You can’t discuss the topic of comedy without bringing up Margaret Cho. This multi-talented entertainer has gained legions of fans not only from her hilarious, raw and honest stand-up, but also from a slew of projects. Margaret has been performing since the age of 14, telling jokes in a club next to her parents’ bookstore on Polk Street in her native San Francisco. In the early 1990s, she won a comedy contest and opened for Jerry Seinfeld and was a sensation on the college comedy circuit.
Her groundbreaking sitcom All-American Girl brought her into our living rooms, and she’s followed up with appearances on Drop Dead Diva (currently airing weeknights on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries – and it’s worth a watch or rewatch), The Flight Attendant and her Emmy nominated turn as Kim Jong-Il on 30 Rock. She recently co-starred in the Hulu comedy Fire Island and was also recently honored by VOGUE Magazine as one of the “9 best female comedians of all-time.” She also performs music, has written two books and has her own podcast.
Margaret is hitting the road for a new tour, dubbed Live and LIVID. The tour kicks off on March 1 in Telluride, Colorado and hits 19 cities across the country. We had the chance to talk to this comedy icon about her upcoming tour, her inspiration and passions – and we even put her in the hot seat for the Socialite Seven in our exclusive interview.
What prompted you to go back on the road again?
Well, I’ve just been touring, doing lots of different things and going to clubs and stuff, and it was just time. I really wanted to do another theater tour, but touring is something that I always do. It was much more limited, I think, because of the pandemic and everything was kind of in a phase where we were not sure exactly what was going on, but it seems like the right time and there’s so much to get out there and talk about. So, I’m excited to be out there.
What can fans expect on the tour? What kind of topics are you planning to cover?
Oh, well, you know, really basically trying to protect drag queens. I lay my life down for the drag queens! I’m so nervous for the safety of drag performers out there. When you’re having this level of chaos where drag queens are getting attacked at their shows. And, you know, after the Club Q shooting, it’s just been a really scary time. There’s just so much to be said to really focus on the unity of our community, the safety of our community, and the joy of our community – because drag queens are really where our joy is located, which is why I think it’s scary that this particular community within our community is being targeted because it’s where our humor is. It’s where our joy is. It’s where our celebration is.
Whenever there’s a celebration, that’s when we bring out the drag performers. The drag performers are the heart and soul of who we are as a community and how we celebrate ourselves. So, it’s a really scary thing when this very honorable part of our community is targeted. And so that’s part of it.
But then, you know, lots of things: reproductive health, reproductive rights, Roe v. Wade, this is a very big thing that’s really been taken for granted for 50 years so that’s a major part of it. There’s so much racism…the rise and still continual hate crimes against Asians daily that are occurring in kind of the wake of Covid-19. It’s a really multifaceted time of outrage, but also nuance in that as well. There’s got to be a way to navigate it where you’re not just furious all the time. I think humor is a way to engage in a really kind of righteous anger that is cathartic. So that I think was what I’ve always done anyway.
And you’re talking about homophobia and racism and sexism, but now it still feels more urgent. It’s almost like we haven’t learned anything from history. We’re going backwards where we shouldn’t. There’s so much that we have gained and knowledge about ourselves and we have so much at our disposal in terms of technology. We should be able to rise above so much of what’s happening. But for some reason it’s gotten worse.
It definitely has. I feel that too. Some of my friends went down to see the Drag Queen Christmas show last week, and I was like, please be careful. I never thought I’d have to say that to somebody before they go see a drag show…
Because it’s the safest part of our community. Drag shows are the place where you feel really safe and secure. The only danger is getting roasted by a drag queen, which is actually fun…but scary! And if these patriotic Proud Boys, they should be scared. If they knew what a drag queen can do to your personality, to your psyche, to your self-esteem, they should be scared. It’s like, you know, who are you fucking with? But it’s so messed up. I just don’t understand why, but I also do understand why, because it’s where we celebrate.
