Interview: Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho Picture: Albert Sanchez
Margaret Cho Picture: Albert Sanchez
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You can always trust your family to tell you how it is. In the case of Korean/American comedian, actor, author and songwriter Margaret Cho, her grandmother didn’t hold back: “You look bloated as if you’ve been found dead in a lake after several days of searching,” she told her. Hence the title of her new stand-up show, Fresh Off the Bloat, which comes to Edinburgh next month.

According to Cho, it’s her “sickest show to date”, so brace yourselves, because the LA-based stand-up is not one to shy away from taboo subjects – addiction, abuse, racism, rape and politics – much of it based on her own experience. This time out it’s all Trump and mental trauma and Cho is “fresh off the bloat” because she’s just out of rehab. It’s the first thing she tells me when she comes on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, her Californian accent rolling her words into waves that soar then crash into laughter. She’s laughing so much about rehab she’s creating her own echo.

Success came early for Cho after winning a comedy contest as a young stand-up where the first prize was opening for Jerry Seinfeld. She went on to play the rebellious teenage daughter in All-American Girl, a TV show about a Korean/American family in the ‘90s, and did six seasons on legal comedy Drop Dead Diva, as well as guesting on 30 Rock, which brought her one of her five Grammy and Emmy nominations. Film credits include Bam Bam and Celeste (2005) with Bruce Daniels and Alan Cumming, and a role as John Travolta’s FBI colleague in Face/Off.

She was mentored by Robin Williams and was also best pals with Joan Rivers, with whom she presented Fashion Police, a show she still hosts with Rivers’ daughter Melissa.

Her autobiographies, live concert films and two music albums have all sold well, she’s “had a blast” touring with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and Erasure and she can count Quentin Tarantino among her lovers – “he’s not the big tough guy people think. He’s just a sweet baby,” she says. Finally she stole the show at the 2015 Golden Globes with her appearance as a Kim Jong-un type general (“Well he looks hilarious and they can’t make jokes about him, so I thought I might as well,” she says), and was recently named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 50 Best Stand-up Comics of All Time.

“I had a charmed life,” says Cho, “I’ve been very successful in my career since I was very young and you get cocky.”

Despite all the awards and plaudits, Cho found herself spiralling out of control with substance abuse.

“I was drinking and suicidal and eating like a million pills. I had this fancy handbag with a special compartment with every drug known to man in it and $7,000 so if I ran out I could buy more. I’m like a pig with truffles with drugs, so within seconds I would find them. I’d go into parks in the middle of the night to buy them… crazy, I wasn’t sane at all.”

So where did it all go wrong?

“Comedians, it’s what we do,” she says by way of explanation. “I had a lot of fun, but when you get into it, it’s hard to get out. I remember watching Trainspotting in the ‘90s and I know it was a morbid tale, but it had a gleeful abandon about it that really made an impression on me. I wanted to seek that abandon and would get to the edge and then pull myself back, but I lost the ability to hold myself back. After a certain time the drugs and alcohol get the best of you, no matter how strong you think you are. And you can die.

“So my family and friends were really concerned about my life and how I was living and staged an intervention where they told me I was going to a friend’s birthday party and when I got there all my friends were there, but it was not a party. Everybody was crying. They took me to a place where usually people stay there for 28 days, but I stayed waaaaaay longer because I liked it. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a rehab facility. I learned how to live, get the tools for life and now I feel I should talk about what happened because it’s really interesting, and it’s also funny.”

For Cho, everything is material.

“I have a very destructive side, which I’ve always talked about in my work – whether it’s eating disorders or depression – because I think it’s really funny when people cannot handle life. I think more people should just retreat, say I can’t handle anything right now and go somewhere else.”

Over the past year and a half Cho has been doing different therapies and meditation, talking through her issues, and now lives in a dry, half-way house. After shedding herself of destructive people in her life, she wants to talk about her experiences, partly because she wants to smash taboos around mental health, but also because as she says, the things that happen in mental institutions make you laugh.

“There was one man who was so angry with the staff he took it out on them by s****ing all around the swimming pool. It was surrounded by turds, like a turd Checkpoint Charlie. And it was not in the staff’s pay grade to deal with it, so they put milk crates over them and it stayed like this for several days. Finally his estranged wife came and cleaned it and she was furious, because she wasn’t even with the guy any more!,” she says and laughs.

It’s tempting to suggest that Cho’s desire to self-medicate with drink and drugs was related to the abuse she suffered growing up. From the age of five to 12 she was raped by a family friend and as a teenager, raped again. Aged 15 she worked as a phone sex operator and later as a dominatrix.

“I don’t know how much the abuse has to do with it,“ she says. “But that kind of history does make sex very strange because you start thinking you are repulsed by sex and then when you go to do it, you really need help; drink or drugs, to forget what happened, but I took it way too far. Talking about it helps. It’s really important. Then things like Bill Cosby, high profile cases where men are not going to prison for abuse and violence, it’s frustrating and difficult. Even Trump talking about grabbing pussies, it’s demoralising and sickening.”

As well as her rehab experience, in her show Cho focuses on her disgust with the way politics have gone in her home country.

