For decades now, Margaret Cho has been fearlessly making audiences laugh about race, sex, and gender. Her ABC sitcom, “All-American Girl” was one of the first TV shows to prominently feature an all Asian cast.
She has earned five Grammy nominations and also an Emmy nomination for portraying Kim Jong-il on NBC’s “30 Rock.” Before taking on our listeners’ etiquette questions, she chatted with Brendan and Rico about her new stand-up show called “Fresh Off the Bloat,” making jokes in an age where comedians are facing career-altering backlashes for testing boundaries, and more.
On how she came up with the title “Fresh Off The Bloat”
Margaret Cho: [It] was kind of fast. Because you go, “Oh, well, if I wanna do a show, because I wanna talk about Asians in entertainment. And then, I had my own Asian-American family show many years ago, and now I have this very famous Asian-American family show, ‘Fresh Off the Boat.'” And so, it’s meta-title, “Fresh Off the Bloat.” Because the show’s also about fatness and alcoholism and getting over a lot of different kinds of demons. So the bloated corpse of my existence is kind of being drained… But I love to have a show about the very darkest parts of existence and bringing them back to the light, so it’s good.
On writing jokes in this current political climate with the president doing or saying something controversial seemingly almost every hour
Margaret Cho: Well, there’s no holds barred. I mean, with, like, Kathy Griffin holding up his decapitated head, which I love. It’s just #TBT [Thowback Thursday] French revolution, as far as I’m concerned. It’s just #JohnTheBaptist. Like, it’s just fun. But she got in trouble for it.
Rico Gagliano: Well, this is actually a question I wanted to ask. One could have, at one point, said that the only rule in comedy was there are no rules. And now, it does feel like there are people like Kathy Griffin, Bill Mahr, who are having potentially career-altering backlashes for pushing boundaries. How does that affect the way you approach comedy?
Margaret Cho: I don’t know. Like, with Kathy in particular, she got fired from a lot of jobs, she lost a lot of work because of it. But I also love it when she gets fired because I am next in line for whatever job she had.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re going to be with Anderson on New Years?
Margaret Cho: You can watch me on New Years Eve from Times Square with Anderson Cooper and-
Rico Gagliano: Amazing! So you’re encouraging her, like, “Take it a step further!’ Push it!”
Margaret Cho: Just keep on taking it, because I’m the scab. I’m like Kathy Griffin’s scab. But also, like with Bill, that was a really weird circumstance where he’s… there’s this weird, I don’t know what it is about white people, they really want to say the N word. And I’m like, “Why?!?”
…I mean, I’m like, “What is that kind of continually trying to test the boundaries of language or propriety.”
Rico Gagliano: But certainly as a comedian you have some of those same instincts.
Margaret Cho: We do, all of us, have those tendencies to want to play with fire, and then we get burned. And I’m certainly guilty of things — not the N word — but I think a lot of other things that we’re not really allowed to say in polite company and things that I have gotten in trouble for. Like, I try to play with religion a lot and people get really upset and scared.
On whether public backlash made her shy away from certain topics
Margaret Cho: Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe it makes you do things more. I was talking to Jerry Seinfeld about this kind of stuff. And he was like, “You know, it flares up, but then it goes away just as quickly. It’s not like any of these things last.”
I kind of disagree, because if you’re looking at something like what happened with Michael Richards, which is sort of the origin of where we sort of had social media outrage really kind of take somebody out of their position that they were in.
On why she focused some of the material in her new set on her parents, who owned a gay bookstore in San Francisco during the height if the AIDS epidemic
Margaret Cho: Well, because I worked all through the ’90s in AIDS organizations and trying to get funding and trying to get the government to acknowledge that this was a really terrible problem and that we needed to take the stigma off of it.
So, when you work with organizations like ACT UP and Coronation and all the stuff that I was doing in the ’90s, then you gotta come away with feeling like, “I really can’t talk about the crisis and the way that my disrespectful parents did.”
Rico Gagliano: I see. So the comedy comes from you, the enlightened daughter, having to deal with, actually, fairly enlightened parents who just don’t use very enlightened language.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, but that they actually said. So, like, my mother’s point is [imitates her mother’s voice], “Everybody that have AIDS, they die. Except for ugly people. Only ugly people survive AIDS. Because wanna have the sex with the ugly people.” And-
Rico Gagliano: Yeah. That’s something you can’t say ever.
Margaret Cho: No, and I’m like-
Brendan Francis Newnam: So you threw your parents under the bus.
Margaret Cho: Well… they live there [under the bus]. They’re crushed. They’ve been crushed. They’re always crushed. No, but they, I mean and the thing is that that’s how they remember the AIDS crisis. And it’s not exactly “The Normal Heart,” but, it’s true for them.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]