DOB: December 5, 1968
Birthplace: California, United States
Residence: United States
Margaret Cho was the first Asian American and Asian American female to blast through the obstacles in Hollywood for minority roles. The ABC network signed Cho to star in her own television show, the first of its kind to focus on an Asian family. With her fearless attitudes and nothing is too sacred routines, Cho also paved the road for an entire generation of Asian American comedians to succeed and thrive on the American and European stand-up circuit.
Margaret Cho was born Dec. 5, 1968 and raised in San Francisco. “It was different than any other place on Earth,” she says. “I grew up and went to grammar school on Haight Street during the ’70s. There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts from the ’60s, drag queens, and Chinese people. To say it was a melting pot – that’s the least of it. It was a really confusing, enlightening, wonderful time.”
Her grandfather was a Methodist minister who ran an orphanage in Seoul during the Korean War. Ignoring the traditions of her patriarchal culture, her mother bravely resisted an arranged marriage in Korea and married Margaret’s father who writes joke books – in Korean. “Books like 1001 Jokes for Public Speakers – real corny stuff,” Cho says. “I guess we’re in the same line of work. But we don’t understand each other that way. I don’t know why the things he says are funny and the same for him.”
What Margaret did know is that she didn’t love being a kid. Racing toward adulthood to escape bullying, she began writing jokes for stand up at 14 and professionally performing at age 16. Getting picked on, and feeling disenfranchised, is a subject that’s very near to Margaret’s heart. She has become a sort of “Patron Saint” for Outsiders, speaking for them when they are not able to speak for themselves. “Being bullied influenced my adult life because I grew up too fast. I was in such a hurry to escape that I cheated myself out of a childhood. I didn’t want to go to school any more, didn’t want to be around those people any more. I want to use what happened to me to help other kids.”
Soon after starting her Stand Up career, Margaret won a comedy contest where first prize was opening for Jerry Seinfeld. She moved to Los Angeles in the early ’90s and, still in her early twenties, hit the college circuit, where she immediately became the most booked act in the market and garnered a nomination for “Campus Comedian of The Year.” She performed over 300 concerts within two years. Arsenio Hall introduced her to late night audiences, Bob Hope put her on a prime time special and, seemingly overnight, Margaret Cho became a national celebrity.
Her groundbreaking, controversial, and short-lived ABC sitcom, All-American Girl (1994) soon followed. Oddly, while chosen because of who she was – a non-conformist Korean American woman with liberal views – the powers-that-be then decided they wanted her to “tone it down” for the show. Challenging Margaret’s feelings for both who she was and how she looked, she soon realized that though she was an Executive Producer, it was a battle she would not win. “For fear of being too “ethnic,” the show got so watered down for television that by the end, it was completely lacking in the essence of what I am and what I do.”
The experience was a traumatic one, bringing up unresolved feelings left over from childhood, and Margaret developed an eating disorder as a response to criticism about her body. She was so obsessive in her goal to try to be what she thought others wanted, she landed in the hospital with kidney failure. Throughout a period of self-abuse, Margaret continued performing to sold-out audiences across the country in comedy clubs, theaters, and on college campuses, working to channel her anger in to something more positive.
In 1999, her groundbreaking, off Broadway one-woman show, I’m The One That I Want, toured the country to national acclaim and was made into a best-selling book and feature film of the same name. After her experience with All-American Girl, Margaret wanted to make sure she would only have to answer to herself, making sure she was responsible for the distribution and sales of her film, taking a page from what music artist Ani DiFranco did with her Righteous Babe Records. The concert film, which garnered incredible reviews, broke records for most money grossed per print in movie history. In 2001, after the success of her first tour, Cho launched Notorious C.H.O., a smash-hit 37-city national tour that culminated in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Notorious C.H.O. was recorded and released as a feature film, hailed by the New York Times as “Brilliant!” Both films were acquired by Showtime Cable Networks, and produced by Margaret’s production company, a testament to the success of Margaret’s bold business model.