Now, you mentioned earlier about Covid…did you learn anything surprising about yourself while you were living through the pandemic?
I think never actually stayed at home for any length of time, and I really love it. I actually am quite a homebody. I never had that ability for 40 years since I’ve been touring, I’ve been on the road and, you know, I’ve had a home and built a home life, but I had not really been able to experience it fully until things sort of shut down. And I was here and now I’ve really kind of moved into all of the rooms in my home and it’s really special. So, you know, just to kind of build this sort of sanctuary for myself has been really important. Just after living out of suitcases for so long…but I do appreciate touring, of course, and I’m grateful to have it back. And so, certainly, it’s a really encouraging thing, but it’s definitely different.
When you start to put together a show like Live and Livid, where do you draw your inspiration from?
How do you deal with writer’s block? Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having it. You have to just give forth whatever is coming and if it doesn’t feel inspired, you just have to fake it. I do lots of different kinds of writing: I journal and then I do joke writing, and I try to write music and so there are lots of things that I’m doing daily that may or may not ever see an audience necessarily, but I’m the audience and I always try to make sure that the tap is always flowing so that if there’s a block, I don’t really notice it because I’m just like pushing out whatever there is all the time. I think the key for me is just making it very daily. There’s nothing very special about it. I’m not writing for a particular occasion; writing is just the norm. And then when I share that, maybe then it’s more of a big deal, but then it’s always going to be there.
Do you ever find it hard ever to reveal so much about yourself on stage?
Not really, because that’s also part of writing. Like, how do you avoid writer’s block? Well, you would just keep on revealing everything. Like the blocks are sometimes like, oh, I would like to have some privacy around this. But then you can just decide maybe I won’t share that. But then there’s something of value that can come out of it. Like if I think of something that maybe makes sense or makes some point that I think is valuable, then I want to share it. I think that we’re all, just as human beings, going to have every experience, every kind of trauma, every kind of heartbreak. So, privacy doesn’t seem as precious as it does to make the connection.
Cancel culture is now this big thing. Do you ever worry about being canceled?
I don’t know. I mean, yeah, I guess because there are always things that I don’t know, you know, like maybe there are things that I have no idea that I’m being ignorant about or that I’m being callous about, so I always want to be aware of that. I think it really lies in the intention of if you’re intending to offend, that’s something else. I’m never really intending to offend unless it’s something I’m offended at, like, I’m offended at some of the actions of people…then I don’t find it’s necessary to excuse being angry about that, you know?
It’s more like if I’m saying things out of ignorance, I would like to know when that is. Language is always changing and sort of the idea of intersectionality is always changing, and I want to keep up with that. I try to stay aware and teachable, which I think is more valid for me, but I don’t know. I guess it, I’m afraid of being ignorant, which has probably been a bigger fear.
In addition to your comedy, you also have a podcast. How do you choose what topics you’re going to talk about on your show?
Well, the last season that I did was really heavy. It was all based on talking about different historical events of hate crimes against Asian Americans – historical ones and then more recent ones. So, it’s the juxtaposition of hate crimes through history and recent history and that was very intense because there were so many things that I didn’t know. I had so much ignorance just because it had never really been put out there that these things had happened. So that was a really intentional focus on things I didn’t know about and that was a really great thing. So that, to me, I think is really meaningful. I love history. We can learn so much from what’s happened in the past.
Have you ever been surprised by something you learned while you were recording your podcast? Yes. There were so many things that I had no idea about. Whether it was learning about the Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese miners that came out to mine for gold in the 1800s and all of their life stories and how a lot of that’s been really cut out of American history, how that, you know, around the 1800s, there were almost 200 different Chinatowns across the United States that virtually disappeared. So, these are like really big things that I had no idea about in American history and those things really surprised me.
You’ve interviewed a lot of people on your podcast. Um, who do you have a favorite podcast guest that you’ve had so far? Everyone’s been fun and so thrilling to talk to. I mean, I think every guest has been really important to me.
