t you show Carnie with a boy like you do with the other two, and Carnie is like the prettiest one and the one that is like the real legend. She’s Brian Wilson’s daughter and she’s like the legend in the group and you focus on the untalented other two and they don’t matter and Carnie’s the voice.
Moot: Yeah and they’ve have a video on the beach and they’d have the front two, the skinny ones, in front and she’s way in the back almost off of the beach. It’s so true!
Margaret Cho: SHE was the voice! So I would watch that and feel like even though I’m the talented one I’m going to be the one behind the tree. Even though I’m the talented one, they’re not going to show me with a boy, they’re going to show me with the puppy. Which I love dogs, I mean that’s fine (laughs). I mean,I just feel like now the people who make the decisions are just now realizing they can make money off of somebody that looks real.
Moot: Yeah, and do you think Drop Dead Diva, may be a good indication of that?
Margaret Cho: Right. Yeah. And I love Brooke and I love the show for those reasons.
Moot: Do you film that in Atlanta?
Margaret Cho: Mmmhmm.
Moot: And do you fly out there, do you live there during the filming?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, I have an apartment there. I have a really great place to live there I have a bunch of wonderful friends and it’s my 4th year of living there. I moved from Peachtree City, and Peachtree City is like the capital of the Tea Party.
Moot: Oh really?? Lovely.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, but it’s weird, Peachtree City, you’ll see bumper stickers on the cars but they don’t put them on bumper they put them on the inside of the windows so they’re not actually stuck to the car. And there’s stuff like “Pitbull in Lipstick”, you know like Sara Palin quotes, and that kind of stuff, it’s all over the place. But they don’t put them on the cars, they put them on the inside of the cars so they don’t have to commit to their feelings.
Moot: Or maybe they’re just afraid someone’s going to tear them off or something because they’re so ridiculously stupid.
Margaret Cho: Well, I did live in Peachtree for two years, but it was too stifling, and conservative.
Moot: Yeah, of course.
Margaret Cho: So I live in Atlanta and it’s really gay and fun and awesome.
Moot: Hotlanta! Awesome!
Margaret Cho: Yeah really hotlanta!
Moot: Well, we haven’t seen you in like a big movie or anything in a long time. I’ve seen you in a couple of smaller films but I am just curious if you have anything on the horizon in that arena?
Margaret Cho: No, I’d love to do big movies. I would really love it. Like in the last 4 years, I’m touring so much because, I’m like on the show for 6 months a year and the rest of the time I’m on tour. So that doesn’t like leave me any time to pursue these films, which I’m totally up for, totally would love to do. But the way my years have been structured it’s been hard for the past 4 years. Also, I’ve been touring a lot internationally and spending a lot of time in Europe and in England and Australia so that has taken a lot of the year for me. But yeah, it’s something I would love to do. I haven’t done a really big movie since 17 Again or something and that was a really long time ago. Usually people just call me up and ask, you know. But I never have been around. I really want to. I was trying to do like Three Stooges and all of these other things that I want to do but it’s busy when you’re in a series and also trying to manage the other, which is my main job, which is doing stand-up comedy, and my other underneath job which is doing music, which I still am doing a lot of, guesting on people’s albums and stuff. So things kind of get lost because you’re trying to do so many things.
Moot: Yeah, but I think, you know, that’s just a testament to how talented you are. You can do all of these different things and people want you so that’s good. The one song, “I’m Sorry” you did with the video, oh my God it cracks me up, I love it. The song is hilarious.
Margaret Cho: Thank you!
Moot: Yeah and you have a great voice! How did you even get into doing that?
Margaret Cho: Well, I come from a church family. There’s a lot of singing in my house, my mother’s a singer and also a really good guitarist and my father’s a pianist.
Margaret Cho: So I grew up around a lot of music. That’s sort of what happens when you grow up in a church family. So I always knew that I could sing and I always loved it but stand-up comedy was really what drove me. I felt like, I have a decent voice, but I don’t have the kind of voice….it would take, for me to really have the kind of voice that I have the potential for having, it would take a huge lifestyle change. Like not drinking, and not smoking, and I don’t do a lot of that anyway, but you know the purity of a voice reflects the purity of a life. That’s why I feel so bad about Whitney Houston because the great responsibility of being the custodian of a voice like that is almost like it’s not worth it because it takes so much. Your physical health, in regards to your instrument, you pay such a high tax and a high tariff to maintain that voice. Even if she had never smoked or drank, whatever, I don’t think she could have sustained that voice for all of these years anyway.
Moot: It’s a lot of pressure too.
Margaret Cho: It’s a lot of pressure to do it and people don’t appreciate the value of a voice that ages and her voice would have aged beautifully, but it would still have been criticized, because it would have changed. Like the great divas, those women with the great voices, they age in a way that is so powerful but she wasn’t or able to endure what all that it would have taken. So I totally understand her struggle, from the beginning to have that kind of success and feel like you have to maintain it.