In March of 2003, Margaret embarked on her third sold-out national tour, Revolution. It was heralded by the Chicago Sun Times as “Her strongest show yet!” and the CD recording was nominated for a Grammy for Comedy Album of the Year. In 2005, Cho released Assassin, which The Chicago Tribune crowed “Packs passion in to each punch.” The concert film premiered in select theatres and on the gay and lesbian premium channel Here! TV in late 2005.
In 2007, Margaret hit the road with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and Erasure, along with indie faves The Dresden Dolls and The Cliks, to host the True Colors Tour, benefiting the Human Rights Campaign. A true entertainment pioneer, Margaret also created and starred in The Sensuous Woman, a live variety show featuring vaudevillian burlesque and comedy, which she took for an extended off-Broadway run in the fall.
Margaret returned to TV in 2008 on the VH1 series, The Cho Show. Describing it as a ‘reality sitcom,’ Margaret said at the time, “It’s the closest I’ve been able to come on television to what I do as a comic.” The Cho Show followed Margaret, her real parents, and her eccentric entourage through a series of irreverent and outrageous experiences, shaped by Margaret’s ‘anything goes’ brand of stand-up. It was beloved for the audience it was intended for, the ones who maybe don’t quite fit in, who knew Margaret is one of them.
The aptly titled Beautiful came next, exploring the good, bad and ugly in beauty, and the unattractive politicians and marketers who shape our world. The concert premiered in Australia at The Sydney Theater, marking the first time Margaret debuted a tour abroad. While touring through the US, the concert was filmed at the Long Beach theatre, aired as a special on Showtime in 2009, and then released as both a DVD and a book. Venus Zine hailed Margaret, and the show, saying “her fierce activism, which addresses bigger issues such as what it’s like to be demoralized by your country and culture…(left) no subject too taboo for the fearless stand-up queen.”
In 2009 Margaret nabbed a starring role in the comedy/drama series Drop Dead Diva, airing on Lifetime. Now entering its third season, Margaret is enjoying being part of a team, and not necessarily having the sole responsibility for keeping things afloat. “(Drop Dead Diva) is very fulfilling. It’s a lot about the things I talk about, like body image, and women feeling good about themselves, and learning to be visible. It’s very powerful. I also feel relaxed because I am hired to play a role, and it almost feels like a luxury to have a project I care about so much but not have to lead or control anything.” The show stars Brooke Elliott as lawyer Jane Bingum and Margaret as her gal Friday, Terri.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Margaret stepped right up to the proverbial plate when asked to do Season 11 of the #1 rated Dancing with the Stars. Paired with pro Louie Van Amstel, Margaret was on one of the show’s most controversial seasons, dancing alongside Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, David Hasselhoff, Jennifer Grey and Bristol Palin among others. “I really wanted to do DWTS so much. I love the show and I love dancing. It seemed like it would be very exciting, which it was. It was also very difficult because I was touring as well. Louie and I would travel all week, rehearse during the day, drive back on Sunday nights and sleep in the parking lot of CBS where they filmed the show! It was a very stressful experience but I’d love to do it again.”
Margaret got a very strong reaction to her Rainbow Dancing Dress during a time when the issue of bullying, especially among gay teens, was all over the media. “I am very proud to have been able to wear a gay pride dress on a show that is so conservative. It is a wonderful thing to have every one remember me by, that I took time to acknowledge people who matter to me. I wanted to send an urgent message to gay teenagers to make them feel included and loved. That dress was my statement to them about pride.”
The year 2010 culminated with another high honor, a second Grammy Award nomination for Comedy Album of the Year for Cho Dependent, her incredibly funny collection of music featuring collaborations with Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Grant Lee Phillips, Tegan & Sarah, Ben Lee and more. The album received critical acclaim, with The Oregonian stating, “This was a chance to see and hear an already drop-dead funny diva growing, flexing new musical muscle, and fearlessly mature.” The album is funny, yes, but also quite musical, featuring not only her surprisingly strong singing voice, but her skill on the guitar, banjo and dulcimer. “I was inspired to make beautiful music with a comic edge. Growing up, music was an escape, but also something I was always curious about as an art form. I had a decent amount of musical ability, but also have great musician friends who were very willing to help me. I took this very seriously, taking vocal and guitar lessons while I was touring. I was very devoted to learning and understanding how I could accompany myself.” So much so that she’d pick up lessons at music clinics along the road where her fellow students were 12 year olds who wanted to play the Hives and The Strokes.
