Margaret Cho Breaks Barriers In World Of Comedy

Originally published on May 31, 2011 2:53 pm

She is one of America's most well-known comedians. But breaking into the mostly white, male world of comedy was a challenge for Korean-American actress and comedian Margaret Cho.

"To be in show business is really to feel a sense of invisibility, if you're not white, if you're not a man," the San Francisco native says. "Those two things are so much a part of how a comedian is defined."

Yet she found inspiration for her performances in her immigrant family.

"When you are from an immigrant family, there is something to making fun of your immigrant roots," she adds.

When Cho was a little girl, her father was deported to Korea, an event that made her family very protective of their American identity and status.

"I'm the only member of my family to have been born in America, so my mother would always push me forward and say, 'She's white,' " she says.

Later her father was able to return to the U.S., but his having left made her see that they were outsiders in this country and gave her a different point of view in starting the work she does. Cho wanted to make sure that "we had a voice that was being heard and that our voice had a lot of humor to it, because within humor, there is a lot of strength," she explains.

Knowing she never wanted to be anything else but a comedian, Cho started her career at as a teenager and became financially independent at age 16.

She went on to work with acclaimed comedians, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Hope. In 1994, Cho won the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedian.

That same year, based on her standup routine, ABC developed and aired a sitcom, starring Cho, called All American Girl. Although short-lived, it was one of the first shows to prominently feature an Asian-American woman. Yet, it also became a challenge for Cho's physical appearance.

"I was really considered such an outlaw for being an Asian-American that every other aspect of myself had to be controlled, and weight was a big part of it," she says.

But the rejection only propelled her to do better and take on different projects. Since then, her TV career has included The Cho Show, 30 Rock and Dancing with the Stars.

Today, Cho is shooting the third season of the Lifetime TV series Drop Dead Diva and producing Yellow, an album about rage, age and ethnicity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More, from NPR News.

Now, it's time for our "Wisdom Watch" conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference through their work. And in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we decide to reach out to one of America's best-known stand-up comedians. If you follow comedy, if you've ever watched the late-night talk shows, if you just like to laugh, then you've certainly seen Margaret Cho. Here's a clip of her performing at Carnegie Hall in 2002.


MARGARET CHO: Daddy friends look at daddy and he says, I love you. Daddy don't know how to deal with this type of situation. Because Daddy loves his friend, but he cannot say that he loves his friend because Daddy was afraid that he's gay. So then Daddy punch his friend.

MARTIN: But Margaret Cho is also an actress, a musician, and an outspoken advocate for equal rights. And she's here with us now, to tell us more. She was kind enough to interrupt a very busy shooting schedule to talk with us. Margaret Cho, thank you so much for joining us.

MS. CHO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Ethnicity has been so much a part of your comedy over the years, and so many of the things that you've had to think about in the entertainment business. So I wanted to start by asking you about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and whether you - do you think it's lame? Do you think it's important?

CHO: I think it's great. I mean, you know, it's an interesting place to be in when you're talking about race, when you're not talking about being black or being white. To me, race is so defined by being African-American or being Caucasian. And for the rest of us who are not, it's very specialized to talk about race. And so I think it's great to have a time where we can celebrate our history and celebrate our identity in this country, and also to claim the right of race.

MARTIN: Did you feel that way growing up? I know you were raised in San Francisco during the '70s. And that was a time that, you know, it was open and free thinking in a lot of ways, but not always, you know, for everybody. Do you remember growing up and how you felt about being who you were?

CHO: Well, in San Francisco, it's very racially mixed. And so I never really felt different or like an outsider. Not until I entered into show business did I feel real difference. And so it was strange to go from a very multicultural environment into a very monochromatic one. You know, to be in show business is really, to feel a sense of invisibility if you're not white, if you're not a man. Those two things are so much a part of how comedian is defined.

MARTIN: How did you start imitating your mom? I think that's one of the parts of your act that I think a lot of people relate to, even if they're not Korean-American, because we all have parents. And sometimes, our parents say things that we just think are crazy, but we love them anyway. How did that start? Was that always a part of your act?

CHO: Well, that was a part of my identity, too. As a child, I think when you are from an immigrant family - that there is something to making fun of your immigrant roots. When I was a really, really young girl, my father was deported to Korea. And ever since that happened, my family was very protective of their American identity and their status, their American status. And I'm the only member of my family to have been born in America.

