Barefoot and be-legginged in her ship’s cabinlike room at the Maritime Hotel, Margaret Cho pulls off her sequined top. She steps into the bathroom first, but leaves the door open and stays in full view of the wall mirror while pulling on a threadbare T-shirt. She’s making herself comfortable after taping a late-night show, and for Cho, more comfortable does not include people seeing less of her. In her TV makeup of black eyeliner and red lipstick, she’s in the middle of an all-fronts cultural blitz, with her latest tour gearing up and a new album called Cho Dependent that includes guest performances from Fiona Apple. And then there's what she does best: comedy. On Friday, November 5, she'll headline the New York Comedy Festival, which runs November 3 to 7 in New York. Vulture pulled up a chair to talk homicidal exes, nineties womanhood, and the mythology of Jersey Shore.
I can’t believe how many projects you have going. Is it a coincidence or was it because you quit smoking pot?
Like when Snoop Dogg stopped smoking pot and got super-productive, and started coaching that football team? It’s kind of like that. No, I’m always super-busy no matter what I’m doing drinking-wise or drug-wise, because it’s not really a huge part of my life anyway. I’m always addicted to working all the time. Part of it I think was being in Atlanta.
When you were shooting the Lifetime show Drop Dead Diva?
I was living in Peach Tree City, which is a small town outside of Georgia, where they shoot the show. I was playing a lot of music and writing lyrics, and that was the basis of the album, Cho Dependent. Atlanta’s a really cool city, but Peach Tree is very small and it’s super-conservative, so I just never felt comfortable and never wanted to go out. I think being isolated and being far away made me more productive. It was like going away to an island. Like an artist retreat. I was in this big condo where all these businesspeople live, so I could just play guitar really loud and sing super-loud while they were working during the day.
You went back to the south recently, right?
Yes. I went to Texas to shoot a video with Tegan and Sara for our song “Intervention,” and Louis Van Amstel was in the video too. He’s my partner from Dancing With the Stars.
Did you record that song in Bryan Adams’s studio?
Yeah, in Vancouver. It was such a lavish studio. I think AC/DC recorded there. He’s put a lot of money into old buildings in Vancouver. I love that kind of thing.
Speaking of Bryan Adams, there’s something of a nineties revival going on, and your album has that feel.
Yeah, it’s kind of a riot grrrl … I always wanted it to be like the Deal sisters [Kim and Kelley Deal, of the Breeders]. To me, some of the greatest things happened in the nineties, musically. I worshipped Grant Lee-Phillips [of Grant-Lee Buffalo]. And I worshipped Bryan and I wanted to be like Fiona Apple. And it was such an amazing experience to work with all those guys after being in the crowd for so long and just loving them so much, and then being friends with them, but not being able to approach them work-wise.
Fiona Apple …
She’s very sexy! She’s really unlike anybody I’ve ever met. The only person she’s like is Jon Brion. Being in their presence is kind of dreamlike. You can’t get too close, because they’re like butterflies.
Do you know all these musicians mostly from the L.A. club Largo?
Yeah. That’s where I met Jon in 1994 or 1995, going to see his show there and doing shows there myself. That’s where I met Grant and that’s where I met Fiona, and a lot of the ideas for the album were born there, and went through [Largo co-owner Mark] Flanagan, who’s the owner of the club, and kind of the person who put it all together.
Did I see on your blog that you have a thing for Snooki?
Snooki is really beautiful and looks quite like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. She has the same bone structure. I’m kind of obsessed with Jersey Shore. People don’t give them enough credit for how entertaining they are. I think reality television is such a special talent.
The characters on that show are pretty iconic.
The characters fulfill some sort of mythological purpose, a lot like Star Wars. You have this silent, deadly man-eater, J-WOWW, who’s very powerful in her silence. And then there’s your homegirl, Snooki. She gets left out and overlooked, like the kid sister. And then you have the ingenue, Sammi. So you have these archetypes. It’s like a Greek myth. Somebody should do a dissertation on it. You wish Joseph Campbell were alive so he could deconstruct it for us. Ronnie, he’s the lover, the Romeo … It’s very Shakespearean, as well. There’s a purpose to all of the characters, but I know that The Situation is kind of like Icarus. He’s going to fly too close to the sun and his abs are going to get burnt. It deserves some sort of Camille Paglia treatment.
What else are you watching?
I’m super-obsessed with Intervention. I wrote a song about it.
Yes, I love how you suggest in that song that surprise parties and substance-abuse interventions are equally bad.
