Margaret Cho talks comedy and progress

Photo by Kyle Christy/margaretcho.com

Photo by Kyle Christy/margaretcho.com

By Tony Castleberry

Photo by Kyle Christy/margaretcho.com

Prior to a performance in Raleigh last year when she was fine-tuning material for her Showtime special “psyCHO,” Margaret Cho had not done a stand-up show in the City of Oaks in nearly two decades.

Cho, a veteran comic, actress and activist, returned to Raleigh in early February for a run of shows at Goodnights, and her 2016 experience at the venue luckily didn’t mimic the one from many years ago.

Toward the end of a phone interview with Cho, she said multiple fights broke out in the audience during that late 1990s visit to Goodnights. 

This blew my mind. While Cho’s comedy is fearless and she does address the human inadequacies in all of us from time to time, I couldn’t imagine a Margaret Cho show, or any stand-up performance, being a place where physical violence occurred.

Of course, what Cho said on stage likely didn’t prompt those altercations, and she astutely pointed out that both the club and city have changed a lot since then. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is Cho’s ability to make people laugh. The San Francisco native started writing jokes when she was 14, did stand-up for the first time at 16 and she has been going on stages all over the world ever since.

Along the way, while picking up TV and movie gigs, Cho’s dedication to helping others has steadily gotten stronger. Cho, who was picked late last year to co-host “Fashion Police” on E!, received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from LA Pride for her work with the LGBT community and she has also been honored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and others. 

Cho and I discussed the progress we’ve made, and how far we have to go regarding LGBT and race issues, her incredibly busy schedule, comics getting surprise laughs, and silence, from crowd members and much more.    

Tony Castleberry: You might have the most demanding schedule of any comedian I’ve interviewed. Is what little down time you have spent napping? I’m worried about you getting enough sleep, Margaret.

Margaret Cho: I’m fine. It’s kind of weird because the weekends that I do get out of town and get to go to a place like Raleigh and performing at Goodnights, that’s the one time that I do get to really rest because all I have to do here are shows basically. That’s not too bad, you know? It’s a pretty easy workday or night so I don’t mind it.

I’m doing a lot of different things. I guess maybe it seems more than it is.

TC: Does staying that busy make it tough to write new material? Are weekends like this maybe a time when you can write new stuff?

MC: Yes. This is the time to do that. I also have to generate a lot of stuff for Fashion Police and different things, so you’re constantly writing and whatever doesn’t go in there might go into stand-up. It all depends, but this is a good time to work on just doing stand-up.

TC: Are you happy about the strides we’ve made when it comes to accepting LGBT people or pissed off because we haven’t done enough?

MC: I’m happy for all the strides that have been made, especially the arena around transgendered rights and transgendered people. There’s a lot of great things that are happening, but there is a lot that still needs to be done. Stuff like looking to gay adoption rights. There’s looking to getting hate crime laws to extend to the LGBT community in every state. Currently, they’re only in 16 states. There’s work to be done, but there’s good things happening. 

TC: You told Stephen Colbert, “What’s really annoying is that nobody cared about race until white people got involved, and now all we do is talk about race.” It’s a funny line, but there is a lot of truth there. Ultimately, it’s a good thing that white people got involved, right?

MC: Yes. It’s great, and it’s great that it’s a very big discussion. We’re talking about inequality in a way that it hasn’t been approached before. I think it’s really good. I think it’s really positive. It kind of exhausts you to kind of constantly call stuff out. Looking at injustice and pointing it out can be a source of fatigue, but I think it’s positive. 

TC: Even in the South, I’ve seen a change in the way some white people treat and think about people of different races. Do you think that’s just us moving through time as human beings and evolving, or is it because they’ve been repeatedly told about these issues?

MC: I don’t know. I think it might be a combination of both. I was a Southerner too for seven years. I lived in Atlanta. What I noticed about the South is that white and black people hang out together more. I know there is purported to be more racism (in the South). That society is not segregated the same way that is in other parts of the country. There’s much more community around race in the South than other areas but I think maybe the history has something to do with the stereotype of Southerners or something. I’m not really sure. I do know things are changing because people are now more aware of their own beliefs and own biases.

TC: Comics have told me that sometimes a line in a joke or a bit gets a big laugh that they didn’t expect, and that the opposite also happens, when they expected a big laugh, it didn’t come. Have you experienced that and if so, can you explain it?

MC: Oh, that’s a constant thing. I think comedians’ senses of humor are often very different from anybody else. You might think something’s funny and get a laugh from another comic, and then when you go and perform it, the audience perceives it differently. Maybe it’s because we have a very rough sense of humor.

In the same way that EMTs and people that work on the front line of disasters, they’re dealing with disaster all the time. They have a really dark sense of humor and it’s similar to comedians also. We’ve been around for so long and you end up getting very numb to whatever is out there. You have different kinds of thoughts about what’s funny.

TC: Is this your first trip to Goodnights or have you performed there before?

MC: I was here not too long ago working out my Showtime special, which I did last year. Before that, it had been a long time, maybe 18, 20 years ago? It was a different club then. It was quite rough. I remember there were three fistfights that broke out in the audience. It was a very different town altogether back then.

TC: I hope this will be a fistfight-free weekend for you.

MC: I think so, but it was fun too. It was just a different time.

Contact Tony Castleberry at tcastleberry@reflector.com, 252-329-9591 or follow @tonycastleberry on Twitter.

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