A Q & A with the one-and-only Margaret Cho
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Margaret Cho brings a different kind of comedy tour when her “Cho Dependent” Tour comes to State Theater in Minneapolis on October 15. The tour is inspired by Cho’s new CD release “Cho Dependent”, and said to be hilarious stand up comedy, mixed with live performances songs. www.margaretcho.com/content/tour. Ms. Cho responded to questions about the tour and her career.
Asian American Press: Your current tour and CD is enhanced by the appearance on Dancing With The Stars. It’s another moment where you could just make the whole act about comedy, and though you are funny, you take your dancing very seriously. What has this experience been like and has it impacted your life or work? Were you intimidated by Louis Van Amstel or was he of you?
Margaret Cho: I love dancing and I am having a great time just learning so much and being with Louis. Its been an incredible experience and I really treasure it. Louis is phenomenal – we weren’t intimidated by each other. There was no time for it because we had to get to the business of dancing!
AAP: With your unorthodox breakthrough in All-American Girl, where you gained celebrity and at the same time exposed the exploitative and shallow foresight of network executives over the idea of an “ethnic” show, you seemed to thrive on this unique platform but at the same time expressed such pain and vulnerability in a still very funny message. How has television changed since that time – or has it?
MC: I don’t know how much television has changed except there is a lot more of it – more channels, more shows, more ways to be seen and heard. That has made for more diversity but there is still a lot more that can happen!
AAP: The idea of song comedy isn’t new I would imagine. But the storytelling impact in the videos with song is a very endearing delivery. What is it that you see in song comedy and how did you conceive of this project for Cho Dependent?
MC: I really wanted to do songs that were funny but still beautiful, and make videos that were these fantastic little movies that would bring the songs to life. I love the album and I want to make more music. It’s all in the collaboration too, from the songs with all the different artists to my videos with Liam Sullivan. I am so proud of what we have been able to accomplish together.
AAP: Your voice is so sweet. Are you a schooled singer from way back or did you have to work with vocal trainers to sing so well for this project? Did you write the songs yourself?
MC: Thank you! I wrote all the lyrics myself and left it to my fabulous friends to make the music. I worked with a lot of great coaches to get my voice where it is, but I have it in my blood – my parents are both amazing singers and musicians. They raised me with a lot of music – so it’s in me!
AAP: From looking at your album and tour, I thought the biggest challenge would not just to be funny, but to work hard as a professional singer and performer. I would imagine that your musicians and vocalist collaborators would not have taken to the project so well if you hadn’t given that effort or it would perhaps have diminished the value of their own work. Can you describe the collaboration process and how you came to choose them, or they choosing you, and how you matched the songs with the performers and of what demands, if any, were placed on yourself by you or by the artists?
MC: I worked with people I loved. Some I have known for many years, like Jon Brion and Grant Lee Phillips. Others had been acquaintances and new friends I got to know really well through the process like Ben Lee, Tegan and Sara and Andrew Bird. I chose them all because I was a fan of their music – first and foremost. For each person I worked with, I sat down and thought about what lyrics would be suitable. Then we would talk about the words, and then they’d give me a demo, or we would work it out in their studio. everyone had a different special way of working. It was demanding in that I wanted the lyrics to be hilarious and yet fit the artist – and everyone did such an amazing job of making the music beautiful!
AAP: I just loved Hey Big Dog with you, Fiona Apple and Feat. It’s a great song on its own merit. Was this a product of collaboration or did you have this in mind while producing all of the songs?
MC: Thank you! I love that song too. It was a song I wrote with Patty Griffin that Fiona loved and wanted to sing because her dog has the same problem of fear of the wind. It’s a love song to our animals, which we don’t have enough of. Ben Lee produced it and it was a masterpiece because of him. I wanted all the songs to sound beautiful – and that song truly is.
AAP: I would imagine that to record this album was a major undertaking but to tour and have some of the artists appearing with you in a major stage musical fashion is a completely bigger undertaking. What kind of work goes into this rigorous tour and what kind of energy does it take to do the singing in addition to the comedy each performance?
MC: It’s actually not very different from doing standup, so there aren’t additional pressures. It’s more about treating the body with respect, as it is a musical instrument!!
AAP: You have Gay Men’s Choruses appearing with you at some tour stops. Do you have the same group on the entire tour, or are you working with the local Gay Men’s Chorus groups at each stop?
MC: I am working with the gay men’s choruses in every city – so it’s so fun meeting all the guys and singing together!! I am so lucky!!
AAP: Do you have other singers or celebrities appearing with you in Minneapolis?
MC: I am not sure yet – I would love to have everyone come to every city!!
AAP: Your comedy is still beautifully dirty and I always wonder how one comedian can get the audience to embrace raunchiness and another can repulse people. You can have your audience but you still win over new fans. How do you know how to write and perform work that could hit or miss from its content, context or language?
MC: I always try to be compassionate in what I do and also have the raunch and filthy side always balanced by intelligence. I think there is a way to do it all!
AAP: One of the things I have always liked about your observational humor is the way you take portray celebrities as raunchy or in a raunchy situation. Its sort of like the late Phil Hartman did by portraying celebrities and politicians in a sleazy way. Are there some people you are working on these days to bring down to size or at least bring them into the Margaret Cho routine?
MC: I would say that the entire tea party movement needs to be parodied!! That is all great fodder!
AAP: With that said, I thought that after years of writing and performing that it must be difficult to stay ‘in touch’ or ‘in tune’ with the world you write about. With so much celebrity now, how do you keep from falling into the trap of some comedians of getting stale if only from comfort or losing the connection with their audience?
MC: I don’t know – I don’t really feel like a celebrity – mainly because I am not really into the Hollywood scene. I am always on the road or working on something new and challenging and so I think that this always keeps you humble – allowing yourself to learn and be an amateur and a newbie at something. This is very important
AAP: You are looking as good as ever these days and now that your on a “diva” show and it seems the topic of beauty is so much of your act; I was wondering what is your take on beauty, image and self-promotion and if its different that the days when your contained so much of your battle with the concept of beauty as imposed by television producers that had you diet to the point of poor health?
MC: I think it is so important to promote self acceptance – it really can be a life or death issue. I think feeling good about yourself and your body is crucial to happiness. I want people to feel good in their skin and be happy with themselves. I have seen what kind of destruction self hatred can cause – poor self image that stems from invisibility – I want to combat that. I want to feel good – so that others can feel they have permission to feel good.
AAP: Has the material about your Korean American or Asian American identity changed in your performance? What are your personal reflections of the Asian American experience since the 1990s when you were one of the few out there on the front lines showing how ridiculous the mainstream was in attempting to control or shape AAPI identity as stereotype of false image and history?
MC: I just hope to fight the invisibility – that is the biggest threat for Asian Americans – feeling that we don’t exist. That we don’t matter. My material about my Asian identity is all about telling everyone that we are here!
AAP: There are so many other Asian comedians out there now. Do you have any favorites or friends out there? Or do they all look at you as the star they are compared to and have to fight to create their own place?
MC: I absolutely adore Bobby Lee!! He is hilarious and such a great friend. There’s so many others – we are all fans of each other.
AAP: After such critical and commercial successes from “I’m The One That I Want”, “Notorious C.H.O.” and “Revolution” how do you approach the next project? Is you focus on reinventing yourself, topping yourself, or something else entirely?
MC: I am just trying to continue to do good work, enjoy myself and stay in the game!!