So my mother would always push me forward and say, she's white. So I think that because of that, I always felt different from them. I always felt separated. And so making fun of them - making fun of my mother, especially, with her thick accent that she never got rid of - it sort of gave me some relief from it, some escape from it.

MARTIN: How does your mom feel about your imitating her?

CHO: Well, she loves it. I mean, she really thinks it's great. And she really feels that I do her justice in every way. So she's really come to love it.

MARTIN: I have to tell you, I thought I was a student of Margaret Cho. And it wasn't until I read the foreward for a book two young ladies, who wrote - two Asian-American women who wrote a book about their mothers, called "My Mom is a FOB." It's a book that was written, you know, after the website of the same name, where they also kind of collect their mother's - the funny things that they say, and how the translations don't always work - that I knew that you had experienced your father being deported back to Korea when you were what, three days old?

And your mom stayed in the U.S. Didn't you go back to Korea with your dad?

CHO: Yes, I went back and forth, and spent a lot of time kind of just dealing with that.

MARTIN: How do you think that affected your life? That's a pretty traumatic thing to happen.

CHO: It's very traumatic. And I think it really affected me and it made me see that we were outsiders in this country. And that - I think that it gave me maybe a different point of view in starting the work that I do, and making sure that we had a voice that was being heard and that our voice had a lot of humor to it. Because I think within humor, there's a lot of strength.

MARTIN: How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a stand-up comedian? And what was the moment at which you said to yourself: I am a comedian? You know, in the same way that people might write poetry, but there's a certain point in which they say: I am a poet. When was that for you?

CHO: I always had the sense this is what I wanted to do as soon as I could understand comedy, and understand that's what people were doing. And I started my career very young. I started at 14, and really started to make a living at it at 16. So that's really an early start for, I think, any profession, but comedy especially.

MARTIN: One of the things that many people appreciate about you is that - how outspoken you are about the things in the entertainment business that are not right. I'm thinking here of your ABC sitcom "All American Girl" - short-lived - where you also talked about the fact that even though you were selected for this, and the whole series was built around you as, you know, who you are, a Korean-American woman living in two worlds - as so many people are - but then it was: You're too ethnic. And you've talked about the fact that you took some extreme steps and extreme dieting in order to kind of diet yourself down into what was apparently supposed to be like, the acceptable, you know, form. You think it's gotten any better since then?

CHO: I don't know if it's gotten better. I mean for me, what happened was that I was really considered such an outlaw for being an Asian-American that every other aspect of myself had to be controlled, and weight was a big part of it. Because in our stereotypical view of Asian women, they are supposed to be very thin, and supposed to be very submissive and birdlike. And because I was not that, that was something that was a really hard thing for the people that were making the show to endure. Like, they were just trying to conform because my ethnicity was already such a non-conformist thing.

MARTIN: Did you ever consider not writing about it, in the sense that you're thinking there might have been a backlash if you wanted to go back into the acting side and not continue with stand-up? Did you ever think, maybe I shouldn't talk about this?

CHO: No, because there really couldn't be any backlash because there was never any advantage.


CHO: It wasn't like I suddenly would have been able to go and get other roles because there weren't any out there at that time for Asian-Americans and for somebody like me. So I had stand-up as my entry into this business, and I thought it would always ultimately be my salvation because I could always go back to stand-up, and I could always talk about what I want. And because I'm so different, there really were no consequences for me. Like, I didn't care because I was an outsider in this business anyway. It doesn't matter.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a "Wisdom Watch" conversation with Margaret Cho, actress, comedian, activist, clothing designer - I understand.

But I think many people will also have seen you on "Dancing with the Stars" in the 2010 season. In one of your most memorable numbers, you wore a rainbow-fringed dress, and your partner wore a blue suit with a rainbow belt. Did you design that?

CHO: He designed it, actually, which is wonderful. And it was to represent the rainbow pride flag for gay pride, which is so exciting. And so I really loved that we got to do that. It was a very tough time. At that point, there had been a number of suicides by gay teens, and it's really an epidemic for young people in the LBGT community. And so we wanted to reach out to them and have our moment. And it's one thing to dance, but it's another thing to really talk about what you want to talk about through dance, and so that was a really beautiful thing.

