Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Margaret Cho had to move to Los Angeles to find commercial renown and meet her husband, Reverend Al of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society. An incessant blogger and deeply thoughtful comedian, Margaret Cho is also a dancer, actress, writer and social critic (Google ‘Margaret Cho’ to find out more). Interview done over several days by V.Vale.
VALE: You know, it occurred to me that in the history of the whole world you may be the first Asian-American woman comedian. I certainly don’t know of anyone else–
MARGARET CHO: Hmm . . . I guess I am.
V: And in fact there have hardly been any Asian-American actresses. There was Anna Mae Wong in the Marlene Dietrich movies from the forties. Who else? Well, whoever played the wife of Charlie Chan. The presence just hasn’t been there, so you’re like the first. Don’t you think that’s amazing?
MC: Yeah, I think that’s great.
V: But how did you become who you are?
MC: Well, I found my own environment to be pretty stifling, and feeling so limited in what I could do as an Asian-American or Korean-American, I branched out and did a bunch of different things.
V: Right, but that isn’t easy. Was your peer-group other Asian Americans?
MC: No. I was raised in a really diverse community–I grew up in San Francisco where there are lots of other Asian-Americans and many other ethnic minorities, gender minorities, and sexual minorities, so it was pretty wide-open and quite a different place to grow up.
V: Well, it’s not exactly a prank, but in context, to be an Asian-American or a female comedian is kind of an amazing thing. Remember how Asian women were ‘supposed to be’ back in the bad old days?
MC: It was so weird–
V: You weren’t supposed to stick your neck out at all–
MC: No. But because of that and because of my identity, I actually participated in doing a prank for this group of businessmen. This was a breakfast club meeting in Petaluma, probably in the late eighties, for conservative businessmen–lots of Republican guys. They actually told racist jokes during breakfast. So they hired me to show up and ‘attack’ the main head guy, to almost give him a heart attack, and then it would be like: ‘Ah, it’s a joke!’
V: That’s weird–
MC: It was horrible! And I didn’t know any better. I was taking any paying job I could get, and I was probably about seventeen years old, and these guys saw me at the Holy City Zoo [San Francisco comedy club] where I used to work all time–
V: Wow, at seventeen–
MC: So they saw me and they loved me. And these older guys–I mean I had no idea what they wanted from me–they said, ‘Well, we have a gig that we’d love for you to do, and we’ll pay seventy- five dollars.’ To me that was a huge amount of money, so I said, ‘Absolutely, that would be great!’ And they’re like, ‘It’s early in the morning. All you have to do is come down and meet us here at 7 AM and come into the meeting and listen for a while. You’re welcome to have breakfast with us, and just get really offended by what we’re going to talk about. And then at whatever point you feel, really, like just exploding, just go off and yell! Yell mostly at the chairman, because we really want to get at him, but just yell about what’s going on and how terrible this all is and how there aren’t any other women or people of color, and how they are all rich, and how they are allowing this moment where they can be white and rich and tell racist jokes and congratulate themselves on being so rich and so white!’ So I was like, ‘Oh, okay!’ I thought, ‘This is really interesting.’
So I went, and they paid me in advance. I was sitting at the breakfast table with them and they were all giving me strange looks, because it was all old men in their fifties and beyond, and obviously all successful businessmen–the parking lot was full of Mercedes and BMWs. So they weren’t sure what to make of me, but nobody was saying anything, and I was just there in my little business suit about to have breakfast with everyone.
So the breakfast started, and the guy who was running it, the chairman, opened the floor and told some very racist joke–I can’t remember what it was–but it was a really racist joke about black people, the type you could never tell in mixed company (or any kind of company) but he told it and everybody laughed. Then somebody else told a joke about Affirmative Action, and everybody laughed. At that point I just stood up and started screaming: ‘You can’t do this! This is absolutely wrong and I can’t believe you’re doing this! It’s so racist and sexist and you should be ashamed of yourself! This is not what this is supposed to be–this is non-inclusionary–this is the worst ivory tower that I’ve ever seen!’
At first they were afraid because they weren’t sure what I was doing there, and then they realized that clearly somebody had put me up to it, and then they all just laughed and applauded– they were so excited, and the chairman was just tickled pink! It couldn’t have been better if I’d popped out of a cake! It was just this perfect thing: ‘Here’s this woman, she’s a minority, she’s talking about all of the minorities–and I can’t stand minorities! And they’ve combined every minority into one, and it’s coming at me–and it’s a joke!’ And so it was this intense relief for the chairman–it was a very complicated political prank.
V: Wow, maybe that was the new form of ‘popping out of a cake.’ Of course, I immediately thought of what I’ve read about the master-slave relationship, and how a lot of these powerful executive-types have a secret life where they want to be tied up and whipped in a bondage situation–
MC: Right, they want to be beat upon! They want to be yelled at, to alleviate their guilt–they know they’ve done wrong! And to alleviate their guilt they occasionally host little ‘events’ like this. Whereas it was funny at the time because it was in the context of good humor, now I look back on it and think, ‘That’s terrible! They really took advantage of me!’ I was so young–
V: Right, you were like a ‘trophy Asian’! There are white men who fetishize Asian girls–I’m sure you know all about that–
MC: Oh yeah, but I was so young that I couldn’t be aware of all that. I think I was chosen just because I was politically the right kind of person for the job: the perfect minority who they felt so guilty about and wanted to make fun of somehow to alleviate their own guilt, or–
V: A lot of these business types have a sick sense of humor–
MC: I know! They’re a sick group because their life is all about greed, and it isn’t really about compassion–
V: It’s about greed and lying and swindling and defrauding the consumer–
MC: –swindling the consumer and swindling each other and . . . It’s a weird world. But they’re human beings; they’re not such monsters. They have needs, but their needs are met in different ways.
V: Oh, how compassionate of you!
MC: Yes . . . well, maybe they are actually like human beings, and I like that they have these desires and needs that need to be taken care of…