They’re kind of the same thing. It’s like everybody coming together for this purpose of celebrating you or making you do something. To me, both would be equally horrific.
By the way, are you going to design clothes again?
Maybe. I had a rough time doing it. It was a business thing where I was working with people that were really not the right people. I love fashion, I’m actually a pretty talented seamstress, so I can make stuff for myself, but that’s really time-consuming ...
What’s the last thing you made?
The last thing I made was on the back of the Cho Dependent cover. It’s a huge cape of feathers with all this antique jewelry that I bought in Egypt. It’s pretty simple.
Your murder ballad, “I’m Sorry,” is about a former crush [sitcom writer and producer J.J. Paulsen] whom you looked up, only to discover that he murdered his wife in 2007. It’s a real testimony to Googling gone bad.
What’s horrible about it is that I really loved him. It wasn’t like a fleeting thing, and it wasn’t something that I anticipated in any way. You know when you’re young and you fall for somebody and it really stays with you? Again, it’s really nineties. It wasn’t just him; it was the time period. It was corduroy jeans. It was the Breeders. The house I was living in where he would come over and hang out with me.
Did you have any indication he would become a killer?
One time we were hanging out at my house and he pushed me to the ground, and I was really shocked. It was during a fight, but it was not such a huge argument that it would warrant violence — not that any fight would warrant violence — but it was such a shock that he was physically violent. I was too young to really know what that was. I was like, “Oh, maybe he really loves me.” It was such a weird, childish thing to think.
I read that he responded to a request for a jailhouse interview with, “Unless it’s for a job interview, I’m not interested.”
With him, it’s all about the sound bite. He’s flashy. He’s just a charismatic dude and I’m sure that’s helping him out in prison. I think he only got like 26 years.
That’s a while.
It is a while, but considering the gruesome aspects of it … [He stuffed his wife’s body into a crawl space and left her there until she partially mummified. When the police ultimately arrived to investigate, they found Paulsen gone and his 1-year-old home alone.]
Does he know about the song?
He had somebody contact me from prison. They were like, “You need to hear his side of the story. He is responsible for Leanne’s death, but you don’t really know the whole story.” And I was like, “What else do I need to know? I don’t really need to know much more than he killed his wife and stuffed her in the attic.” I could see him feeling important, like I was reaching out to him and wanted to have a relationship or something. That’s what it felt like, and it felt really ugly and scary. I didn’t respond.
Can you tell me about your marriage?
[Al Ridenour] is a wonderful guy, and we’ve been together since 1999, although we’ve always had an open relationship. We’ve never had a monogamous relationship. It’s very comfortable for me, and it feels like something that I need. I just need the idea of the freedom and I need the ability to be myself and do what I want. Conventional marriage to me is scary and I feel like we have more solidity. It’s great. We’ve been working together more lately. He’s making a video for the song that I did with Fiona [Apple], "Hey Big Dog." So that’s a lot of very intricate animation stuff. And he did the shit suits from "Eat Shit and Die," with the “shitar,” which should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Can you tell me about your house?
It was really the shell of a house when I bought it, and I moved in in like 2001. Now it’s quite beautiful, still kind of decaying and cracking. I had my colors done, so the rooms are in my colors. That’s kind of nineties: whether you’re a winter or a fall.
Oh, right! And when you got your colors done, you were supposed to wear accent scarves, right? What are you?
I’m a vibrant spring. The people that do the colors, they really thought that it would make your whole life more harmonious if you surrounded yourself with these colors. But then they said if you wore navy, it’d be fine. Navy is neutral. But there are many shades of black.
The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle once said that tour is no place for human beings. How does it feel when you’re on a comedy tour?
I kind of feel like a weird animal that only eats Combos. Combos are like your weird dog food. You’re just truck stop to truck stop. You start to develop your own language and you’re really afraid of light. I don’t bathe and don’t eat right, and I don’t care because it’s all about doing the show and then getting back on the road.
Let’s talk about Dancing With the Stars … Did you feel experienced enough?
It’s such a different environment for dance than I’m used to. I’m used to burlesque. I’m used to belly dance. I think stripper moves are very athletic and beautiful, but you’re using a very different center of gravity. I don’t recognize my body in these very intricate movements.
There’s a movie coming out about burlesque in the winter.
With Cher and Christina Aguilera! I can’t wait.
I just heard about it from [drag king] Murray Hill. It sounds completely insane.
