#WCIW: Margaret Cho
Unapologetic Comedienne. Voice for the Disenfranchised.
Social Justice Warrior.
In a career that has spanned over 30 years, comedienne, actress, and activist Margaret Cho has been no stranger to controversy. In fact, she’s unapologetically welcomed it. Now, after completing a year-long stay in rehab for alcoholism and drugs, Cho is back and taking her new show, Fresh Off the Bloat, on the road.
The show, complete with Cho’s trademark over-the-top impressions, bawdy innuendo, and jokes bordering on the offensive, is a fiery, politicized comedic response to the current state of the U.S. and the world and tackles issues like the #MeToo movement, the Trump Presidency, and North Korea. While funny, and even, at times, uncomfortable, Cho remains true to herself and her comedic aesthetic that have engaged and enraged audiences for decades.
Born to Korean immigrants in San Francisco on December 5th, 1968, Margaret Moran Cho grew up on Haight Street. She recalled recently, “It was different than any other place on Earth. I grew up and went to grammar school on Haight Street during the ’70s. There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts, drag queens, and Chinese people. To say it was a melting pot – that’s the least of it. It was a really confusing, enlightening, wonderful time.”
Not all of Cho’s childhood proved to be wonderful, however. In an explosive interview with Billboard Magazine in 2015, Cho revealed that she had been molested by a family friend from the age of 5 and that she was ultimately raped as a teenager.
“I had a very long-term relationship with this abuser, which is a horrible thing to say. I didn’t even understand it was abuse, because I was too young to know. I endured it so many times, especially because I was alone a lot.”
When she attempted to confide in school mates about her rape and abuse, she was bullied and humiliated. She was told that she was “too ugly to rape” and that she “deserved to be raped”. The bullying only worsened as Cho made her way into high school and she eventually dropped out.
As an escape from the torture at school and her misery resulting from her abuse, Margaret began to write jokes and to try to find humor in her life despite — or rather in spite of — the seriousness and sadness of her experience. She felt drawn to the stage and began performing stand-up at 16, finding early success in the San Francisco comedy scene and was a mentor in a young Robin Williams. She later stated that she felt that she became a better comedian because she often had to follow Robin Williams’ act — a daunting task for most young comics, but a challenge that Cho was eager to rise to.
Eventually Cho moved to LA where she became known for her raunchy, political, and overtly sexual acts. No topic was off limits for the young performer and she often wrote about Asian and Asian-American stereotypes, feminism, and homosexuality. Cho herself was openly bi-sexual and often expressed ideas about sexuality and monogamy that were incendiary for some viewers. Through her refusal to hold back and willingness to tackle any topic, she became known as the Patron Saint of Outsiders.
In the early 90s, she drew the attention of Arsenio Hall and Bob Hope, and entered the late-night circuit which catapulted her to overnight national celebrity. Audiences loved and hated her act. She not only shattered stereotypes about her race by poking fun at the stereotypes themselves, but she was unapologetically queer, sexually empowered, and politically charged.
She was offered her own television show on ABC in 1994 and one season of All-American Girl was produced. Cho and the ABC Executives suffered from creative differences, however, from the very beginning. Ultimately ABC wanted a toned down version of Cho, and Cho refused to tame her act. She knew that being over-the-top, intense, and even offensive was important for reaching the audience, influencing thought, and getting her point across. It was also just funnier.
Despite her unwillingness to back down, the stress from the collapse of the show and the negativity that followed took their toll on Margaret emotionally and physically. Dragged in the press for her curvy figure, Cho developed an eating disorder. Eventually she landed in the hospital with kidney failure and it was at that point that she realized that, for the rest of her life and career she would never focus on what others wanted from her, but what she wanted and needed for herself.
Inspired, she wrote what would become one of her most well-known and respected acts of her life and would cement her status as a comedy legend: I’m The One That I Want. The act was eventually made into a book and film that broke industry records and launched Cho on a world-wide tour.
Over the next few years, Margaret’s success only increased as she traveled the world from sold-out tour to sold-out tour. She ventured into music as well, a lifelong passion held since childhood, and has been nominated for multiple Grammys and Emmys. After the death of her mentor Robin Williams, Margaret was devastated.
A friend, however, who was close to both Cho and Williams encouraged her not to mourn Robin, but to be Robin. Cho took the idea to heart and started the hashtag, #BeRobin on Twitter. She started a coalition to help homeless youths in the Bay Area and raised over $20,000 through her GoFundMe account. She also performed shows randomly throughout the city to collect money and good donations to bring badly needed items to homeless shelters throughout San Francisco.
Today, her philanthropy continues. She was the recipient of the Victory Fund’s Leadership Award and the first-ever “Best Comedy Performance Award” at the 2007 Asian Excellence Awards. She also received the “First Amendment Award” from the ACLU of Southern California, and the “Intrepid Award” from the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Margaret has been honored by GLAAD, American Women in Radio and Television, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), PFLAG and LA Pride, who gave Margaret a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for leaving a lasting imprint on the LGBT community.
For her unapologetic comedy, her strong voice for the disenfranchised, and her relentless desire to bring awareness to social issues, Margaret Cho is this week’s #WCIW.