Margaret Cho's gamechanging brand of risqué, overtly queer comedy has been influencing others for over two decades. She knows this already, of course, but it comes up in the opening minutes of our chat when I tell her about how I used to recite entire sections of her act while parties at a time when I was coming out and eager to hear queer voices and, more specifically, funny queer voices.
Cho came to fame in the '90s after being discovered by none other than Jerry Seinfeld, finding fame through a series of well-received comedy specials and starring in the infamous failed sitcom, All-American Girl – the first of its kind to feature an Asian-American lead. It wasn’t until 1999, however, when she truly became the comedian that we know and love today as her boundary-pushing stand-up show I’m the One That I Want sent her headfirst into the mainstream.
The show was filmed live for a hit film, was adapted into a book, and won her New York magazine’s Performance of the Year award. The show was a cyclone of non-stop jokes; bold and in your face. Gags about Karl Lagerfeld, all-lesbian cruise ships, female hygiene, and her mother’s obsession with gay porn rubbed shoulders with heartfelt and hilarious anecdotes of racism, sexism, abuse, and her eating disorder. Now, it's been 16 years since she opened the floodgates, and times have changed for LGBTQIA+ comedians.
“It’s really opened up… now the landscape is different, the medium is different," she says. "People have such a welcoming idea about identity now and it’s better to be yourself and it’s better to be provocative and it’s just cool to be gay. I’ve always thought so.”
She cites Tig Notaro and Australia’s own Hannah Gadsby among a new generation of proudly out comedians that she’s proud to have paved the way for. Cho’s unique brand of in-your-face, sexual and racial humour has also extended to the likes of Amy Schumer, Josh Thomas, and Aziz Ansari.
“It’s really great because I know I inspired a lot of gay comics, that I’ve helped them feel comfortable and know that they could do this," she says, saying that it's an "honourable position" to be in.
"I’m so grateful to inspire so many tremendous people," she adds.
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, dogs barking in the background, she is keen to make sure her act is fresh for local audiences when she brings her PsyCHO (full name: “There’s No ‘I’ in Team, but There’s a CHO in PsyCHO”) to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth this September.
“I try to get into the town and figure out where I’m at and walk around and get a sense of the people, especially travelling to Asia or Australia or someplace that’s newer for me," she says. "I go and try and figure out what’s happening there and try to put it into my show. Usually I get to the city and find the bear bar or whatever, you know, I recruit some bears to show me the town. I just find the people who know what’s happening and hang with them.”
Yes, Cho is aware of Australia’s current political landscape and while she’s obviously disappointed in the slow pace of our same-sex marriage debate, she does praise our attitude and response to gun violence. These issues as well as the “insane, totally crazy” Republication National Convention are sure to factor in somewhat in her Australian shows as she tailors all of her shows to reflect the here and now.
“I’m getting [to Australia] several days early so that I can do all of my research," she tells SBS. "I mean, I do this for all of my shows, I prepare really extensively and make the show about exactly where I am whether that be Melbourne or Sydney or Hong Kong or London or New York or San Francisco. I really tailor the material to the place. I think that’s a really important thing that I do as a performer.”
Australia is the second-last leg of Cho's ninth tour. After departing Australia, she will travel to Canada to conclude the tour, and will then dive once more into the litany of other projects she routinely has on the go, including charity and political works, as well as music – her second album, American Myth, was released several months ago.
There is also, of course, acting. Cho has spoken in the past about feeling at one point that she needed a ‘traditional’ career in order to be accepted and successful. Now, however, roles like those she had earlier in her career - such as her role as John Travolta’s FBI partner in Face/Off - aren’t of the highest priority.
“I feel really lucky to have the career that I have," she says, reiterating that she's "really honoured" to get to perform as often as she does, all over the world. "For me, kind of being alternative and a little bit different has really served me well so I’m grateful to be able to do it," she concludes.
Cho recently guest starred on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, ended a six-season run on Drop Dead Diva, and has taken a role on the reconfigured Fashion Police in the wake of idol and mentor Joan Rivers’ death. No doubt buoyed, however, by the rise in streaming platforms and the success of Asian performers on TV shows like Master of None, Fresh off the Boat, and Dr. Ken (on which she has also had a guest appearance), Cho hints at developing another show all her own, her first as a key creative role since the ill-fated All-American Girl.
“I would love to do that. I feel like that’s probably next. You know, I’m working on different kinds of things for after this tour, so I’m not exactly sure what it’ll look like, but I’m excited to be working on it. I’m doing a TV show that’s still in the development process and we’re still working it out, so that’s coming.”
She doesn’t mention whether any series she makes would be as sexually confronting as her stand-up, but she proudly admits that she’s “still pretty good at” shocking people, even if it sometimes backfires, like when a recent live appearance descended into madness after the audience disagreed with her choice of rape as a subject for comedy.
Ultimately, Cho just wants to make people laugh, and using her own sexuality is always the best way. Her evolving sexuality has been a constant in her act, admitting she has “always been curious about my own identity and who I was”, and admitting that “[bisexuality] is still quite an invisible part of LGBT culture” and an important factor in her continued plundering of sex and gender for laughs. She tells us she’s not going to stop now or anytime soon.
“You know, it’s just a world that I know and a world that I identify strongly in and do a lot of political work in and have done for a really long time so to me it’s very important, it’s family.”