Moot: Yeah, it’s sad. Especially for someone who had an addiction. It was a lot of pressure for her.
Margaret Cho: Yeah.
Moot: How would you say you think you have evolved over the past 20 or 30 years, whatever it’s been, since you started your career?
Margaret Cho: Oh, well, yeah, 30. (Laughing) Well I think I’m much more able to put my feelings into words now. I know more words, so that’s been helpful.
Moot: (Laughing) Yes.
Margaret Cho: I’m better at mastering certain kinds of storytelling and singing and better at learning things and becoming them and better able to utilize them in my work. I think I’m more joyful, overall and I allow unhappiness to kind of be, and not freak out about it. I think people get really upset and feel like unhappiness is an unwelcome part of life, but it’s just a part of life so if you can accept it as a part of life you can actually learn to deal with it.
Moot: How wise and sage of you!
Margaret Cho: (Laughing) Well, now I realize that when I’m unhappy it’s not clinical depression! Like if you go, oh I’m bummed about something, then people go oh I’ve got to go on meds and I’ve got to go to therapy, and actually that’s just a natural occurring state. Of course there’s people that have depression that’s real, but I don’t think I have that, I realized it’s just part of the way that things are. I just take it kind of in stride and I really enjoy my career and I enjoy my life. There’s always this idea, like people I find around me, are so ambitious they want to do so much and they can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want more, like to be on top, and if they’re not on top, and I don’t understand what they define success is. I feel successful all the time. So, I’m not sure what people around me are chasing all the time. Like when people around me succeed, it makes me so joyous it makes me cry. The one example is Kurt Sutter, he writes that show, Sons of Anarchy, which I love because I ride motorcycles and I’m totally super into bikes. So I’ve known him forever and I have so much joy when I see people are really successful. I know a lot of other people in my profession that when they see other people succeed, they’re jealous and like mad. I’m like how could you be jealous or mad and I’m like so happy for people that I’ve grown up with. So I just have a lot of joy.
Moot: That’s very zen of you!
Margaret Cho: Well, I am mad that Kathy [Griffin], didn’t win the Grammy again because she got nominated 3 years in a row!
Moot: I know! That’s an accomplishment!
Margaret Cho: She should get a Grammy just for being nominated 3 years in a row! That’s like a miracle! Nobody’s done that! Not even in music has that ever happened and comedy’s so much harder to have been nominated for a different album 3 years in a row, is huge. I think maybe because she’s so critical of the industry that they get mad. I’m going to make her an award in my metal shop. I have my motorcycle metal shop so I’m going to weld her a grammy!
Moot: (Laughing) You should totally do that! Well, last question. I’d like to know where you see yourself at 60? Where is Margaret Cho at 60 years old?
Margaret Cho: Oh God, you know what’s scary is that it’s not that far off!! I mean it’s a stone’s throw, I mean it’s down the block. I mean you’re talking about next week! (Laughing). I feel like, I’m going to be doing the same thing, which is like I think I might have a Moto Guzzi for my motorcycle by then. I’m trying to go from a smaller engine to a larger engine, that sort of thing. I may buy a Harley or I may buy a Moto Guzzi. I think at 60, I’m not sure because I feel like it’s going to be the same thing, I might, at that point, really consider putting a pool on my property! (Laughs) You know, for aqua-aerobics, I’ll need some sort of cushion for my joints. 60, I really plan on doing more of the same thing, maybe acting more, certainly writing more. I’m trying to do different types of writing, I’d like to write a television series, like write scripts, because you know, I love writing, so I want to take my talent in that and use it in different formats, and I definitely feel like that’s the a good thing to do. I’d like to write more songs and sing more and I just recorded a duet with Ken Stringfellow from The Posies and we’re singing a lot of country which is really oddly somehow best suited for my voice. So, and maybe doing a lot more in Nashville where I have a lot of friends.
Moot: How many Asian chicks do country?
Margaret Cho: (Pause) I don’t think there’s any!
Moot: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, you’re always breaking barriers, and that’s awesome.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, dude, I’m like the Jeremy Lynn of Country music. I’m really weirdly good at it to where people are freaking out and, (laughing) they’re like, WHY, WHY are you good at this? There’s no reason for me to be good at this and I do think that I am, and it’s kind of undeniable to where people can’t figure out, to where it’s a voice that’s pretty good. It’s on the level of like Emmylou Harris or Patsy Cline but it’s so unexpected to where people are like I don’t know what to do with it.
Moot: But that’s the beauty of life, that’s the beauty of your career. It’s unexpected. Everything about you is unexpected. And that’s what makes you so awesome.
Margaret Cho: Oh thank you!!
Moot: And you know, your fans, we all love you!
MARGARET CHO: I love you too!
Photography By Lindsey Byrnes