State of Emergency

Comedian Margaret Cho speaks out on revolution, haters, and same-sex love

Silja J.A. Talvi

Comedian Margaret Cho pulls no punches. And nothing, absolutely nothing, is off-limits. 

On stage, Cho’s material ranges from the X‑rated to the extraordinarily personal. Body image, peculiar forms of motherly love, gay sex and George W. Bush; everything is a fair target. In the tradition of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Cho refuses to let shame ruin her game. 

Cho’s journey to being one of the most successful and recognizable comedians in America has been hard-traveled. In the aftermath of her early 90s network television show, All-American Girl, Cho’s internal battles with eating disorders, addiction and low self-esteem nearly killed her. As she struggled with the remnants of what she perceived to be a ruined Hollywood career, Cho lashed out with a furious and bittersweet comedy that led to a remarkable comeback. Her riotous and radically pro-gay, pro-feminist, pro-sex comedy tour, I’m The One That I Want, led to an eponymous video/​DVD and book. Her new audiences were enthralled, and Cho never looked back. 

Her second film, Notorious C.H.O., was an act taken from her 37-city national tour (including a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall). Her latest film, Revolution, is her most political to date. Filmed at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles’ Koreantown, it highlights Cho’s ascendancy as a progressive challenger to the Bush administration and its attempt in the past four years to roll back civil rights and liberties.

The more recognizable and outspoken that Cho has become, the more she’s started to feel the heat. After a January benefit for the political organizing Web site, MoveOn​.org, a re-posting of a portion of her performance on The Drudge Report resulted in voluminous, vicious attacks (which can be read on her site. Among the tamest? An e‑mail from Sam” to the American-born Cho: Why don’t take your slant-eyed ass back to the orient if you don’t like it here, you worthless troll.” (Sam followed up with another email, in which he wrote: I am so ashamed of myself for sending that awful e‑mail. Please forgive me. I allowed the heat of the moment of reading your comments get to me. Believe it or not, I am a Christian and it was so wrong of me to say those mean things.”)

Hate mail, says Cho, is just a part of what you get for being an outspoken progressive these days. In this exclusive In These Times interview, Cho shares her thoughts on this topic and the state of emergency we find ourselves in:

Your new DVD, Revolution, was released this August. What excites you most about it? 

I’m happy with the fact that I got to do it and am proud to put it out there. It was an amazing tour, and it was great to finally shoot the film at The Wiltern, and have it follow the path of the other shows.

Why Revolution” as a title? 

It’s about having a personal revolution, and the need to acknowledge the absolute right to have one on a political level. The thing about conservative politics is that conservatives are so incredibly justified in their bigotry and ignorance. That sense of total justification is often something that people who are liberal and compassionate don’t really have. So Revolution is also a call to action in that regard: We’re deserving of that word and state of mind. 

Tell us about the State of Emergency Tour that you’re kicking off on August 28 at the Apollo as part of the Imagine Festival in New York. What are you aiming for?

I’m aiming for a successful show, one that will be entertaining and one that also will be effective in terms of sparking political awareness and change. The show will change each time, according to what’s happening in the nation politically. Comedian Bruce Daniels and I are touring places that are considered battleground states for this election, and then our tour goes all over the world. Our primary focus with the battleground states is to bring support to areas where local progressive populations haven’t really been acknowledged and where they need to know that they are being supported.

How does it feel to be getting the First Amendment Award from the ACLU this fall? And what, for you, is the particular importance of civil liberties groups in the political climate we’re living in today? 

It’s wonderful, and it’s exciting to be honored by them. It wasn’t something that I expected or even felt like I deserved in the sense that I felt a little young to be getting it!

To me, organizations like the ACLU are important because their agenda is so much what I’m about: Equal rights for everyone without exception. Regardless of what’s happening on a domestic or worldwide level, we must always be working toward the realization of democracy. 

What do you think is going to happen with these upcoming elections? Is Kerry the right choice for us, despite the fact that many of his political positions are not particularly progressive?

He’s the only choice. As a nation, we cannot handle another four years of Bush’sadministration.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t things that will need to be done with the next round” of a presidency. There is a lot of clean up that needs to go on, and many things that have to be done in order to regain confidence from the rest of the world. But the point is that we have to get to that phase. It’s imperative. It’s so important that we have more of a say as individual citizens in this country. What we have now is really more like a monarchy than anything else, and we need to get our democracy back.

You were supposed to perform at the Unity 2004 event around the time of the Democratic National Convention in July. But then you were uninvited” by the group that had asked you to come in the first place, the gay/​lesbian rights organization, Human Rights Campaign [HRC]? What happened? 

I was asked not to participate because a large amount of fear of any kind of negative publicity from the right-wing press. I was disappointed. From my perspective, it all stems from the fact that conservatives are so incredibly arrogant about their point of view. There’s nothing that shakes them. People let them say whatever they want. They’re so confident and they sell their bigoted views with confidence. But progressives don’t share that same level of confidence. What we need to do as progressives and liberals is get some of that confidence back, that unabashed feeling that we’re totally in the right. Personally, I have a hard time believing that these conservatives believe what they say they believe. But whether they believe it or not, their agenda is served. We need to take that attitude, and we need more confidence in our own point of view.

So being uninvited” didn’t make you angry?

I understand that organizations like the HRC have to toe the line in order to not offend donors. They also need to assure themselves a position in peoples’ minds as being rational and middle of the road enough to be accepted. So, no, I’m not angry. I understand why they did it.

Some of your political appearances have generated a great deal of racist and misogynist hate mail. What’s it been like being that kind of target?

I’ve gotten incredible amounts of hate mail, especially in this last year. It’s amazing how much people get threatened and angry when you want to bring a different perspective and criticize their ignorance. People get so stupid and angry that they incriminate themselves with their own stupidity. It’s amazing how much racism and homophobia there is, and how people use it to justify their opinions. As a comedian, I actually find it kind of beautiful how stupid people are! It’s kind of delightful in that I know it’s real and it’s something to contend with.

Why is marriage equality — the right for people to have same-sex marriages — such an important issue for you? You even set up a Web site, Loveisloveislove​.com, to promote the right of same-sex marriage. 

It all comes down to the delegation of equality. Not allowing people to marry is totally against the Constitution. And this isn’t just about gay and lesbian families. This has to do with the obligation for us to have a compassionate government and a government that is accepting of all minorities. We shouldn’t take that responsibility lightly.

I’m adamantly opposed to the movement against same-sex marriages, including the recent nullification of thousands of marriages in San Francisco. It’s just needless and pointless for these so-called family Christian groups to advocate this lunacy. They’re just being mean. Is the point that our country should be run by ignorance and bigotry? If so, that has big, big ramifications. 

You’ve spoken extensively to issues facing women in America today, on everything from body image and eating disorders to reproductive and sexual rights. Is it your sense that things are getting worse for women in this country in these kinds of ways?

Things are getting far worse, and I don’t think that people understand that, or are paying enough attention. It’s really bad. And it’s bad in a couple of ways. There’s what’s happening on a political level, including the inability for Congress to accept the idea of something like making the morning after pill available over the counter. Or that we have an administration in power that would like to have reproductive rights taken away from women altogether. Couple that with what’s happening on a social level, including the treatment of people like Whoopi Goldberg and Linda Ronstadt for speaking their minds. Women like this are consistently punished for saying the most benign things. What they are saying amounts to social commentary on our culture — and humor is an important part of social commentary — but there are incredible double standards that apply to women this way. And those kinds of things are getting worse as time goes on.

Learn more about Margaret Cho at www​.mar​garetcho​.com.

Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.
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