Tuesday, August 4, 2009
"All women doing comedy are making feminist comedy, whether they choose to define it that way or not": A Chat With Margaret Cho
By Carrie Callahan
Holy shit! Margaret Cho let us interview her! If you are interested in feminist comedy and don't know the work of Cho, I hope your friends make the effort to visit you under your rock. Cho has toured the country to critical acclaim and sell out crowds with no less than 5 one woman shows: I'm the One That I Want, Notorious C.H.O., Revolution, State of Emergency, Assassin, and most recently Beautiful. She has been a tireless fighter for equal rights, touring with the True Colors Tour raising money for the Human Rights Campaign, singing at anti Prop 8 rallies, and marrying same sex couples in San Francisco (during the couple months you could do that).
She starred in the groundbreaking show All-American Girl, which was one of the first and so far one of the few American tv shows with a predominantly Asian-American cast. Cho has been open about both the upsides and downsides of that experience, including the intense pressure producers put on her to lose weight and how that landed her in the hospital. It's fitting then that Cho has returned to TV on a show that puts the issue of the policing of women's bodies front and center: Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime, in which thin and conventionally gorgeous model Deb is killed in a car crash and comes back to life in the body of plus size smartypants lawyer Jane.
Cho was cool enough to share her thoughts with us on how women can conquer the comedy world even when it tries so hard to keep us out.
When did you discover you loved doing standup and what do you love about it?
I think when I was 7 or 8 years old and I was watching a Richard Pryor comedy special. My dad was a big comedy fan, and he loved Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I’d watch it with them and I didn’t really understand what was going on, but as soon as I saw it was making my dad laugh a lot, I sort of figured out what I was. I recognized it as something I was going to do. When I was a kid I had really vivid dreams about doing standup comedy, and it’s weird, sometimes when I’m onstage and I’m performing I really feel the memory of those dreams, like it was kind of a premonition of what I would eventually come to do when I was 16 years old. Even before that; when I was 14 or 15 I was going around to comedy clubs but I actually started working at comedy professionally at 16.
There’s a lot of things that I love about it. It is the job that I have to do. You’re a comic right? So you have to do it. When you think of something funny it’s like “oh you have to do this!”
I can’t not do this, I have to do this somehow, so you devise a way and that is anyone from an open mic-er to somebody like Joan Rivers. As soon as they think of something funny they have to do it onstage, they can’t wait.
What advice would you give to 15 year old Margaret Cho about her career coming up and what was going to face her?
That everything was going to turn out fine and not to worry about it. Because the comedy world is so male dominated, you really have to fight to get stage time, you have to fight to get support. That it’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be rewarding and it’s all going to be ok. When I started it was hard to break into this boy’s club, and standup comedy remains a boy’s club regardless of how many women are successful in it. The way the industry is set up it’s so much more supportive of the men than the women, so I think the most important thing as a female in comedy is to have your own support network that is not reliant upon the men in comedy that you’re coming into contact with. Another bit of advice would be to not listen to guys, because guys are mean about standup comedy and women. They’re just not supportive. So don’t listen to their criticism, don’t take their shit, and try not to have sex with all of them. I did that, but it’s hard not to do.
How do you build that support network?
I think it’s reaching out to female comics, befriending female comics, creating alliances with female comics, and making sure you build that community, which is what I did when I was starting. I built that community with people like Janeane Garofalo, and Kathy Griffin, and then people who were more established helped us a lot. People like Roseanne and Rosie O’Donnell both gave me and Janeane a big leg up when we were starting. The women in comedy generally need to be more supportive of each other. There’s a history of it, but there needs to be more.
What are you most excited about with being a part of Drop Dead Diva?
I love the show and the concept, and I think the acting is so good. I especially admire Brooke Elliott so much (who plays Jane/Deb). She’s so incredible. The writing is great. It’s the kind of show that I really believe in because it talks about these issues of women and their bodies and it’s very female supportive and female centric and I think it’s important to have images of real women out there. Even though it’s a fantastical premise for a show, it’s got the realest people, so I love that.
It’s striking how much of your career had been about visibility for people who are not represented on tv, and I was wondering when you realized that visibility was a political thing, that it was about who was in power?
I think that’s something I understood early on. Growing up as sort of a latchkey kid I watched a lot of television, television was sort of my babysitter, and so never seeing Asian-American people on tv was jarring. I realized when I was 5 or 6 that I wasn’t white and that really is weird, when you go, “Oh, I’m not white and I don’t see anybody like me out there at all;” that’s fucking weird. Especially when you want to go into a career like show business and then never seeing any images of yourself out there, it’s pretty hard to feel like you can actually accomplish anything, or get anything out there, or get anything done. Which is why I am so proud when I’m out doing comedy and Asian American comics and actors come up to me and say, “You’re the reason why I do this, because I saw you, and I felt so inspired, and I felt like it was possible.” That’s really important and if I can say, “oh this is my greatest achievement,” that would be it, that I gave other people the permission to do what they do. They saw my example and they followed it, and that’s the greatest thing I could have ever done.
