Margaret Cho, stand-up comic, on Hong Kong lessons, Trump jokes, and the value of courting danger in Singapore
Korean-American stand-up comedian who’s making her second Asian tour talks about how comedy helps us through the absurdity of the Trump era and why making ‘joke about something it’s impossible to joke about’ is important
Margaret Cho has been at the top of the stand-up comedy game for a couple of decades, but the Asian-American is making only her second professional visit to Asia this month, for shows in Hong Kong (on May 13), Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The dates are part of her “Fresh off the Bloat” tour, which began last year.
Stand-up comedian Arj Barker returns to Hong Kong with sharpest material honed during performances in Australia
The outspoken Korean-American comic, known for material that is both intensely political and candidly personal – often making jokes out of subjects most other comedians wouldn’t touch, such as rape and child abuse, both of which she is a survivor of – also visited Hong Kong the first time she toured Asia, in 2016.
“I learned a lot,” she says. “I was always really intrigued by Hong Kong; I’m a big John Woo fan. It was really exciting to actually go to Chungking Mansions and be in the midst of this world that I’d only seen in the movies. I also ate a lot of goose.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the no-holds-barred nature of her material, she also visited Singapore on that tour – and has been invited back.
“It was fine,” she says of performing there. “I was recently talking to [similarly candid comedian] Kathy Griffin on the day she was performing in Singapore, and she was worried she was going to be too outrageous; I told her to just be herself.
“People were shocked when I performed there but at the same time it’s just comedy – how serious can it be? You want to court that kind of danger; I think it’s really valuable.”
Cho began performing stand-up in San Francisco as a teenager – Robin Williams was an early mentor – and started to make waves in the early 1990s. She appeared to get her big break in 1994 when she was given the starring role in a sitcom, All-American Girl, partly based on her stand-up routine, about generational and cultural clashes in a Korean-American family.
She lost creative control, though, and was pressurised in various unpleasant ways by network executives. The resulting series was criticised for its one-dimensional characters.
Following the show’s cancellation she had problems with her health, and with drugs and alcohol, but soon started performing again; she scored a massive hit with her first solo show, 1999’s “I’m the One That I Want”, and has been on the A-list of stand-up comedians ever since.
In addition to her confessional material, her other great subject is politics, in particular issues around race and sexuality. She is a tireless advocate for both women’s and LGBTQ rights; she identifies as bisexual, and when she was growing up in San Francisco her parents owned a bookshop aimed at the LGBTQ community – wildly controversial for a Korean family at the time, she has said.
It is, though, hard to be funny about politics in an era when the US president is one big walking punchline, she says.
“Trump is so sickening that he goes beyond humour or parody. But comedy is something that can help us get through the absurdity of all this. It’s sad to think he has no perspective on that himself, because he has no sense of humour,” Cho says.
She has also been vocal on the issue of Asian representation in the media, joking that she needs the work.
In particular, the issue of whitewashing – using white actors to portray non-white characters – got a welcome public airing in 2016 when she got into a long and sometimes awkward email conversation with the at-times oblivious British actress Tilda Swinton about the latter’s role in the film Doctor Strange as the Ancient One, who was Tibetan in the comic on which the film was based.
Of Swinton’s request that Cho tell the Asian community her viewpoint, the comedian memorably quipped: “I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.”
Although she says stand-up comedy will always be her first love, Cho is pretty multifaceted.
She is an actor, with everything from a role in John Woo’s 1997 film Face/Off to appearances as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his son and successor Kim Jong-un in TV comedy 30 Rock; as a musician, she has released two albums of humorous alternative rock, Cho Dependent (2010) and American Myth (2016). She is also a fashion designer; a burlesque dancer, with her 2007 show “The Sensuous Woman”; and the author of an autobiography and I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, a book of political essays.
Most of all, she is distinguished by her determination to find the humour in everything – even North Korea, where part of her family comes from.
“I’ve always been upset and concerned about the situation in North Korea, but they’re crazy, and making fun of them is the only way to deal with it,” she says, adding that it’s cathartic for her to talk to audiences about subjects most people would do almost anything to avoid airing publicly.
“There is a therapeutic element in sharing things that are very hard to talk about. It’s really powerful to take something so dark and disturbing and make it into a joke. It’s what comedians are trying to do: joke about something it’s impossible to joke about. Then it makes it OK to talk about it.”
Margaret Cho, May 13, 8pm, 10pm, Rotunda 3, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$588-HK$788, Ticketflap