Do you have a dream “get” as a guest?
Probably Kamala Harris because she is from San Francisco. She’s South Asian. She’s biracial and she’s vice president. It’s really incredible, all the things that she is. I feel like we don’t hear from her enough, which is like a weird thing. She’s like the vice president, so I would love to hear from her more. I would love to interview her.
You’ve done stand-up, music, and movies. You’ve written books and you’ve been on TV. Is there anything that you haven’t done that you still want to do?
I guess to sort of step into…sort of being old. Like, I think I’m old now. I don’t know. Like that thing where you cross the line where I think I’m old? Like before you would be on a show like Hotel or like you would be sort of like the grand dame, like Murder She Wrote, kind of feeling, that vibe. I wonder what that’s like. Maybe I am now sort of like a grand old dame, like a lady. So that’s sort of the cosplay that I would like to do is that thing…or puppeteering like Madame, I always had fantasies of buying Madame. I don’t think that Madame is for sale anymore. But you know, Wayland Flowers and Madame. Madame was like a drag queen, but she was a little wooden puppet and a ventriloquist dummy. I really loved her and how crass she was…so, maybe puppeteering, I don’t know. Other kinds of performance are always like really appealing to me. But yeah, I think anything’s possible.
And don’t say the old thing because we’re the same age.
No, not old, but like cosplay old. Like pretending…it’s almost like if you are in a theater show, in like a high school show, but you’re playing an old lady, so you put a bunch of lines on your forehead. It’s like that kind of like pretending – like Ruth Buzzi from Laugh-In. She was probably in her early twenties when she was on Laugh-In then and she had that, that weird sort of like, is it like a hairnet or something? That costume where she’s on the park bench with Artie Johnson and you know, she’s like, she’s super young, but she’s pretending to be old. I love that. Sort of like a fake old, to me that’s like very, it’s, it’s very lovable.
Is there anyone that you still want to work with that you haven’t gotten the opportunity to yet?
Oh, well, Michelle Yeoh for sure. I think she’s the ultimate. I think she’s just so incredible and so super cool. I met her in the 90s with John Woo and Chow Yun Fat, and she was kind of like indie rock and she had on a flannel shirt and leather jeans, and she was just very beautiful and very mysterious. She had a very different energy from sort of who she is now. She has that sort of like grand dame, like, not old, but like an elegant woman with a mature energy. So, I think, yeah, she’s the ultimate.
So, out of everything you’ve done, what are you proudest of? I think just surviving, you know. Being in the entertainment industry for 40 years, that’s a big deal. And then that, you know, just to keep on creating new work and then also to have fun with it. So, to me it’s really just enjoying the longevity of it.
Margaret Answers the Socialite Seven
What talent or superpower would you like to wake up with tomorrow? Ooh, I’d like to fly because then you don’t have to get on a plane. You can just fly somewhere. You could just like physically do it and that would be pretty fierce. I would be into that too.
What quality do you like most or dislike most about yourself?
I like most that I just have a hunger for life…but I dislike the messiness. So, if I had some more order, that would be great, but, you know, we deal with it. I have so much messiness, but we’re just interested in a lot of things.
What quality do you like or dislike most in others?
I like a sense of humor and dislike a sense of stinginess, whether that’s with time or attention or money, you know, where it’s sort of like there’s not enough stuff, I’ve got to be selfish with it. It’s stinginess that I think is really unbecoming.
Would you rather continue living your life or restart it now knowing what you know now? I would like to continue living my life because I would hate to restart. It’s so boring in the beginning.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
That everything just gets better. It’s like everything gets better as you get older. And I think that’s true, and that’s been said by many different people, you know, but that things can really improve that. It doesn’t have to be for the young or youthful sort of like, things are more valuable. Experience is more valuable. Appreciation of life is more valuable, so things get better as you get older.