Comedian Margaret Cho: 'I Invented The Cancellation'

Dec 20, 2019
Originally published on December 20, 2019 11:38 pm

Comedian Margaret Cho has spent decades as a trailblazer on race and sexuality, carving out a loud, unapologetic brand on stage and screen. One of her bits is about Asian American women dating white men.

"I think as an Asian American woman, we're really fetishized by white culture and white men in particular," she said. "And so there's this thing that we sort of gain power through having relationships with white men. And that kind of thing is like ... our own value pales in comparison to the value of whiteness. So that's really what the joke is trying to say and trying to talk about.

"[The joke] crawls inside the stereotype. It is like a fortune cookie."

Cho grew up in San Francisco idolizing comics like Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. Her parents owned a gay bookstore. The groundwork was laid for an outspoken icon. But before everyone knew her name, Cho had a little trouble finding her voice as a young Asian female starting out in comedy.

"I was playing some restaurant and they didn't have a photo of me, 'cause I had not had headshots taken," she said. "So they had a drawn a Chinese caricature — it had, like, big buck teeth, eating a bowl of rice ... they thought that this was going to help sell tickets to the performance."

She recounted this story to a live audience at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, as part of an interview series with rule-breaking women in comedy. I asked her if she thought about walking out of the show — and she said it didn't occur to her that she even had that power.

"At that time, when you were racist toward Asians, it was not read as racism," she said. "There was a long period of time where we sort of had to think: Are we people of color?"

Margaret Cho speaks to Audie Cornish in NPR's Studio 1 in Washington, D.C.
Eslah Attar for NPR

That struggle amplified when she got her own ABC sitcom in 1994 called All-American Girl, based on Cho's life growing up in the United States with Korean immigrant parents. Korean Americans rejected the depiction of their community in the show as bland, uncreative and rife with bad stereotypes.

Cho noted that the community was already feeling combative about its popular image at the time. In March of 1991, a Korean-born shop owner shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a black 15-year-old girl in Los Angeles. The death was one of the sparks that ignited the L.A. race riots.

"This was the first time that Korean Americans were seeing themselves portrayed in any capacity," she said. "They were so angry about the fact that I was this comedian who was incredibly foul-mouthed, and they had seen my HBO special and they were really freaked out by me anyway. So they were protesting against the show, and doing these op-ed articles in different magazines and newspapers ... it was heartbreaking to not have the acceptance from my community."

All-American Girl was cancelled after one season. Cho talked about the after-effects in her stand-up special I'm the One That I Want, taped in 1999.

But I was so tied up in the idea of that acceptance. You know, that was so important to me that when the show was over, I fell apart. And I didn't know who I was at all. I was this Frankenstein monster made up of bits and pieces of my old stand-up act, mixed with focus groups' opinions about what Asian Americans should be ... It was painful. And I did what's really hard for Asian people to do: I became an alcoholic. And that's not easy because we can't drink. We get all red. "Do you have a sunburn?"

All that burn has produced a tougher skin. Twenty years later, Margaret Cho is back with another stand-up tour, Fresh Off the Bloat. She spoke about that and more.


Interview Highlights

On making jokes about her family

I think my very first way to separate myself from my family is doing impressions of my mom. I mean, that's a very important thing if you're Asian American, is: You have to make fun of your parents. Because that's the thing that is, like — that's what's going to make us American. So we push against the foreignness of our family to become that. So to me, that's always been who I've been about.

On the current climate for edgy comedy, and "cancel culture"

I think you have to be adaptable. Like, I think that it's really great to be challenged as a comedian, and it's really about skill. I think that this ultimately will make our society better, it'll make our world better, because we've ignored these questions for so long that it's a good time to catch up. ...

I don't know. It's like, because I always think of myself as — I was cancelled in 1994, so I'm kind of safe? Like, I was cancelled so long ago, it's like: I invented the cancellation. I started the cancellation. So I mean, that to me is like — there are so many factors that go into that, and so to me, it's very fascinating. Some people are cancelled, it's a long time coming — a real long time coming.

