Lia Chang caught up with Margaret Cho in New York July 1 on the
premiere of her new concert film "Notorious C.H.O." - a follow-up
to her hit concert film "I'm the One that I Want." "Notorious C.H.O."
filmed live in Seattle, is a hilarious, bawdy one-woman show inspired
by the raw comedy of Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the female
machismo of rap music divas L'il Kim and Eve.
At the press
roundtable Margaret shares her thoughts about growing up as a "dorky"
kid, her role models, racism in Hollywood, and how she has finally
achieved both personal and career success.
debuted in Los Angeles and New York and will follow with a national
release through Wellspring. "Notorious C.H.O." is also released
as a CD, "The Notorious C.H.O. at Carnegie Hall" is available through
Nettwerk America. For more information on the film, visit www.margaretcho.com
"Notorious" Margaret Cho standing next to the poster
of her latest film
On the issue
of having children.
Yeah! I love
children. I would love to do that. The whole parenting, mommy thing
someday. Although I don't know when that would happen. I got very
excited because my dog was in the daily news this way. "Oh
she's in the newspaper!" I don't care about myself but I'm
excited for her.
She and I were
photographed together so she was next to me. And she looked so happy.
On what drew
her to stand-up comedy
Well, I always
really wanted to be a performer and I started at a young age. And
I think it was just something that I knew that I would do, that
I knew that this was my job. And nothing in my life pointed to that.
I wasn't an outgoing kid at all, I was very shy. I was very studious
as a lot of Asian Americans are at that age. But I knew there was
something inside of me that needed to kinda break from that so I
just started doing that.
On role models
My role models
initially, when I was really starting - I think Richard Pryor was
a big one. I remember watching his movies. We had gotten a VCR.
It was kinda like a big deal, this was the early 80's. We had one
of those VCRs that was wood, wood paneling around the side. It was
very old and it had those big keys that you would push down like
a Radio Shack tape recorder. So we would rent Richard Pryor movies
and laugh and laugh. So he was a big inspiration.
was a big inspiration. I remember seeing Johnny Yune on The Tonight
Show in the late 70s, and he was a really inspiring person because
he was on The Tonight Show doing comedy. It was very exciting.
I didn't think
that I ever went too far in this show. Although this show does go
probably into more personal territory than I did before. I think
that I enjoy talking about these things because it's real. It's
got a real emotional charge for me. I don't mind it. I don't think
I really like people's work when it - does it really touch on real
I really like
artists who are about "blood and guts." I really want
to see people's pain and heartache and sadness. And there's a point
in it. And that's what's really valuable about certain types of
art, and I would really like to do that myself.
On her future
I don't know.
The next show I'll do will probably be more political. The next
show is a lot about race identity and Asian American identity. That's
my next show, so that may go into slightly less personal territory.
But I also don't know about the show because I'm not finished [with]
On her favorite
parts about putting together a show
I think the
most challenging thing about putting a show together is just the
touring that it entails because I do have to still tour even though
I'm not on tour officially. I have to go to smaller venues and try
things out. The most fun thing for me is write something new and
have it work and have it become a part of the show. That's really
great to create something out of nothing, it's a real thrill. So
that's what keeps me going. I do love writing new things, I do love
creating new work and I'm looking forward to the next year which
will contain all that, all three items.
On the audiences
audiences were very different than American audiences, and certainly
different from audiences that I had experienced before. It's a whole
different culture and they viewed women in an entirely different
way, especially women in comedy. It's different because they don't
have a lot of women comics just working by themselves, that a lot
of women in comedy in Britain work as either a double act or part
of a sketch group, but they are rarely just talking about true love
experience. And that's sort of really "men's territory."
And so there was a very different reaction to the show because what
I was talking about was extremely shocking to them.
Not in a volatile
way, but in a surprising fun way, but it was still a shock, so it
was hard. I just thought that the whole festival was just a very
difficult place to be because you're basically competing against
1600 other shows happening at the same time as yours. It's like
a great thing because I enjoyed hanging out with the other performers.
I made a lot of friends. I was always somewhat of an Anglophile,
so that was cool because I kinda hanged around a lot of very great,
great people, which was fun. So I would definitely go back, but
it was certainly a challenge to do a show there and to start there.
I grew up in
a couple of different environments because the school that I went
to was very Caucasian, but then I would go to school on Saturdays
and Sundays which was exclusively Asian. So I would be in two different
worlds all the time. And I was surrounded by sort of hostile people
in both situations. Because I would go - I never had friends in
school, I was really unpopular and then I would go to Korean school
and then Sunday school in which I was like wildly unpopular. Because
I think we all went to schools that had exclusively Caucasian kids,
and so we would get up so much angst and aggression towards us that
when we didn't feel comfortable lashing at our Caucasian schools,
but when we got to our Asian school where everybody was just like
us, it was like we were free and we just let it all out.
But of course,
I kind of got the worst of it because I was so weird, I was just
like a really weird kid. And I was really, like, earnest and I would
say things so excitedly, and I was just so uncontainable, they could
never contain me and I was never cool. So I never had a good experience
in school and I was always very dorky. So I just didn't have a good
time. Yeah, it was hard.
On her present
I'm very happy with my work now, I'm very happy with the way that
I've been able to write everything and produce and do my own stuff.
