photographer + stylist / Sam Evans -Butler
story / Meredith Zeitlin
location / Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, Atlanta Georgia
A thousand years ago when I was in college, there were no such things as Wi-Fi, Facebook, YouTube, a zillion TV channels, 5 million gossip websites… hell, I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2002. But in our shitty off-campus apartment, my roommate and I had something we thought was pretty great, and that thing was basic cable. (I’ll pause while you dry your tears, young readers. You had no idea life used to be so hard, did you?!)
Basic cable included Comedy Central, and its programming at the time was almost exclusively snippets of slightly-dated HBO stand-up specials. Margaret Cho had one of those specials, and we watched her clips until we knew them by heart. She did impressions of her screamy, gay-porn-obsessed mom. She cursed like a sailor and juggled Asian stereotypes, just daring the audience to get offended. She gleefully admitted that her hair used to look like a butt and that she hadn’t had sex in two years. She was confident and loud and hilarious and wore bright red lipstick and WE FUCKING LOVED HER.
Unlike a lot of the other comics we watched back then, Cho didn’t disappear into that sad Had-One-Special-Once-And-Then-? void. She never stopped being her rad, no-holds-barred self, and we always wanted more. We were furious when we found out how she’d been bulldozed on her own sitcom. We were relieved when she started using less hairspray. We were concerned when she got super thin, and then pissed off when other people commented on her appearance. We bought tickets and saw her live when she came to town, many specials and tattoos later. We freaked out when we recognized her as Kim Jong-Il on 30 Rock.
And then one day, my editor said I could ask her a bunch of questions about anything I wanted. This happened to me because life is like a glorious tapestry, weaving the pieces of one’s history into a giant, colorful… actually, you know what? Never mind. Want to know more about the awesome Margaret Cho and her new tour? Cool, me too. Let’s do this thing.
My college roommate and I watched your first HBO 30-minute special about 100 times (always wondering if it wasn’t very, very hot inside that leather jumpsuit). In it, you close with material about your hilarious mom, and that character has always been an audience favorite. Your new tour, Mother, is ALL about her. What made you decide to dedicate an entire show to her, and why now? And what does she think of the way you portray her?
Actually, that jumpsuit was plastic, and it was a gift from Apple and Steve Jobs because I did an ad for Apple and at that point they were unable to pay me – amazing. They also gave me a prototype laptop and camera that I left in the original plastic and threw AWAY IN THE GARBAGE WHEN I MOVED IN 2001. I am sick when I think of it.
My new show is about my mom but also lots of other things too, but she’s one of the topics for sure. She loves it and she thinks she is a star – which is true. I thought it would be the right title, as that is my nickname amongst my young friends – they call me ‘Mother.’
I actually had no idea you were married [ed. note: Margaret has been married to artist/writer Al Ridenour since 2003] until I started doing research. I was surprised, simply because I’ve always thought of you as this on-the-go fabulous bi chick who’s all about being different and breaking rules and barriers, and marriage (even an open marriage) is so… traditional. Why did you make the choice to do it at all? After ten years, it’s obviously going pretty well. What is it about this particular relationship that works for you?
I am just partnered, but I have an open marriage, and also I don’t live anywhere with any regularity, so it pushes me into all sorts of situations. But I am happily married, which is a constant, and a really great thing. It doesn’t affect anything in my work, at least I am not sure if it does, as I have been in this same relationship for much of my artistic life – we have been together for a long time. I am just with the right person. We are a family and we are happy and we have always been.
You’re pretty fucking outspoken – and transparent about your life/experiences – in your stand-up, which we love. Is there anything that’s actually off-limits?
I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I also want to have fun and let whatever is natural come out. I haven’t had too many things I regret. I think if we treat everything with compassion then it’s ok, but I may have made mistakes. But so far, I don’t think anything is off-limits.
What’s the difference between snark and comedy?
Snark is lazy and mean and pointless. I just don’t like it. Comedy is all manner of things – but snark is poor attempts at comedy — which is so snarky to say.
There’s always buzz around shows that give women – particularly women of different sizes, ages, sexual preferences, ethnicities – real, juicy roles that showcase them. For example, recently there’s been a ton of talk about Orange is the New Black, Melissa McCarthy’s rise to fame, Shonda Rhimes’ work as a writer/producer, etc. Considering that your [now-cancelled 1995] sitcom was one of the first to really kick off this trajectory, and the way you were treated during that experience, how do you feel about the idea that celebrating difference might actually be a thing people are into now in a REAL way? Do you think it’s just a hot-button trend, or something more permanent?
Omg – well, I love all the people you mentioned – I am kind of in love with Melissa – but I really hope that this wonderful trend continues. I love Shonda’s shows, and Orange Is the New Black is so cool. I have my own internet series about women coming out of prison called In Transition. But I love that there are people creating things I can relate to/obsess on. It feels great!
You’ve done TV, film, original music, and a web series… but you always come back to stand-up, and the road. What is it that brings you back to the stage every time?
I love standup comedy. It’s my living, my social life, my dream – I had dreams of it when I was a kid, and then when I started performing at 14, it was exactly the same. I love standup comedy. I will always do it, I will always love it.
Let’s talk tattoos. I know you’ve said you’re about 90% covered, which a lot of people might not realize since you rarely parade around town naked. Do you feel like Janeane Garofalo is trying to sneakily compete with you in the “bad-ass, tatted female comedian” category? If so: are you more likely to take her out, or ask her team up as a crime-fighting duo?
I copied Janeane Garofalo – she was my role model/best friend when we were just kids. I looked up to her and moved to Los Angeles to be near her. We would eat vanilla yogurt and Grape Nuts all day and I taught her how to smoke cigarettes. We were going to get matching tattoos sometime in the 90s but then she moved to New York City so we never got them. Janeane created alternative comedy. She influenced a generation of comedians. Every indie musician guy I know has had a crush on her at some point. So I would hope to be a crime fighting duo – but she’s way cooler than I have ever been or will ever be.
You got a lot of crap for supposedly outing John Travolta a few months ago. Have you considered offering gay-celeb outing as a service? Can you talk a bit about why you think it’s important for celebrities to make their private lives public?
I just wanted to make the joke about the police sketch artist and his red, chapped asshole. It’s just a crude, hilarious, ridiculous thing that got blown out of proportion. I really think it’s funny to think about Helen Mirren in that situation – but everyone has to see the joke to understand what I mean here. [ed. note: Watch it here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dRTtosEgmo#at=15] It’s just funny. It’s not about outing as much as it is about Helen Mirren.
Can we hang out when you come to New York? Wait – that wasn’t my real question. (Yes, it was.) Seriously: you’ve been doing this for 25 years. Did you ever doubt that you were on the right path? Is your success the success you imagined, or is it totally different? And what’s next???
Yes, of course. [ed. note: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!] And yes – I am so glad to be on this path. I am touring. I am making jokes. I am making music and making love. Success is great and it’s a dream come true and I try to do my best every day.