Oh, I love Murray Hill. He’s genius. He’s really funny. He lives it, too. It’s not a character. He’s so amazing, and I love him with Dirty Martini. She’s so beautiful. She and I did a show here at [now defunct midtown theater] the Zipper a couple of years ago. So I had Dirty Martini at the show, and Jo Boobs and Tigger and a bunch of people from L.A. That was my burlesque show. I would bring Dirty Martini a gift every day, because she was just so pretty, like a goddess that you have to bring offerings. I was hoping to bring the theatricality, and the fun, and the enjoyment, and the joy of dance that is burlesque into this very strict competition.
After all, you can twirl your tassels.
I can twirl them to a beat and kind of make them go into different directions. It’s not easy. I had a great teacher at Indigo Blue [Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque].
Jo "Boobs" Weldon has a book out now [The Burlesque Handbook], for which you did the foreword.
Her book is great. She’s also a really amazing photographer, so she’s captured the burlesque world in such a great way. My favorite of all, I think, is Dita Von Teese. It's mind-boggling how classy and beautiful she is. The first time I saw her was maybe 1998 and I was doing the Fetish Ball with her. I was a model in it. She was doing the part where she takes a shower onstage, and there are flowers, and she’s on point, and you just want to cry because it makes you feel beautiful.
Speaking of nineties stuff, what did you think of Liz Phair's recent album Funstyle?
The "Bollywood" one? I loved it. I was so moved by her truth and her beauty and the rawness of her voice, and her playing and everything. I love all of her albums.
So, you don’t follow the classic nineties line on her: "She sold out when she started trying to be sexy and mainstream."
I always thought she was sexy. Her sexuality was very upfront, even in the first album. That was kind of her cross to bear, her sexuality, which got her into all these problems and she could write about it. So why not pose naked? Why not be heavily produced? Why not get all up into that sexual image, because that’s part of it? I loved it.
How do you feel in general about that idea of selling out?
I don’t really know what selling out is exactly. I would sell out if I could, but nobody’s buying it. I would love to go mainstream, but my comedy is too edgy. It’s always too dirty. It’s always too filthy. I’m dying to sell out. But I love doing comedy, I love touring, and I think I would do everything for free. And I don’t really live that ostentatiously, either. I'm frugal. My parents never really had that much money, so I kind of live in the same world that they do.
Steve Martin and Weird Al seem to be influences on the comedy album. Because of YouTube, kids today think Weird Al is new, and their own magical discovery.
I know, which is great. I think he’s got such an amazing lifespan as an artist and he’s just continually growing. He’s a phenomenal musician, too, which people don’t really talk about, but to do song parodies is really hard. You have to be better than the artist that you’re parodying so that you can get it right. Steve Martin is amazing. Eddie Murphy is really great as well. "Boogie in your Butt" is a great song.
How was Dancing With the Stars?
I loved it. I don’t know very much about ballroom dance — I can definitely pop my pussy, but the Viennese waltz? I have no idea. But I had a great time. I got to become friends with such different people. It was scary, though. I never danced as well as when I was alone with my partner [Louis van Amstel]. Whenever anyone was watching, I got nervous. So the worst I did was when we were dancing for the judges. That was frustrating. But I loved it. Louis and I are going to dance again for the finale. And he came on tour with me and onstage with me. We want to dance again for other things.
And you met Bristol Palin?
She came up to me, and she was like, “Are you Margaret?” I was shocked, because she looks exactly like her mother.
Does she know what you said about her mom [that she’s the worst thing to happen to America since September 11th]?
I’m sure she does now. It’s really rude. I don’t have anything against her. She’s a child. That’s got to be really fucking rough, being a mom at that age. When I was 19, I didn’t want to change diapers, I wanted to take drugs.
How about The Situation?
The Situation was very nice. I just called him “Mike,” because I couldn’t make my mouth make the words “The Situation” around him. Probably the best friend that I made on the show was Jennifer Grey. We laughed a lot.
It seemed at times like you were punished on the show for trying to be funny while dancing, as when you got tangled up on purpose in your costume with wings.
Well, they take it super-seriously. They were really hard on me because they could see that I am a good dancer. I had it in my body. They’re always harder on people who they can see can do it.
Are you looking forward to your New York Comedy Festival show on Friday at the Beacon?
Yes! I love New York. I love working here. It’s such a great theater. And I have to say, this tour is so much easier now that I’m not dancing. Dancing for hours and hours and hours a day … Just touring now seems like such an easy job.