On the current moment in Asian American comedy, with respect to Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe and Fresh Off the Boat

It's great. It's a long time coming, though — it's a long time to wait. But these are all great, great, great things to be celebrated. ... Eddie Huang, who actually wrote the memoir [that Fresh Off the Boat is based on], the original script had been part of his life, and then he asked me about what it was like to do an Asian American TV show with ABC. So you know, I was the one person he could call for that ...

And of course, Ali's specials — Ali Wong's specials really, for me, were really important, because I had not seen another Asian American woman doing a comedy special. And so that was such a mindblowing thing. ... Also, The Farewell with Awkwafina from the last year — it was such a great movie too. So there's more — it's just like, I want there to be even more, you know. ...

I think that there's more of a sense of an audience coming up to really proclaim, like, "This is what we want." Or there's a way we can talk about how excited we are about these kinds of shows and movies, and that our support is readily felt, and that the idea of representation is readily felt, and that we have the language to embrace it and talk about it. I think when you are dealing with invisibility, and being ignored by media and movies and television, it's really hard to ... have the words to talk about it, because you don't even know that you're invisible. So it's a very strange place to be in. And so I think that finally we have some images — it's starting to happen, and that's really great.

Lauren Hodges, Bilal Qureshi, Joanna Pawlowska and Sami Yenigun produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You can't talk about women in comedy without mentioning Margaret Cho. She spent decades as a trailblazer on race and sexuality, carving out a loud, unapologetic brand on stage and screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FRESH OFF THE BLOAT")

MARGARET CHO: Sometimes, you see, like, a really beautiful Asian woman, and she's with the most broke-down busted white man. And I'm just like, are your eyes that small?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: We played that clip from her stand-up special for a live audience at NPR headquarters here in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Now, about a third of the crowd laughed comfortably, while the rest basically looked around to make sure it was OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNISH: I can see y'all. It's not that dark...

CHO: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: ...In here.

But there's more behind the joke. Cho says it's not about being cruel. It's a commentary on social value from her perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: I think as an Asian American woman and you're, you know, like - we're really fetishized by white culture and white men in particular. And so there's this thing that, you know, we sort of gain power through having relationships with white men, and that kind of thing is like - it's almost - it doesn't matter. Like, our own value pales in comparison to the value of whiteness. So that's really what the joke is trying to say and trying to talk about.

CORNISH: The joke kind of crawls inside of the stereotype.

CHO: Inside of the stereotype and - it's almost - it is like a fortune cookie.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Cho grew up in San Francisco idolizing comics like Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. Her parents owned an indie bookshop with a large following in the queer community. The groundwork was laid for an outspoken icon, but believe it or not, Cho once struggled to find her voice in real life, especially as a young Asian female in the industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: I was playing some restaurant, and they didn't have a photo of me because I had not had headshots taken, so they had drawn a Chinese caricature. It had, like, big buck teeth eating...

CORNISH: No.

CHO: ...A bowl of rice.

CORNISH: You are making this up.

CHO: They thought that this was going to help sell tickets to the performance.

CORNISH: I asked her if she thought about walking out of the show, and she said it didn't occur to her that she even had that power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: At that time, when you were racist towards Asians, it was not read as racism. There was a long period of time where sort of, like - we sort of had to think, are we actually people of color?

CORNISH: She didn't even know her own power when she got her own sitcom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: To me, it seemed so much larger than who I was and what I was doing, you know? And I think that it was - for me, it was - I was just so intimidated by all of that, and I had no concept that I was the star. Like, I had no concept that this show was based around me.

CORNISH: It aired on ABC in 1994. It was called "All-American Girl," based on Cho's life growing up in America with Korean immigrant parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN GIRL")

CHO: (As Margaret Kim) I have a date with Kyle.

JODI LONG: (As Katherine Kim) Kyle - you're not still seeing him. Oh, I don't like him. He's wrong for you.

CHO: (As Margaret Kim) And I hope you've got something better than he's not Korean.

LONG: (As Katherine Kim) I do. He's American.

