In 1994 Margaret Cho made history by starring in the first primetime sitcom to feature an Asian American. "All American Girl”was on ABC and was loosely based on Cho’s life. Although the series lasted only one season, it made Cho a household name and helped pave the way for other Asian American comedians.
Now, she's back on ABC as part of the cast on another sitcom with an Asian American star. It’s called “Dr. Ken” and Cho plays the sister of Ken Jeong’s character.
Cho also has a new Showtime special, "psyCHO." (Note the clever spelling.) In the show she candidly riffs about her sexuality, inequality towards women, and Asian-Americans in Hollywood —and she's not afraid to talk about her embarrassments.
But while Cho appears to be an open book on stage, she tells The Frame that she's actually calculated in what she reveals about herself. "The more forthright you are," says Cho, "the more you can control your image."
The Frame's Oscar Garza talks with Margaret Cho about how she paved the way for Asian-American comics, her brutal honesty about her life on stage, and how she uses that to her advantage:
In your comedy special, "psyCHO," you mentioned that one of your mentors was Joan Rivers. How did that come about and how did she help you along in your career?
We had met in the '90s. I was doing a show here in New York and it had received an award and she had come secretly to the show in disguise and loved it and volunteered to present me with the award. So it was this special occasion where I was being given this award by my absolute hero. We sat, we talked, we had dinner. We had gotten along very well and at the end of the night she offered to send me all of her jewelry. She was starting to sell that on Home Shopping Network. And I told her I don't wear jewelry and then she turned her back to me and did not speak to me again for two years.
But then she came to terms with it and really was just the best friend you could have. She was so warm and so loving and so encouraging, and you could really go to her for anything. I asked her for so many favors, to work with me to help me in so many ways. She did everything I asked her to do. I'm just so grateful to her. And she was the example of comedy. She was the kind of comedian I wanted to be. When I saw her first — when I was a child — on television, I realized that's what I'm supposed to do with my life. I'm supposed to be a comedian like her and to have enjoyed this friendship for so long. I'm truly fortunate.
You mentioned she showed up to a show of yours secretly. You recently did something similar at The Comedy Comedy Festival, which featured only Asian-American female comedians and you showed up. All of them said, I'm told, that you were an inspiration to them. Have you tried to now return the favor that Joan Rivers did for you?
Yeah, I'm trying. I love that show. It was put on by my friends — Jenny Yang and all of these wonderful Asian-American comedians. It's a real pleasure for me to attend those shows and perform with them. For me, the landscape of comedy was very lonely 'cause I didn't have other Asian-American comedian peers for a long time. So when I attended that show I felt such a sense of gratitude that they've come along and now I'm not alone anymore.
And what do you find them asking you most commonly?
I think they just want to know about show business and they want to know about their specific careers, but also, they're so grateful that I decided to do what I did. And for me, it was not really a choice. I had to be a comedian and I think they all feel the same way. When you do comedy, it's not really anything that you choose. You just have to, so I think they feel the same way.
You broke ground in another way when you had your sitcom on ABC back in 1994, "All American Girl." It's taken more than 20 years until this year for another Asian-American sitcom to come along — "Fresh Off The Boat." Is that bittersweet for you to see that take so long?
It took a long time but it's a dream realized. For me, the triumph of "Fresh Off The Boat" and now also "Dr. Ken," which is about to start on ABC — the next Asian-American family television show out there — I feel so much gratitude, warmth, excitement, and relief that finally they're able to do it.
There's so much talk these days about the role in women in Hollywood. You recently put together a Funny or Die video called "If Women Ran Hollywood." How many times were you in a room with all men executives and writers?
[Laughs] All the time! Everyday. Well no, that's not true, but it's more often than not. All of [TV] is told from a male perspective. Even female characters, their stories are from a male perspective.
How much of that has changed?
I don't think it's changed very much. I think that there are more women. There needs to be more women in all of these roles, whether it is writing, producing, directing. It's just a really important thing and I'm encouraged by the way that we saw more women of color at the Emmys than ever. We saw more women of color winning than ever at the Emmys this year. So there's strides being made and I'm thrilled about that.
You've been performing comedy for more than 20 years. You're very open about who you are and you joke about your sexuality, race, and faults in a very candid way. What is it about that experience that attracts you to being completely open?
Well, it's great because it's actually a lie, because you can be open to an extent. When you reveal certain things that seem very personal, you don't have to reveal everything. But people assume that you're an open book. That is very appealing to a lot of people. The more forthright you are, the more you can control your image. That's sort of the big secret of people who appear to lay it all out there. They're really in control of what they're laying out there.
I don't feel that privacy is that big of a deal. My own privacy is not that important to me. I would rather have an interesting story to tell or prove a point through an example that I've lived through. I think that nobody is free of pain. And the human experience is about pain and suffering. When you can share that suffering in a way that is actually entertaining, you're doing a great service to people. You not only alleviate your own burden, but you do something to theirs as well. You can really share their burden with them. It's a really profound thing. I try to be as honest as I can, but also knowing that I control how much I do say.
Margaret Cho's comedy special, "psyCHO," premieres on Showtime on September 25.