Margaret Cho stages stand-up with songs that aren’t a joke
for Oklahoma Gazette
It must bear some semblance to torture, when your profession and passion require being raunchy, opinionated, provocative and in all other ways outspoken, and something tries to stifle your voice. It is just like Margaret Cho, however, to roll with the punches.
Chances are you’ve heard of Cho, who, early in her comedy career, garnered support from such television stalwarts as Bob Hope and Arsenio Hall. She’s an award-winning artist with successful standup tours, essay collections, movies, television and all other manner of performance under her belt, and her trademark is her comedic, though often gritty, bent on the happenings of her life. Cho is a walking taboo, famous for speaking openly about everything from race to body image to sexuality.
A first-generation American with two Korean parents, Cho’s devil-may-care forthrightness is especially alarming, given her cultural background, though being raised in San Francisco during the ‘70s may have something to do with that. Regardless, her parents’ initial resistance to her line of work was merely the first of many hurdles over which Cho has leapt in her 25-year career.
“They hated it,” Cho said in a September 1 e-mail interview, “but then they saw my success, and it was so overwhelming, they were forced to change their minds. I know that they are way into what I do now, but they really hated it and practically disowned me.”
While Cho is probably most recognizable from her starring role in the 1994 ABC sitcom “The All-American Girl,” Cho’s 2000 standup show, “I’m the One That I Want,” shared in gruesome detail the effects of network pressure on Cho as the first Asian primetime sitcom star, from being warned against being “too ethnic” to having to lose weight in order to play herself.
Cho’s activism is deeply-rooted in her comedy. A staunch advocate of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, she speaks frequently about her own hetero- and homosexual relationships and has been in a less-than-traditional marriage to (male) artist Al Ridenour since 2003. The bottom line, according to Cho, is to be who you are.
“It’s true. I want to have sex with everyone all the time,” Cho said. “That’s my choice, and it’s also how I was born. Why is it a problem?”
More recently, Cho’s exploits included a stint on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ tour, a celebration in support of GLBT rights; and the Lifetime network’s “Drop Dead Diva,” chronicling the life of a model reincarnated in the body of an overweight woman – a seemingly peculiar choice, considering Cho’s previous series experience.
“I fell in love with the show’s creator, Josh Berman,” Cho said. “I loved the script and felt so moved by the story I had to be involved in it; there was no question. Given my history, I am very careful about what I accept in terms of television, but I love this show.”
For the moment, Cho’s focus is shifting to music, and she has an album in production slated for release in the near future. And if you’re skeptical, this comedy record is no joke –tentatively titled “Guitarded,” the album includes collaborations with such artists as Andrew Bird, Jon Brion and Patty Griffin.
“My project was comedy plus serious music, so I put together the most serious musicians I know,” Cho said. “It’s going to be an amazing record. I am such a fan of all of these people, and they did such a beautiful job with the music. The lyrics are funny, too. I’ve spent the last year learning guitar and banjo and am now able to play decently. I’m not trying to change, I’m still a comic. I’m just trying something different.”
Before embarking on her current nationwide tour, which focuses on her music, however, the unthinkable happened: Cho’s voice was silenced, literally, when nodes on her vocal chords resulted in doctor’s orders not to speak or sing. At all.
“I lost my voice and had to do the first part of the tour with no voice at all,” Cho said. “Some of the things I had to do were so surprisingly good that I’m keeping them. It’s a work in progress depending on the status of my voice, but it’s great that I can do a great show without opening my mouth at all. I think that’s very impressive.”
Cho has been recruiting the text-to-voice function on her computer, as well as bringing along friends and celebrity guests to be her voice for each performance. According to her blog, Cho’s improvised shows are going well. Good news, though, as Cho’s voice is currently on the mend, though Cho insists there’s little missing from the performance.
“My voice is doing better, but I’m still doing the shows silently,” Cho said. “My initial reaction to the diagnosis was, ‘Um, no, this is not happening.’ It was a Monday, and I had to do a show in Los Angeles that Thursday. Jon Brion suggested I still do the show and said he’d sing my songs and read my material. We went ahead and did the show, and it was tremendous. I found I could work around being silent, and it’s helped me be even more creative in the development of the show.”
A good lesson in overcoming not just adversity, but continually thwarting the people – or medical diagnoses – that try to keep her down, Cho is living her lifelong dream and plans to continue doing just that, regardless of what life or politics throws her way.
“I just wanted to do comedy, and I didn’t care where it would lead, because it was exactly what I wanted to do,” Cho said. “I knew I was a comic inside, and that I would do this my entire life. I didn’t have goals other than to do comedy every night. That’s what I did, and it all turned out okay.”