“There’s a lot in the show about the distressing, bloated state of American politics and how we need to apologise for Trump. It’s crazy, embarrassing, every day there’s something new, whether he’s looking directly at the sun in an eclipse, defending Nazis, or trying to ban transgender people from the military, it’s a nightmare. We’re living in a time when racists are being rewarded with the presidency. You have to find your way through it, have a hopeful way to handle it, make Trump the butt of the joke.”

Born in San Francisco in 1968, the child of Korean immigrant parents who ran a gay bookshop, Cho has always been a political animal, championing the homeless and gay rights and was awarded a lifetime achievement award from LA Pride for leaving a lasting imprint on the LGBT community.

“We had book signings by people like Armistead Maupin and the shop was the social centre of the gay community, so it was devastating when everybody started dying of AIDS. So I talk about that, and it’s painful, which is why it’s important to delight in the humour too.”

Being Korean/American, she has a lot to say about race with jokes about being the kid with dried fish in the lunch box instead of granola bars, and she had a running joke with her friend Joan Rivers about the elder comedian pretending to hide her Yorkie dogs when Cho visited, in case she ate them.

“Joan was my favourite comedian of all time, soooooo funny. And foul and dirty. I’m hard to shock but she would shock me every time. She helped me a lot too, and was very maternal, kind and sweet, nothing like her public persona in any way.”

She laughs at the memory of Rivers and her habit of emptying out her diet Starbucks cup and filling it with chardonnay at 7am when they were filming Fashion Police.

“She was so great – and her whole life, she just wanted to f*** Paul McCartney. That was her main thing, she’d always be saying ‘I need to f*** him. That bitch with one leg has really had it!’ ”

Rivers was also responsible for giving Cho confidence to see a long future in comedy, reassuring her that there was always a place for funny women.

“She taught me about knowing that they’re always going to want you, that you’re not going to get thrown away like actresses once they’re over 30.

As well as her stand up tour, Cho is back on TV with Highland, a TV series she co-wrote, and the pilot of which has been picked up by TNT. Inspired by her struggle with substance abuse, it’s unlike All-American Girl of the 1990s, which was the first Asian/ American family show, because this family is far more dysfunctional.

“It’s about a Korean/American family who are big in the Californian marijuana boom. I play the daughter who goes into rehab as an alternative to prison and comes out to find her parents have opened a medical marijuana dispensary. Koreans are often thought of as the moral minority, but these ones are using their medical degrees in a different way, so it’s a new kind of Asian/American family. I love it.”

Cho is also vociferous about the issue of using Asians and Asian/Americans to play Asians in film and TV. She’s had run ins with Tilda Swinton and Jennifer Saunders on the issue after Swinton played The Ancient One, an elderly Asian man in Dr Strange, and Saunders cast Janette Tough, aka Wee Jimmy Krankie, as a Japanese character in Absolutely Fabulous – Saunders countered that the joke was that Tough was pretending to be Japanese.

“I get into these legendary arguments about casing Asians in Asian roles, and I’ve had a lot of flak for it. So I will be talking about that in the show,” says Cho.

Also on the agenda for humour are her family, especially her mother, who Cho often impersonates. Not that they mind, with her father being a comedy writer, and they both appreciate her humour.

“They’re interesting,” says Cho. “Different from most Korean/American families, who are very religious and conservative. They look like other families, but they’re not.”

Cho is in a good place in her personal life too, and talks happily about her fiancé Rocco Stowe, another comedian. Her open marriage to artist and author Al Ridenour lasted 11 years, before they divorced in 2015.

“It’s fun to have a comedian, we laugh, and sing, do yoga, cook and have a great time together. I’ve outgrown having an open relationship because polyamory is not exactly who I think I am now. I think it’s cool that people do it, but I’m so jealous in this relationship. I think people do it [polyamory] because they don’t want to miss any thrill, but the jealousy is part of what real intimacy is. You’re looking for that loophole which should not exist.”

Warming to her subject, she says, “Although I’ve seen triads work really well over many years, a gay man with a husband and a boyfriend, with a big bed that they all sleep in, but with women it’s different. My friend Nina Hartley [the porn actress] was in a big three-way for 20 years, with a man and a woman, and she said it was very unhappy, very difficult, fraught with jealousy, anger and fear, so I don’t know…”

So we’ll be seeing a slimmed down, sobered up Cho in Edinburgh – she doesn’t even get tattoos any more, to add to her bodysuit of ink, many of them drawn by tattooist turned designer Ed Hardy. “It’s too painful,” she says, “and also you’re stuck in that time when you had them, like a fly in amber”. So what will she be doing for kicks?

“You can still have good times and laughs even if you’re not partaking in all of the debauchery,” she says. “I still love to go out and have a really great time. People watching is really fun, and I love all of that late night after the pub, fish and chips stuff – I love a deep fried Mars Bar. There are different ways to be debauched.”

@JanetChristie2

Margaret Cho performs Fresh off the Bloat on Saturday 25 November at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh at 8pm, tickets (£25) from www.livenation.co.uk/artist/margaret-cho-tickets;

www.margaretcho.com