The moment came during her breakout standup special in 1995, when she told the audience she hadn’t had sex for two years and proffered the relevant space to all and sundry—perhaps for use as a planter? Or a bookcase?
For Cho, that was demure. From the outset, she was brazen about modern sexuality and relationships when it just was not done by twenty- somethings in comedy (by women, certainly, and barely by men, whose insight was limited to Def Comedy Jam’s refrain, “You’ve got to eat the pussy!!!”). But Cho talked about being bisexual, leather sex, and getting fisted. It’s hard to imagine the existence of everyone from the Broad City duo (read: their episode about pegging) to Amy Schumer without Cho getting there first. And she was upfront about LGBT rights and race, too, dispatching stereotypes about Asians with a fusillade of barbs as razor-edged as they were classically hysterical.
Unfortunately, a pioneer’s path is never smooth—a disastrous sitcom about TV’s first Asian-American family almost destroyed her physically, via anorexia and substance abuse—but she rebounded with a series of tours and classic standup specials. More than 20 years later, her career was chugging along nicely: two Grammy nominations for comedy albums, a regular role on the comedy-drama Drop Dead Diva, replacing Joan Rivers on Fashion Police. Over the past few years, Cho shot into the headlines again and again—not to entirely flattering effect. The weirdest: During the 2015 Golden Globes, she reprised her Emmy-nominated 30 Rock impersonation of Kim Jong-Il—and a Twitter shitstorm ensued in which she was criticized for being racist.
Last year, TMZ video of her ranting at a comedy-club audience, causing them to file for the exits; the publication speculated that she was drunk or high. Soon after came the Swinton scandal: Tilda Swinton, whom Cho didn’t know, emailed her to discuss Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange, one portrayed as Asian in the source material. Cho spoke out onstage about feeling patronized; Swinton’s publicist released the verbatim emails.
Because a provocateur’s work is never done, it seemed like a good time to catch up. We chatted with her about Trump’s makeup, her swirl of controversies, sobriety, and pubic hair.
Michael Martin: Melissa McCarthy has gotten so much attention for playing Sean Spicer on SNL. You’ve volunteered play Ben Carson, you say, because you could do his sleepy eyes.
Margaret Cho: Yeah! And he does this weird thing where he gives, like, a fast blink. It’s so weird. I just think I could do a really funny impersonation.
SNL has become mandatory viewing again, which it hasn’t been for me in decades. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.
I know. It’s the one thing that we can count on. It’s like, at least we have that. I think comedy becomes really important in difficult times. When I started being a comedian, I was going to see these Rock Against Reagan shows in San Francisco, where you saw these punk bands like Black Flag getting so political, and it was such a big deal. It was really exciting then.
Do you find it hard to be funny these days?
I think it’s actually easy to be funny because there are so many funny things happening underneath it all. We have this crazy reality show going on, which is this presidency and administration. In a sense, it’s a creative renaissance—we can do really great things with our creativity and our art. I’m trying to focus on that.
What are you writing about now?
A lot about Trump. A lot about Melania Trump and her struggle. Certainly, it’s just the weirdest thing when we have a president who can’t even blend his undereye concealer down into the rest of his stupid makeup. It’s so easy to make jokes about him. He’s just so stupid, it’s really great.
Yeah. I saw a photo of when he was walking into the White House with Justin Trudeau, and Trump’s hair blew back, and you could see this or- ange line of demarcation between face and scalp.
I know! He needs a new makeup artist. I don’t know if he does his own makeup or exactly what’s going on with that, but it’s really bad.
I’ve been trying to figure that out. Is it a spray tan? Is it legit tanning? Is it just makeup?
It seems like it’s a tanning bed thing. I’ve been studying it, you know, trying to break it down. I think it’s a tanning bed.
With Melania, I’m conflicted. Sometimes I feel sorry for her, other times I don’t know.
Well, it’s awful. I mean, she has to have sex with him all the time, and that’s the worst. And you know she’s got to try and keep it imaginative and fun. So disgusting. I can’t even imagine what that must be like. So I feel sorry for her, because that’s fucking gross.
My grandmother once said, “When you marry for money, you earn every cent.”
You earn every penny, and it is not pretty.
I do think a missed opportunity is that there is no first lady of Russia out there, to serve some Raisa Gorbachev realness. She was amazing.
I love Raisa! I actually did shots with Gorbachev and Raisa when they came to America. This is a very big deal. They had come at Ted Turner and Jane Fonda’s invitation for this event. It was so weird. I was drinking alcohol at that time, so I got really drunk with them, and it was really funny.
Did they get wasted?
I don’t think so. They seemed pretty used to it. It was exciting. This was in the ‘90s. It was a big event called the Green Awards, and I was presenting with Kermit the Frog. It was a very interesting evening built around environmental issues. That is something that is definitely needed now. But we won’t have anything like that, since people just deny that there’s anything wrong with the environment, or that there’s global warming, or anything.
