Margaret Cho is easily one of the most influential comedians of the last 30 years in terms of what she talks about onstage and her no-holds-barred approach to talking about it. She inspired many, many people to become comedians, while also expanding people’s perspective of who can be a stand-up in the first place.
I was scheduled to talk to Cho last Wednesday, as she’s out promoting her appearance in Hysterical, the women in comedy documentary premiering on FX on April 2. After the news of the Atlanta spa shootings broke, I asked if she would like to postpone. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t want to. Coming up in San Francisco of the 1980s, Cho was inspired by ACT UP and their slogan “Silence=Death.” As she writes in her 2005 book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, “When we never see who we are, never hear what we think about things, what we are doing as a group or what we are doing individually, then it is as if we were never there in the first place. Silence = Nonexistence.”
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Cho talked about how her feelings toward representation have evolved, microaggressions, and her influence on the next generation of comedians. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
We are speaking less than 24 hours since the Atlanta shootings. So, first, how are you feeling?
I’m very upset actually. I lived in Atlanta for seven years. I’m also a former sex worker. I think that it has special meaning, this entire time of violence against Asian Americans, because of the coronavirus, which is, I know that the people who are attacking other people, they know that the coronavirus does not come from those people. It’s just an excuse to act out rage that has really no place in society. I mean, it’s a very destructive thing. It’s also something that is very difficult to kind of get your head around, because we have a long history of invisibility in America. We have a long history of being othered in America, and there’s really no sense of outrage or a historical outrage that we’ve been able to express.
I mean, even since the construction of the railroad, to most people — they don’t even hear about it — but over 20,000 Chinese people died constructing the railroad. And yet we have no mention of it in any of the history books. There really isn’t an acknowledgement of the racism and hate we have endured being Americans. So, it’s really disheartening, but it’s also a really good wake-up call to what we have to do and what we have to deal with.
As a comedian, what do you think about the comedy that has historically been made at Asian Americans’ expense?
Well, it sort of depends on the intent and also the level of ignorance you have around race, where you’re coming from, and also what you’re talking about. There are ways to talk about race, especially races that you are not, in a way that isn’t necessarily racist.
I think we have a culture that’s not really seen in American media. We have these visions of Bling Empire, which I love actually, and Crazy Rich Asians, which I also love. But these are very specific stories about different people, and they’re not the norm. All Asian Americans are not crazy rich. We are not all living in Beverly Hills. We are not all the things that I think maybe, even inadvertently, cause a sort of distortion of what Asian Americans’ day-to-day lives are. Since we don’t have that many depictions of us just every day, it’s quite difficult to maneuver around having identity within the space of culture.
It makes me think of a line in your 2004 special, Revolution: “Living in America as a minority feels like dying of a thousand paper cuts.”
At that time we didn’t have the term “microaggressions,” which is actually a very helpful term to talk about these things. There are microaggressions where the othering of you is brought forth in tiny actions you experience from other people. It goes back to the police saying the Atlanta shooter “had a bad day.” That’s much more of an overt microaggression, but it’s hearing those kinds of things in the news — you feel like your otherness somehow makes you less consequential in society. It weighs down on you. Being Asian American in the entertainment industry is sort of a course in How do you become visible? It’s like that old movie of the invisible man, when they’re putting bandages around him so he can see himself. That’s kind of what we’re doing. We’re trying to figure out where we exist in society by creating this identity that is abandoned, because mostly it’s a wound, it’s a sadness, it’s a grief, it’s a shock, it’s a pain.
Have your feelings about your own career as it relates to representation evolved from the point of All-American Girl?
Well, yeah, I think that there’s a lot of historical context that I can understand now, from my perspective. I mean, when All-American Girl premiered, it was 1994 and it was directly after the Koreatown riots. And so the Korean community then was incredibly protective of their image because they had never been seen, and then suddenly they’re on their rooftops with shotguns while the whole South Central is burning down. So it’s a very interesting thing. Oh, of course my appearance would be alarming just because I’m so American and so different from what they sort of view themselves as. Then they want to somehow censor everything that came after the riots, because of what happened.
I think now I understand it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to the kind of visibility that they didn’t expect. It’s also my fault too, because I wasn’t acknowledging people who had been here before me — people who had been in Los Angeles, been in entertainment or been in media, who are the generation that came before me. I think I had to work through a lot more racism and a lot more of that sort of glass ceiling, if it’s even a glass ceiling. I think it’s actually pretty concrete. My non-acknowledgement of the generation before me had a lot to do with that too. I really regret that. I think that’s really sad, because now I get so much respect and adoration from younger, especially Asian American comedians who cite me as the first person they saw doing comedy and they thought they could do it too, since they had the example.
So I had examples, but I didn’t acknowledge them. But they weren’t in stand-up comedy — they were in newspapers at that time. They were people like Connie Chung, who I really love. Yet I think I didn’t understand her struggle. I didn’t understand her achievements until I had gotten to that other side of it. Now I see what an amazing thing she was able to do.
Are you able to see people you influenced? Can you remember seeing someone and being able to see your reflection in them?
Oh yeah. I think I’m Ali Wong, in that I hadn’t been able to see another Asian American woman do a stand-up comedy special and she’s such a genius. So I was so honored and so excited to finally get to see another Asian American woman do that. She’s so raunchy and so raw, and it’s just my style of comedy that I love. So it’s great to be able to feel like, Oh, I think I had a hand in this. It’s really thrilling to be able to witness. So I think Ali Wong is probably the most profound, and then Ken Jeong — Ken Jeong and I worked together when he was still in med school, and he opened for me, and this is 27 years ago. So there’s so much history that we have, and so much love. And Bobby Lee, of course, is one of my very favorites. There’s so many Asian American comedians that are making such a big difference, so I really see my influence in a way that’s really exciting.
There’s also just so many queer comedians right now.
Oh, they’re all my children. I love that. I love them, and I love that they’re doing so many different things. To me it’s very alive. Comedy is a very living, breathing art form. When you can see what you’ve done translates into future generations, it’s really empowering.
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