Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho hopes to accomplish three things in her life — keep touring, never have to retire and to be able to keep moving. Currently, she is on a mission with the first, and judging by the reviews of her new show, Fresh Off The Bloat, she may just be on course to achieve the second.
Cho, who turns 50 at the end of the year, is also particularly grateful for many things in life these days. It’s certainly a milestone worth celebrating and quite a feat, considering the San Francisco native’s trying journey getting here.
Cho is a pioneer in her chosen career — she started doing stand-up in the early 1990s and quickly worked her way to an opening act spot with Jerry Seinfeld and consistent appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show and eventually securing a sitcom developed around her comedy routine. All-American Girl, while short-lived, was a largely significant first for American television, making an early dent in the racial barrier that has long hindered Asian-American actors in Hollywood.
The sitcom painted a picture of an “all-American” Asian family, but the reality was much more gritty and at the same time, colourful for Cho. Growing up in a neighbourhood where her parents operated a bookstore, she was exposed to a melting pot of old hippies, ex-drug addicts, drag queens, gay men and women, Chinese and Koreans. “It was a really confusing, enlightening and wonderful time,” she once said of her early years.
Having been transparent about being bullied at school, sexually molested by a family friend for several years as a child, and sexually abused and raped by another acquaintance throughout her teenage years, the profound impact of these experiences has inextricably become part of her no-holds-barred comedy. Over the years, even as she straddled the line between hilarity and the discomfort that often arises from her confrontational style — be it her wildly popular mimicry of her mother, talk of her sexuality and sexual escapades (Cho is a passionate advocate for the LGBT community) or her controversial mocking of Kim Jong Un at the 2015 Golden Globes — she has never been one to play it safe.
Perhaps inevitably, despite comedy being therapy for her, the demons in her past have, nevertheless, not always been easy to exorcise. But true to her character, she has never shied away from them, more often than not forcing a confrontation through a combination of brutal honesty and lurid detail while inviting the audience along .
Cue Fresh Off The Bloat, which comes after a year-long stint in rehab and being off the radar in 2016. Cho is certainly back in her element — having been on tour with the new show since late last year. “I am definitely more alive, and there is also more honesty and spirit that I have devoted to this show, which is all about surviving,” she tells Options.
In it, Cho does not stray far from familiar topics like racism, sexism, abuse and drug addiction, not to mention her Asianness, or lack of it, depending on who one asks. Somewhat fortuitously, for someone whose comedic success also lies in her ability to pinpoint current sociopolitical topics, she has more fodder than ever to churn out her
Besides riffing on the Trump presidency, the spotlight on female empowerment with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is right up Cho’s alley. “I’m glad the world is finally catching up with me! I’ve been talking about these issues for a long time, so it’s very rewarding to see that it is now a global movement,” she quips good naturedly.
Critics have noted a particular refinement and finesse in the delivery of Fresh Off The Bloat, something that Cho admits comes naturally from where she is in life right now. “It is like a comeback... I have so much to offer in a new way and I do think I am more balanced. There have been many changes in my life in support of that. If anything, I’m now more devoted to my work than I have ever been. It’s exciting to find new joy in something I’ve been pursuing for so long.”
I’m glad the world is finally catching up with me! I’ve been talking about these issues for a long time, so it’s very rewarding to see that it is now a global movement
With a larger-than-life persona and story, it can be easy to take Margaret Cho the comedian at face value. But her success as a veteran in the US and
beyond belies a well-honed artistry in delivering even the crudest of jokes.
While she says she does not over-analyse her style, she shares, “You want to be shocking and yet, there has to be a good reason for it. I am sure I’m offensive all the time, but I don’t want to do it without a sense of compassion and saying something important.”
And that’s why she doesn’t tire of touring and performing for different audiences, having been on the road for more than half a year now. “I think there’s a very visceral connection … I want that most of all. I want to have people reacting without thinking, which is the best thing. If you can bypass people’s judgement and phobias and they are just laughing, that is the best,” Cho says, adding that she is very excited about performing in Malaysia for the first time.
In case Malaysian audiences need a taste of what to expect, the inspiration behind the title of the show offers a glimpse. “My grandmother once said to me, ‘You look bloated, as if you’ve been found dead in a lake after several days of searching.’ Koreans are the most savage of all Asians,” she says.
Incidentally, Cho has spent her whole life being simultaneously too Asian and not Asian enough. She observes, “I think it’s funny to think about it, and it will always be like that — being an outsider and not belonging. I will never fit in!”
This article first appeared on May 7, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.