I’ve been rewatching all your standup specials from the beginning, and I was wondering what you think about modern female comedians. You were one of the first to be explicit and real about sexuality. Today, everybody from Amy Schumer to Broad City are very comfortable going there. Do you think about that at all?
Yeah, for sure. I’m very proud and excited about my own achievements, and then I’m able to celebrate the continuation of that spirit with Broad City and, of course, Amy’s wonderful. They all have been so generous and kind in their excitement in meeting me, and at what I was able to accomplish. I’m really grateful that I got to do something that has had an impact on modern comedy, and I’m such a fan of theirs as well.
What do you want to talk about now, at this stage in your life?
I think the way that feminism has shifted and grown. And also race, talking a lot about things like white-washing and the way that Asian-Americans are portrayed, or not portrayed, in cinema. There’s that giant movie this week, about the Great Wall of China…with Matt Damon!
Unbelievable. And Zhang Yimou is a legendary Chinese director, and I’m very conflicted about it because I love that he’s come to America to make movies. But I would like to see Asians starring in them.
How do you feel about the strides on TV, with Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken?
I love them, and I am very pleased to have been, in a small part, involved. I worked with Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir Fresh Off The Boat. I was the only experienced Asian-American in that particular genre—of creating a sitcom—so I was able to offer him some advice. And doing Dr. Ken was a really great experience. I’m so proud of Master of None, and I’m so proud that we are seeing a lot of television about Asian-Americans. I would just love to see more.
Have you had the opportunity to explore another sitcom of your own?
I’m developing a show for TNT, which is all about an Asian-American family and this big medical marijuana boom. And I would love to do a talk show.
How about Fashion Police? Are you continuing with that?
Yeah, I’ve been very active in that. It’s kind of pushed me into the fashion world, which is totally weird and great and fun. I love all aspects of the design, but I also love doing the jokes. It’s in Joan’s memory. She loved that world. She loved fashion and she loved making fun of it. That was her gift.
So let’s back up a bit to when you were criticized for appearing as Kim Jong-Il. That made no sense to me at all.
So crazy. So stupid. I am actually Asian. I am Korean.
First, it demonstrated that people weren’t familiar with 30 Rock, which is an unforgivable sin in my mind.
Oh, I know. I think the controversy was pretty much social-media-based. I just think it’s funny. Everything kind of goes away in a day or so. We live these incredibly fast existences, where everything blows up and it’s huge, then it disappears almost instantaneously. So I never try to get too worked up about anything. I know that it’s just going to blow over.
And then there was the Tilda Swinton dustup online. Do you want to set the record straight on that one?
I don’t really know exactly what she wanted to know, but she definitely was confused about how playing an Asian could possibly be offensive. So I was trying to explain it to her, but she didn’t really get it. And the subtext of the conversation made me feel like I was the house Asian. Like, I’m the one in her bedroom, brushing her hair, like, “Yes, Missy. Yes, Madam.” I felt uncomfortable with the way that she talked to me. Everything was all nice, but it was also a very entitled point of view that I didn’t appreciate. That whole thing was so weird. I guess she just got mad.
Then there were the headlines about the incident at the comedy club in the spring. Do you want to clear the air about what happened there?
Oh, yeah. That was crazy, because I was doing all this different stuff—talking about race, sexual abuse. It’s weird when you test the audience and the boundaries of what comedy can be. Sometimes it can go really wrong. That’s just the nature of standup comedy. But I wanted to go back to the club. So I went back with Jerry Seinfeld. We did an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee about it. He has always been my champion, and I really look up to him. I’m so grateful that we got to go back. We had the same audience there. We talked about what happened, and it was really beautiful.
You’ve been very open about your journey with sobriety. How are you doing these days?
I’m good. You know, it’s one of those things that I’m cautious in talking about. I’m certainly okay. I don’t take drugs or drink, at all, which is important. I’m a firm believer in sobriety, that sort of clean-living thing. Certainly, it’s easier for me— there’s so much more time and so much more you can get accomplished as an artist if you can just think clearly. I get to bed early every night. I’m very much devoted to my work, to be here and present. I have a meditation practice. I’ve been into this off and on. When I party, I party so hard. It’s not good when you’re 48, when you don’t have that young body anymore.
The multi-day hangover, I’ve discovered, is not a myth.
I think tequila is the worst thing. I just cannot handle it, you know?
Are you dating these days? Where do you find yourself on the sexual spectrum?
I’m actually not dating. I’m single. It’s the first time that I’ve been single since I was about five years old; a very weird place to be. I’m not really looking for anything, which is also very weird. Menopause certainly changes your outlook about this kind of stuff. I am definitely still bisexual and identify as that. It’s one of those labels that gets lost, ‘cause there aren’t a lot of bisexuals around. It’s kind of weird. It sounds so ‘70s to be bisexual, so it’s a good identity.
We need a little bit more ‘70s vibe back. Appreciation of the body, mellowness, sensual carpeting—
And pubes. We need pubes! I think pubes are definitely awesome.