While suffering through a technical glitch-ridden phone call (on my end. All on my end.) and a surprise visit from Housekeeping, the gracious Margaret Cho talked with me about her Grammy-nominated musical comedy album Cho Dependent (out Nov. 21 on DVD), her ever-increasing love for stand-up and the fate of those who just couldn’t hang on.
I know you must be getting a lot of questions about Cho Dependent [nominated for Best Comedy Album in 2010]. I’m interested in why you decided to move into musical comedy at this point in your career. Was it always something you had in the back of your mind?
Well, I’ve been around rock and roll almost as long as I’ve been in comedy, so I know a lot of bands, I know a lot of musicians, I know a lot of people in every aspect of that industry. I wanted to do something that was a little bit of a departure. And I just like it! I love music, I like making it, though I feel that stand-up comedy is my identity and my truth. I feel like this album is an opportunity to take a moment and just make music about funny, dorky things; it worked out beautifully. Everyone I worked with is incredibly talented. I have another record that I’ve started, but I am so focused on stand-up right now, so I don’t know how long that album would take.
Do you find doing other projects like this are a nice break from stand-up, sort of a way to recharge, or do you find yourself thinking that you should be more focused on stand-up even while you’re exploring these other interests?
No, it’s not really a break. Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s hard for me to do other things, but it’s all comedy at the end of the day. It’s all a lot of work.
Do you feel the same way about acting, seeing as how you’re currently on Drop Dead Diva? Is it basically a side-piece to stand-up, or would you want to explore it more?
Oh, I’d love to do more acting. I love it. Again, it’s not like it’s even a different focus, just a different time of the day. If I’m acting during the day, then I’m still going out and doing stand-up at night. I love doing both.
Do you feel like you have the same relationship to stand-up as when you first started? Are the things you get from it the same, or have they changed over the course of your career?
I have a much more intense relationship with it now than when it started. I love it so much more now than when I started, because I know more about it. It’s my whole life, you know. I do comedy more than once a day; I’m doing more than one show, small and large, every day. It’s an obsession. It’s something I truly believe I do well and that I do with a kind of voracity and intensity that gets more insane as I get older. I’m just trying to figure it out; I’m trying to realize my potential as a writer and a comic. The potential, and what is actually there, are so different. I want to realize that for myself. It’s a huge undertaking.
Your material tends to be on the deeply, deeply personal side. Are there any areas of your life you’ve consciously chosen to rope off and not discuss?
No, I don’t have any taboos. I’ll talk about anything. And that’s part of it. You have to be able to talk about everything in a way that is applicable and funny and compassionate and true. That’s the challenge of comedy.
You know, I’m also a comedian, and I feel like I sometimes have to consciously weigh out, okay, this bit might offend somebody in my life versus it would be hilarious and honest. Do you find yourself factoring in those kind of considerations at this point, or are you doing it either way, since it’s your experience?
You know, to me, everything that I love and that I talk about is all my experience. Sometimes there are just observational aspects, but my style is just so personal. It’s about what I love. Sometimes if it’s something more observational it might come through a filter, but it’s mainly about my personal experience. I’m pretty writerly, so I try to make it less observational and about the way I see it or the way I perceive it happening.
So do you have a specific process when you’re preparing material, sort of how to take the personal to the stage?
There’s a couple of different methods: sometimes I write things out, sometimes I’ll flesh it out on stage. I should write things out more. That’s the way I do things. I’ll still think, oh, I should I write it down! But I usually don’t. I take it to the stage and make it improvisational. By the end of the process, by the time I’m ready to film a show, then it’s very scripted and perfect. It’s always different.
[Note: This is when Housekeeping comes into Margaret’s room and for a split second I’m afraid I’m going to have to call 911 and report a kidnapping.]
Sorry about that. They just came into my room. That was weird.
That’s okay. I though for a second that I might have to call the police. Oh, so, anyway, I feel like you’re one of the first comedians I remember seeing in high school and really getting, “Oh, that’s a thing that people do!” You’ve obviously built up a very committed fan base throughout your career. Do you ever consider them when you’re writing new material, what they’ll respond to or reject?
Oh no, I never think about things in that way. That’s more of a commercial direction; I think about what I think is funny, not what people will like. I can’t really think about it. When it comes to comedy branding, I’m not really too aware of that; I’m more artistically inclined. I suppose in a sense I do my own sort of branding by doing that, but it’s just not something I’m conscious of in that way.
Do you have any other big projects you’re working on?
I’m trying to be more blogger-ly and to write everyday. I don’t know if that’s in preparation for writing another book. Books are a weird thing. The way that we read now, due to Nooks and Kindles, I think books are read in a different way. It’s something I’d love to work more on; I’d love to figure that out. I’m also writing a new album, as I said, and right now I’m just so focused on stand-up. I’m doing tons of tons of shows. I’m writing a new show, or an album, and then I restart Drop Dead Diva in February.
What advice would you give to comedians who are just starting out, especially when it comes to figuring out their own voice?
Don’t get discouraged. You’re going to have to do it a bunch of times; don’t get discouraged if you do something and it doesn’t work at your first or second performance. You have to be willing to do poorly. Being willing to do new material that isn’t polished is really good. You have to take the risk of not killing. Killing doesn’t make anybody better…or even good. Another thing is to look the audience members in the eye. That’s something I’m going through right now…it’s really hard for me and I don’t know why. But you need that physical communication and connection.
So yeah, it’s just kind of not getting discouraged. Everybody in this business that I know that is successful wasn’t really talented and wasn’t really that smart or that good-looking, but the people who were successful really hung on. (laughs) That was their claim to fame. Not to say that people who are successful aren’t great-looking and really funny, but the people that were really exceptional that I’ve known through my career often couldn’t hack it because they didn’t hang on. The people that I really thought, “Oh, these people are stars!,” are not, because they didn’t hang on and they couldn’t hang on. And the people who hung on really became icons. I see that in myself. I hung onto comedy because I had no place else to go; I don’t have an education. I don’t have anything but comedy, and I love it, so that’s what my life is. Some people have other things to do.