Margaret self released Cho Dependent on her own Clownery Records, and was very heartened by the acclaim as there are only a handful of people putting out albums of comedy music: “Weird” Al Yankovic, Flight of the Conchords, The Lonely Island, to name a few, but no women. While thrilled that her hard work was rewarded with the nomination, Margaret still has more music in her, an album tentatively titled Yellow. “It is in its beginning stages. It’s very Beatle-esque at the moment, with songs about race, agedness and ethnicity. Writing lyrics is a different process for me than writing Stand Up. It utilizes the same elements, but it’s a more demanding discipline. You have more freedom with comedy writing than with lyrics, where mathematics comes in to play so the lyrics go with the music.”
Along with the two Grammy nods, Margaret has been recognized in many other areas as well. She was the recipient of the Victory Fund’s 2008 Leadership Award and the first ever Best Comedy Performance Award at the 2007 Asian Excellence Awards. She also received the First Amendment Award from the ACLU of Southern California, and the Intrepid Award from the National Organization for Women (NOW). Throughout her career, she has been honored by GLAAD, American Women in Radio and Television, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and PFLAG for making a significant difference in promoting equal rights for all, regardless of race, sexual orientation or gender identity. In June of 2011, Margaret will be honored by LA Pride, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. This award recognizes an individual whose lifetime body of work has left a lasting major imprint on the LGBT community.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be known as a ‘safe haven’ for people. A lot people who come to my shows don’t necessarily consider themselves traditional comedy fans. I seem to be a safe alternative for people who don’t think they’re being represented in society. They come because my point of view satisfies a lot of what needs to be said out there, and that makes me really proud.”
These excerpts below are taken from my interview with Margaret for my upcoming book, Iconic Asian Americans, which has a chapter dedicated to her.
On part of her childhood years…
“So you didn’t even have a babysitter?” I asked.
“No. I was left completely alone. In most Korean families, you’re not considered to have had children until you have a boy,” her voice had a touch of bitterness.
“Is that still prevalent even today?”
“Yes. Believe me- we’ve had a lifetime of therapy over this. I fucking grilled them for years over my childhood. In my mind, I had become a rich white lady and I wanted to drag my Korean parents to a rich white lady therapist. This is what you did to me because of Korean culture. I water boarded them.”
“Did you want revenge for all the pain you went through?”
“Well, I hurt them so badly because they had to answer for what they did to me.”
I nodded. “Did the anger consume you throughout your entire childhood and teenage years?”
“The good thing about all of that was that I grew up so independently and I had no problem rejecting their plans for me to go to school. I didn’t care about the pressures of having to do well in school or be a doctor or lawyer. I had none of that. I didn’t give a shit. I really love my family but there is a lot of messed up shit,” her voice grows louder as she says this.
“That’s true in a lot of Asian families,” I comment. She nods vehemently in agreement.
On “All American Girl”
Asked about the 30 pounds the tv executives asked her to lose in two weeks, Margaret responds “My looks should be irrelevant. It should never have mattered because I was a comedian. Comedians shouldn’t be held up to those same standards because we have a totally different job to do. But because I’m a woman, because I’m Asian and Asian women are typically fetishized, there was this idea that I was supposed to be a certain kind of Asian woman and I’m not that; I will never be that.”
She talks about that “type” of Asian woman that America and Hollywood sees- the soft-spoken, subservient type that white men fantasize about. Acknowledging that people are allowed to have a type of person they want to be with, Margaret simultaneously says “I was supposed to appeal to that and I….NO, I’m not that. I’m a fucking castrating, mean, refused to get dressed up kind of bitch.”
I laughed hysterically at her self-description.