“I think now, finally, people are grateful for my voice.”
Margaret Cho—the outspoken trailblazer, showbiz rabble-rouser, and erstwhile badass—is sipping on red wine at a hotel in Manhattan, exhausted but enthusiastic after a day of press.
Her new comedy special Margaret Cho: psyCHO is premiering Friday night on Showtime, a crowning achievement of provocative meaningful comedy that tackles everything from racism to her attempts to have a baby, from partying with Anna Nicole Smith to fighting homelessness, and from dealing with her own sexuality to evolving the dated term “fag hag.” (Her nomination: “dick widow.”)
We’re meeting at a fraught time for things that Margaret Cho cares about. Planned Parenthood is at risk of being defunded. Kim Davis is rallying support for denying same-sex couples marriage licenses. Donald Trump is leading the Republican race for president, and, on top of everything, her beloved comedy mother Joan Rivers has died.
But we’re also meeting at a bit of a triumphant time for Cho. She’s in New York fresh from filming a post-Emmys episode of Fashion Police, on which she appears in tribute to Rivers. Not only is psyCHO premiering, but Fresh Off the Boat, the first sitcom about an Asian-American family to air on network television since Cho’s own doomed effort All-American Girl famously failed 21 years ago, debuted its second season this week, too.
“I fucked it up so badly they had to wait for an entire generation of Asian Americans to be born and grow up to be Nielsen voting age,” she jokes about the gap between Girl and Boat in her special.
But there’s no underlying bitterness here. Cho proudly informs me she’ll also be appearing as Ken Jeong’s sister on the new sitcom Dr. Ken, a second ABC sitcom about Asian Americans. “For me, a lot of these things are dreams realized, like Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken and Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer and Trainwreck,” she says. “Even though it’s her, it’s still me. It’s my passion. It’s what I wanted, so I’m really grateful for that.”
Cho has told Schumer that she feels like a proud mom when she watches her ascent. “She said, ‘Well, you’re not old enough to be my mom, but you’re like the older sister and I copy everything you do and you’re not mad about it,’” Cho remembers. “I found it very flattering. I couldn’t be happier. To me, it’s a symbol of how far feminism has come and to think that I could influence somebody like that, who’s on top of the world, is really just a tremendous accomplishment for me.”
I ask her about the title of her special, psyCHO. “Psycho is a feminized term for anger,” she says. “When we think of women’s anger, first we think, ‘Oh, she’s hysterical,’ or, ‘She’s a psycho bitch. You write off women with terms like ‘psycho.’ So I thought the term was weighty and it made sense to call it that.”
Cho says she’s at a place of peace in her life—finding a way to publicly talk about being a rape survivor has helped her to do that. But she also has anger. She has a voice. She has anger, and she’s ready to voice it and have it validated, without being written off as a psycho. It’s the empowerment of her special’s title. She’s taking back the term.
“I also really hate when people say ‘Angry Black Woman’ or ‘Angry Woman of Color,’” she clarifies. “It’s not that we’re angry. It’s that we’ve had no opportunity to speak and we have a lot to say.”
Over the years, Cho has found her voice marginalized, misconstrued, or silenced. Recently, she was even accused of being racist to her own community, after spoofing North Korean “journalists” at the Golden Globes. (“I think white people like to tell Asian people how they should feel about race because they’re too scared to tell black people,” she jokes in psyCHO.)
But we’re among those most grateful for Cho’s voice. So we thought we’d have her use it.
You talk about the Golden Globes controversy in your special, in which you were accused of being racist against Asians. Were you surprised by that?
I was really shocked because a lot of the negative feedback for that was from white people, which was really weird. And I realized that political correctness sometimes does great work when it helps equalize the playing field when it comes to language, but it does a great disservice when it tries to silence a person of color. When I do an Asian character or an Asian voice I’m doing one because that’s my heritage and my family and where I come from. My family is of Korean descent and specifically North Korean descent. So it makes sense for me to talk about that issue because it’s the only weapon I have to somehow avenge my family and my history. It’s very strange to have people say that I can’t do that, or if I do that, it’s racist. Because all I’m doing is telling my story. So I think political correctness really does help us when it serves us but it doesn’t help us when it silences us.
Now you’re on Fashion Police. You talk about your relationship with Joan and mourning her on psyCHO. Hosting the show in her wake, how are you feeling about her and her spirit?
I’m there mostly because I love Joan and I want to do something for this family who has done so much for me. I’m there so I can spend time with Melissa. I’m there because I just love it. For me, it’s kind of like putting on my mom’s shoes and playing in my mother’s closet. I just get to pretend to be her for a minute. I love that I’m invited into this panel of fashion experts, where I’ve always been the worst-dressed at everything. I’m always too fat. And I always look terrible. But I love the theater of the red carpet.
Joan helped create that.
Joan was just so in love with the grandeur of Hollywood, and always fell in love with the way that those people were. It’s emotional to be there. All of her friends are my friends. We’ve had a hard time losing her. So the fact that the show is back up and running is wonderful. I’m also close to Kathy Griffin, so it’s a weird thing to be close to everybody in it. Because I don’t want anybody to fight.
Was Kathy Griffin OK with you taking over?
I knew Kathy was leaving a little ahead of everyone, so I told her, “Bitch, you betta get me that job.” She said she was going to go, and I was like, “If you’re not gonna do it, I’ll do it.” And she was like, “Oh, OK!”
You say in the special that you would love to hear what Joan would say about Bruce Jenner transitioning. What do you think she’d have to say?