MARTIN: The judges were harsh, though. And I don't know about you but - I'll just play a short clip, and then you can tell me what you think.


BRUNO TONIOLI: You had too many drinks, my darling. It went wrong so many times, and then you lost your timing. And you know, it is a dance competition. We have to point that out.

TOM BERGERON: And Carrie Ann.

CARRIE ANN INABA: I loved that you came out in rainbow. I loved that you came out in full force.


CHO: Thank you.

STARS: But the truth is, you were soulful out there. You sort of lost control. It was like unleash the beast, and you went kind of crazy.

CHO: Well, I was going crazy because it was just, this is the gayest thing that I think that has ever happened.


CHO: It's really a competition over personality other than dance, you know, and I am a dancer so I came into it really knowing that I could dance. But I think what happens is they sort of see how you're going to be in the show, what statement you're going to make. And then they kind of work around it. So I'm not sure if they're judging you on dance more than they're judging you on the strength of your personality, or the strength that you have to pull viewers or - you know, that season was very interesting because a lot of it was about Bristol Palin, and it was about reintroducing Sarah Palin to America for voters. I really think that it has more to do with that than dance.

MARTIN: You know, it is curious to me, though, that the "Cosby Show" in its day was a top 10 program. But then since then, it seems like every other season it's feast or famine for people of color. Like, all the shows that were noted for diverse casts were canceled. Why do you think that is? And the reason I'm just asking is because, you know, you travel the country. It seems to me you're as in touch with these issues as anybody. And I'm just wondering what that is about.

CHO: I don't know. It's disappointing. It's really a frustrating thing. I think that invisibility is the major thing that people of color have to face in the entertainment industry. That issue is hard to address. A lot of times, for so-called ethnic shows, we don't get as much of a chance because they feel like they're already taking a chance with the fact that they're going ethnic. It's scrutinized in a way that other shows aren't, and I think that's a big problem.

MARTIN: I want to ask about one of your current projects. You are shooting the television show "Drop Dead Diva." The third season premieres on June 19th on Lifetime. The show is about a supermodel who dies in a car accident and she's reincarnated into the body of a brilliant but insecure lawyer. And you play the lawyer's assistant. I'll just play a short clip of you from season two.


CHO: (as Teri Lee ) Are you OK?

BROOKE ELLIOTT: (as Jane Bingum) I'm Jane.

CHO: (as Teri Lee) Yeah. You are. Now march into the conference room and show Ken that brains trump Botox.

ELLIOTT: Why is it so hot in this office?

CHO: We've been through this. It's not hot, it's your metabolism.

MARTIN: So how do you feel about your character?

CHO: I love it. I love working on the show, and I think it's a really beautiful project. And really, it's something that women can share with their daughters and really celebrate that all women are beautiful, and that it's not about body size and it's not about age, and it's not about race. It's really about how we feel inside. And it gives women the right to feel beautiful. And I think with a star like Brooke Elliott, there's so much to celebrate.

MARTIN: So what's your wisdom to share?

CHO: My wisdom to share, I think, is really about not giving up -ever. And I think that's a really important thing, that I just keep going. And all of these minor failures don't phase me. I really just enjoy every day, and I think we just have to. You just can't give up, no matter what.

MARTIN: Well, you are in the business of no. I mean, it seems to me you couldn't really be in your field if you weren't able to tolerate a measure of rejection. But what about for people who aren't in a field like that, who just sometimes think, I don't know if I can keep - I don't like this scrutiny. I'm the only person like me in my classroom. I don't like what comes with that. Is there something you can offer in how you stick it out?

CHO: I think that we can change it by just trying to find a new way. I mean, I think rejection isn't really a rejection, it's just a need to redirect.

MARTIN: Margaret Cho is one of America's best-known comedians. She's an actress and a musician. She's also been an outspoken advocate on promoting equal rights for all regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. She's been nominated for two Grammys. She's won many, many awards and she will receive another next month, the Lifetime Achievement Award from LA Pride. And she was kind enough to join us from Atlanta, where she's shooting the third season of her television show, "Drop Dead Diva." Margaret Cho, thank you so much for joining us.

CHO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.