That must be really hardcore to have that relationship with people.
It’s really good. It’s really empowering, for them and for me, I’m so happy and glad we’re able to have that.
I gotta think “Drop Dead Diva” is pretty special, that you aren’t approached by lots and lots of projects that promote visibility for people who don’t usually get it.
Are there more projects like this? What stops there being more inclusive projects in the entertainment?
I don’t know. Who knows? Because when you do see it it definitely becomes very popular. “Drop Dead Diva” is already a huge hit. It’s clear that there’s a need for this kind of programming and a need for this kind of visibility. I’m not sure. I just hope that Hollywood can catch up with this idea of doing things that are really needed.
Obviously you have a million years of career left, but how would you like to feel looking back on the entirety of your work?
That it was fun. That people laughed. It’s such a beautiful thing to make people laugh; it’s such a simple and beautiful pleasure. To continue to be relevant, and to be strong, and good. Ultimately, I just want to be a good comic. I think all comics, that’s our goal; we just want to be good. For comics it’s a very special definition, we all have our own definition of what that is.
What does your definition of good look like? Does it look like Richard Pryor or George Carlin or someone else?
It looks George Carlin, it looks like Richard Pryor, it looks like Roseanne. She’s so cool, she’s someone who has come back and done a bunch of different kinds of stuff. She’s incredible. Joan Rivers is the ultimate, because she’s got such a great work ethic, and she can do everything, she’s an icon. She’s 74 and she rocks it, the filthiest material- you can’t believe how filthy her material is- and just rocks it. It’s so bad-ass. She’s so sweet and fun and I admire her so much because she was there doing it before all of us, when there were no women at all. She was rocking it in the sixties. She’s an incredible force and someone I really look up to. To me, you’re killing it if you’re still rocking so hard in your seventies. It’s beautiful.
Besides “Drop Dead Diva” what can we look forward to from you?
I’m working on a comedy album now. I’ll be recording that in the fall. It’s going to be a different kind of record, it’s a compilation of the music that I’ve been doing for the last five years. Comedy songs. I had a song in my last special, “Beautiful,”and then I had another song that broke out of my other show “The Sensuous Woman,” which was my big variety show. I’m working with other musicians, like John Brion, Grant Lee Phillips, Patti Griffin, and Peaches.
Do you consider your comedy a feminist act? What does feminist comedy look like to you?
All women doing comedy are making feminist comedy, whether they choose to define it that way or not. Being a comedian and a woman is a feminist act, because there are so few women in comedy, because the environment in general for women in comedy is fairly hostile. Not just from the audience point of view, but from the other comedians. For a woman to be a successful comic, you have to be twenty times better than any dude. That’s just a given. You have to be so much better than any guy to get anywhere. To get any stage time you have to be killing it. It’s a hard thing. Feminism and comedy, within comedy, it’s synonymous, you can’t have one without the other. Women who don’t identify as feminists, I think that’s weird, but if you’re a comic you’re a feminist.
Because I’m a comedian what you said about hostility from the audience really intrigues me. I’ve felt hostility from audiences; how do you get over that? How do you win them over?
You just deal with it. You’ll have hostility. Audiences have hostility towards female comics for a number of reasons, like if you’re too pretty they’re like, “Oh she’s not gonna be any good.” It’s just kinda like, you never get a break and it’s very weird, and you have to overcome it, but what’s great about it is it’s gonna make you a better comic tomorrow anyway. But it’s something you have to endure, and for one reason or another women have the hardest time. I find that especially attractive women have the hardest time of all. Society has a real idea of what comedy looks like. Attractive women are automatically discounted, so it’s a very tough thing to overcome. My favorite comics, interestingly, are the most attractive. My favorites are people like Sarah Silverman and Felicia Michaels. Have you heard of her? She’s incredible, she was a Playboy model and she’s hilarious, she’s so funny, you can get her stuff on Itunes. You guys should do a story on her. I think Sarah Silverman learned a lot from Felicia.
I want to thank you so much. As a comedian this was a really cool talk for me. Hearing you say things that match up with my experience makes me feel not crazy and that’s wonderful of you.
And you’re not crazy. It’s a really hard business for women but you should stick with it because it’s so rewarding, and it’s great. You just can’t get support from the guys, which is really heartbreaking at first, but then, who cares?
Drop Dead Diva airs 9 pm est on Lifetime, go here to watch all the episodes for free, and may I recommend their discussion guide.