CORNISH: But not everyone was laughing back then. Korean Americans rejected this depiction of their community as bland, uncreative and rife with bad stereotypes. And Cho noted that the community was already feeling defensive about its image in pop culture and media at the time. A few years earlier, a Korean-born shop owner had shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, a black girl in South Central Los Angeles, and her death was cited as one of the sparks that ignited the LA race riots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: You saw all of the shopkeepers on top of the buildings, like, with rifles, and then you saw "All-American Girl." And so it was, like, this thing of, like - they were so angry. And so they were protesting against the show and doing these op-ed articles in different magazines and newspapers. And, you know, it was really - it was heartbreaking to not have the acceptance from my community.

CORNISH: "All-American Girl" was canceled after one season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: Now I look back, and I'm like - I just didn't know. I didn't know to take that power. And if I had, it would have been a very different thing.

CORNISH: A lot has changed since then both for Cho and overall for Asian representation in the media. Margaret Cho has a new stand-up special called "Fresh Off The Bloat" - still controversial, still loud, still inspired by her Korean heritage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: I think, like, my very first way to separate myself from my family is doing impressions of my mom. I mean, that's, like, a very important thing if you're Asian American is - you have to make fun of your parents because that's what's going to make us American.

CORNISH: Do you think it's generational? I mean, you have this whole world of comedians now who are saying, audiences are too PC; I won't do college campuses, specifically because they feel like they will be punished or harshly treated or there will be an outsized reaction to doing comedy that could walk whatever line.

CHO: I think you have to be adaptable. Like, I think that it's really great to be challenged as a comedian, and it's really about skill. I think that this ultimately will make our society better. It'll make our world better because we've ignored all of these problems for so long that now is a good time to catch up.

CORNISH: I always have to ask that these days, the kind of question about cancel culture...

CHO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...And if it's good or bad.

CHO: Well, I mean, maybe it's - I don't know. It's like - because I always think of myself as - I was canceled in 1994, so I'm, like, kind of safe. Like, I was canceled so long ago. It's like, I invented the cancellation. Like, that's - I started the cancellation. So I mean, like, that, to me, is like - there's so many factors that kind of, like, go into that. And so it's - to me, it's very fascinating. Some people get canceled. It's a long time coming, a real long time coming.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Definitely. I want to fast forward to now because we're in this very interesting climate where there's actually a kind of more assertive and diverse presence and representation of Asian American life - "Crazy Rich Asians," "Always Be My Maybe" and "Fresh Off The Boat." Twenty-five years after your sitcom, how do you read this moment?

CHO: It's great. It's a long time coming, though. It's a long time to wait. But these are all great, great, great things to be celebrated and...

CORNISH: And I heard you got a phone call - right? - going into "Fresh Off The Boat."

CHO: Oh, yeah. Eddie Huang, who actually wrote the original script, had asked me about what it was like to do an Asian American TV show with ABC. So, you know, I was the one person that he could call for that. But, you know, this show is so great. And then Ali's specials - Ali Wong's specials really, for me, were really important because I had not seen another Asian American woman doing a comedy special. And so that was, like, so...

CORNISH: But I think a lot of her comedy and tone - and when I think of some of the more raunchy elements of it, I do think of you.

CHO: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: I do think, like, could she do this today if someone else didn't kind of, like, take on all of the...

CHO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Incoming fire doing it before?

CHO: Yes, and she's been so vocal about, you know, me inspiring her. And, you know, I'm just so excited whenever I see her, and the movie is great also. And I think that, you know, all of this stuff is amazing because, you know, growing up, like, I never saw Asian Americans on television. And if I did, it was such a - they were so far removed from the center of the action, you know? It was always, like, sort of the background of "M*A*S*H," maybe Hop Sing - very, very, like, background characters. And so it's really something to be a part of it.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Well, Margaret Cho, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHO: Thank you.

CORNISH: Margaret Cho's stand-up tour is called Fresh Off The Bloat.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BAY SONG, "PINK LEMONADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.