Margaret Cho: An American original

Margaret Cho has spent 33 years speaking her mind, giving the middle finger to conformity and authority, and refusing to be pinned in by one medium.

Since she started her career in San Francisco in 1984 as part of a comedy duo with actor Sam Rockwell, Cho has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies, garnered one Emmy and three Grammy nominations, written two books and had two shows debut Off-Broadway.

Throughout the conservative ’80s and early ’90s, Cho stood on the front lines of social activism, using her platform and comedic voice to champion human rights and equality while pushing back against gender stereotypes and societal norms.

Her musical and comedic talents have brought her to Austin regularly, where she will appear as a headliner at next week’s Moontower Comedy Festival. While filming the Lifetime show “Drop Dead Diva” in Atlanta, Cho frequently visited Austin, where she has often collaborated with singer-songwriter David Garza. A song about Austin saxophonist Topaz McGarrigle appears on her 2016 Emmy-nominated album “American Myth,” and the blunt and often brutal Cho even wrote a song with Grammy Award-winner Patty Griffin.

“I certainly love Austin. For me, it’s a great place,” Cho said. “It’s a very musical Mecca for me.”

We caught up with Cho by phone from California to talk about President Donald Trump, her career and the future of Austin. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

You did a protest song around the time of Prop 8. I wonder how you’re doing now in the time of Trump and, if you were to write a song about him, what would it be called?

“Don’t Drink the Pee,” instead of don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Something like that. I have a rap song I wrote called “If You Give a (Expletive), Don’t Vote for Donald Trump,” which was kind of on the heels of that song “(Expletive) Donald Trump,” which I think was really good, also. But, you know, music really triumphs during difficult administrations. I started doing comedy during the Rock Against Reagan era, so it was a very good time for punk rock. So, I was going to these shows where you’d see the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag and all of these big, important punk bands — Rancid are good friends of mine — all of these incredible, different performers trying to make statements about Reagan. So, art prevails during these times.

You’ve been vocal about being a survivor of sexual abuse and rape, so I wonder, in light of Trump’s “grab them” line, what you make of living in a time where a person who spoke in those words is able to ascend to such a position in this country? 

I think it’s vile. It’s a very strange time. It’s really just this internalized and externalized misogyny. This was a real reaction against, you know, against the idea of having a woman president. And, it’s unfortunate, because Hillary is actually the most qualified candidate for the presidency we’ve ever had. Yet people couldn’t handle the idea of a woman in office. And that’s the problem. I was originally a Bernie supporter and then I moved over to the Hillary side when she got the nomination, and even with the people who were big Bernie fans, they did not automatically go to supporting Hillary Clinton, and that was a big problem. Just having Donald Trump is a real reaction and sort of a representation of this misogyny.

You’ve talked a lot in your act over the years about sex, about problems with your eating disorder, about defecation. Do you think you use the very personal and specific to make your act have a broad and more relatable appeal, or is it because that’s what’s the most entertaining, or because it’s cathartic? What draws you to that?

All of those things are important. To me, it’s just about being funny. And I also want it to have value beyond just laughs. And it’s also cathartic, but it’s also relatable. And there’s a chance to be poetic. There’s a lot of different things happening, but there’s not any one particular thing. And there’s something also to just being really silly and stupid that I appreciate. It’s just really fun.

You’ve been advocating for LGBTQ rights and talking about taboo subjects way before anyone else was. Now, working in a more aware world, do you think people are swerving into your lane, or do you feel like the more the merrier?

I love all of the conversation about being “woke AF,” and kind of the currency that we think about political correctness and also fairness and intersectionality, which is important, too. I like it. I’m welcome to all of it.

You were way ahead of the game; I think your network sitcom “All American Girl” was about 22 years ago. It was obviously too ahead of its time for some audiences or networks. How do you feel now seeing the success of “Fresh Off the Boat” and seeing Asian-American stories more well-received by executives and audiences?

I love it. All of those guys are my friends, from Eddie Wang to Randall (Park) to Constance (Wu). They’re just great, and I really love them and am very proud to have started something good. I think it’s really amazing.

Thirty years into the game, how do you stay on top of it, how do you keep your edge? 

I do it everyday. I practice. I do shows every single day, whether it’s small things or Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall. My attention to what I’m doing in performance doesn’t shift whether I’m doing a coffee house or the Sydney Opera House. I always approach everything the same. I have a daily, consistent practice of being a comic and being active in it. If you work on something everyday, you’re bound to run into some excellence or some level of proficiency.

You grew up in San Francisco and have seen it go through a lot of change. Do you still recognize the city? We’re going through a lot of change here in Austin. Do you have any advice for Austinites who are bemoaning the death of a certain lifestyle or period here?

You know, you want to Keep Austin Weird. I think San Francisco’s still pretty weird, but it’s changed a lot. It’s a very different culture, a very different economy, but the weirdness is there. I think Austin, because of its nature, because of the sensibility of the town, it’s always going to be weird. And that’s what’s great. It’s always going to be rock ‘n’ roll; it’s always going to be country. It’s always going to be liberal, a blue dot in a red state. There’s so much that people go to Austin for and that’s because the culture is so dialed into being counter. Counterculture is part of Austin’s makeup and tradition, so it’s always going to be that. But, certainly, when the money comes in, it shifts a little bit, and that’s what’s happened in San Francisco. But San Francisco is still super strange, and I think Austin’s gonna stay that way.

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