We actually talked about it a little on Fashion Police. I think Joan would be just excited. She would just be like, “Uh! Ah! Bettah than me. You’re bettah than anyone. You can do it so good.” I think she would be in love with all of the effort Caitlyn’s putting into it. I think that’s so sweet. And Bruce, as the outsider now as Caitlyn, is really sort of living a dream that Joan would’ve been so behind, this realization of who you really are and going for it. Not taking no for an answer.
You’re marrying a couple at each stop on your tour. The joke you told on the Today show was that, “I held Kim Davis’s job, but I actually did it.”
I was given that honor by Gavin Newsom, who basically started marriage equality. He’s an incredible politician and my friend. He deputized me as marriage commissioner in San Francisco, so I was able to perform weddings in City Hall on the site of Harvey Milk’s assassination. So to go back to this place, which is literally the most tragic place in gay political history and to do something that we’ve all fought for—marriage equality, to actually marry a gay couple—in that room, it’s powerful and rewarding in a way I can’t even express. When I do it there everyone starts crying and it just means so much. So I want to be able to bring that to my shows.
As someone who’s had the experiencing of being a marriage commissioner, what do you make of Kim Davis and the fact that she’s managed to galvanize so many supporters?
Oh, it’s disgusting! What’s so horrifying is that she’s such a hypocrite also, having been married so many times. If you think marriage is that sacred, you would take your vows seriously. I think it’s also gross going into jail and coming out as if she’s some kind of political prisoner. She acts like she’s Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma. It’s just really insane. It’s disgusting. All of the particulars of her not being able to be fired because she’s an elected official or whatever, it’s just so wrong to use this clerical paperwork and red tape to continue to express your bigotry and hatred. Something as important as marriage equality, which is now a constitutional right, is something that cannot be denied. It’s also very un-Christian, if you think about the way Christ was and Christ’s teachings. This is not loving. This is anger. This is hatred. This is bigotry. And it’s wrong.
Are you comfortable with people seeking you out to talk about politics? Are you eager to use your voice in that way? Donald Trump must be the big thing you’re asked about right now.
I’m very comfortable! Donald Trump, I think it’s a ruse. I think it’s a way for people to be distracted from what Republicans are really doing. Everybody is focusing on Donald Trump so no one is realizing that Republicans are threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, which is one of the worst things that could ever happen. Next to reversing Roe v. Wade, this sets women back so much. It is so profoundly horrifying, yet you don’t see a lot of that. You see a lot of Trump. Yes, of course Trump is abhorrent. It’s like when Joaquin Phoenix decided he wasn’t going to be an actor. He was going to be a rapper and did all this weird stuff on the red carpet and then we found out later that it was a mockumentary. I feel like that’s what’s going on. Ashton Kutcher’s going to come out and say we’re Punk’d.
So you think Donald Trump is a distraction?
I really do believe that it’s something to distract us from the real problem, which is that we’re going to lose a huge part of women’s health care that is vital to the survival of women, the health of women, and the sanity of women. So I think it’s a red herring. I think Donald Trump is not really there for any purpose other than to distract.
Your special is called psyCHO. But what is your state of mind right now?
I feel a lot of peace. I have this cathartic process of doing comedy and, to some extent, music where I can get a lot of these feelings out. As a comedian it’s always been very, very hard to talk about rape. I’ve talked about rape. I’m a rape survivor. This is something that I’ve mentioned many times, but it hasn’t had an impact until now. I think we are in this time when we really need to talk about it. But it’s hard to talk about on stage so I wrote this song called “I Want to Kill My Rapist.”
Why is “I Want to Kill My Rapist” such an important song?
It’s an amazing song because people start singing it with me and in the end people are crying and freaking out. And people come up to me afterwards and they share their stories and what happened to them and it’s so powerful. Whereas before when I talked about rape in a sort of stand-up way, people would shut down. So I unlocked that thing where we can talk about this abuse and really come up triumphant. It’s a very hard thing to discuss as a stand-up comedian.
Interviewers are fascinated with asking comedians what they think about joking about rape.
It’s an important topic, but the problem is when men talk about rape, as Daniel Tosh famously did. I think it was really shocking. I think he was under the assumption that we live in a post-rape world and that sort of gave him permission. I think there was this weird idea with male comics that they were embracing sexism and showing that they were somehow evolved past it, when in truth that was not the case. You may have evolved past it but the world hasn’t. It sort of became a very popular theme to have rape jokes in your act, because you were considered very edgy, or post-rape.
How did you feel about that trend?
I could not stand that. For me and for so many people in the audience it was so demoralizing and horrifying to hear that. And yet when I talked about my own rape it upset audience members so much because when they look at me they want me to be the hero in the story. They want me to win. They want to see the triumph. And the rape, I couldn’t make it anything other than ugly, which is what it is. That’s why the song made it possible for me to use it as subject matter. It elevated the topic. Finally it’s something that elevated the topic and made it catharsis instead of something to grieve over.
You’ve talked about how Lady Gaga inspires you. You’ve said she’s not just a celebrity, but also a crusader and that’s what you aspire to. What lights a fire in you to aspire to that?
It’s because I did forge a place in show business out of sheer will. There was no precedent. There was nobody like me. There was no reason to think that I could do this. There was never any representation I could look to and say, “I’m going to be like her.” I forced my way into this business because I could not say “no” to it. I had to. I don’t think I was sophisticated or smart enough to really understand what I did when I was young. Now I look back and I’m really impressed with myself.