I really treasure that, it's very important for me to retain that
other Asians and Asian Americans
There is sort
of a need to perform to an extent because of the way society is,
because of the way that opportunities are so limited. And if you
want to take advantage of those opportunities, you often have to
compromise your own beliefs. So it's hard. They should sort of do
what they feel is right, but to make their own opinions count more
than anyone else's. That's the best advice I can give any artist
is to make your own voice the loudest, and every kind of argument
that you have with anybody else, to listen to yourself as much as
On the hardest
part of her job
I think it's
traveling. I think it's the constant travel that - I'm very nomadic.
And I have been for a very long time. And it gets harder when I
do things like writing a show because I'm going back and forth between
places. And this is hard to, the promotion schedule is pretty rough.
But I love the film and I really want people to go see it so I'm
very happy to do as much for it as I can.
before a show
No, I don't
have a pre-show situation. Like no shadow boxing, no warm-ups. I'm
pretty lazy when it comes to that. I was trained in the theater
but I rarely go back and do any kind of vocal preparation. I'm really
not very superstitious when it comes performance. I just kind of
go and do it. Maybe because I do it so much, it's just not any kind
of special thing to me. When I had jobs before, I never went and
said a nursery rhyme before I went into the office. So there was
no kind of "thing" that I do, no ritual.
On the differences
between her first film and Notorious C.H.O.
I think that
the first film, "I'm the One That I Want," was really
a coming of age story. It's about racism in Hollywood. It's a very
specific show about the experience of doing television as a minority,
and how it affected my own ideas about race and how other people
treated race as an idea.
This show is
really about everything. I think there's a lot of topics that it
covers. Mostly I think it deals with self-esteem and the search
for happinesss, and gender politics and the way they affect small
interactions between people. So there's a great difference in material
in both shows, but I think they're both funny. I think "Notorious
C.H.O." is a better film overall because I enjoy it more. I
think I'm closer - I think it's a better representation of what
I enjoy doing, although I think they're both great.
I think the
first film had an advantage in that it was shot on film. And this
film is very different visually because it was shot on digital video
and edited on an iBook. Which is pretty revolutionary. I mean, it's
really changing the way independent is going to look in the next
several years, so it's exciting to take advantage of this technology
and to have been able to make a film with such a small budget, so
I'm really happy with that.
On the budget
of Notorious C.H.O.
It was actually
- I don't know the exact numbers because we're not finished with
counting everything up, but it was probably less than $500,000.
a distributor for the film
The way that
we worked it out with the last film really made people want to get
into business with us. Because the film that came before this, we
distributed ourselves. I traveled with the film, I would lecture
with it, I would tag along as an "added bonus" to the
film. So it became a road show, it was really a great way to bring
people into the theater. And I wanted to do that with this film
as well. And so it was easier after having such a success with the
last one to get a distributor that would listen to everything that...we
were initially going to be shooting this film ourselves, but we
found a company that was really supportive of us and would let us
do anything that we wanted.
On the response
at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Oh, it was tremendous.
It was a great, great festival. And I'm so honored to be chosen
as the opening film there. I just thought that they were so supportive
and so wonderful - it was like performing. That was a very strange
experience because it was the first time that I'd actually seen
it with an audience. So to sit there with them, I felt very satisfied
and very proud that I did the film and I thought they were really
supportive and really wonderful.
On her parents'
Oh, they loved
it. They were laughing hard. They were great. My dad brought along
this World Cup towel, it was so embarassing. When everyone was being
introduced in the film and you sit up and everybody's like clapping,
he holds up this World Cup towel [laughter]. And he's so into the
fact that Korea was hosting the World Cup this year. They loved
asked to comment on her statement in Weekend Taste: "But
now I want to make the political statement of I'm not going to put
the power of my self-worth into the hands of advertisers and television
executives or be connected to an idea society is supposed to treasure.
I want to put that power into my own hands."
about the fact that I spent so many years very unhappy with myself
in the way that I looked and the way that I was and my race and
my body. All that stuff was so oppressive. I was so upset with the
fact that I was not white, that I was not blonde, that I was not
all these things that I wanted to be, that I had actress friends
who got jobs left and right because they were what the media was
looking for, what the advertisers were looking for or whatever.
But I kept getting passed over for so many years for jobs because
of my appearance and not my talent. And I was so willing to self-destruct
For years, I
struggled with eating disorders, for years I struggled with a sense
of inferiority to these other people that didn't really have anything
over me except for the way that they look or the way that they appeared.
So having placed such a high value on looking a certain way, I really
destroyed a large part of my life.
So now, I've
kinda gotten to the age where I really can't do that anymore. I
don't see the reasoning behind it. I lost my taste for self-destruction.
It's just not interesting to me. I learned that I had no idea who
I was without this self-hatred. And existence had become so boring,
so I decided to sort of let it go. And as I let it go, a whole new
world of opportunities opened for me. And it also allowed me to
maybe guide other people to that same experience of letting go of
self-hatred. For whatever reason, most people have it to a certain
extent for this reason or that reason, and there's incredible freedom
when you can release it and when you can live without it.
like that, I make often, and I try to make them as clear as I can
without being too self-helpy because you can also very much talk
about it in a way that's very esoteric that's really boring, too.
On AIDS and
drug awareness within the Asian community
It's just something
that people have ignored in our communities for a long time. It's
such a taboo subject. Even homosexuality. Without even talking about
AIDS, homosexuality is regarded with such disdain in so many Asian
cultures and that gay men and lesbians have felt so invisible within
our communities, and I think that's really destructive. I think
there needs to be much more support there, much more breaking away
from Old World traditions around these thoughts and ideas about
In terms of
drug users who are just ignored by the government or ignored by
the media, our problems are really not looked at as being an issue
because in that idea of what Asian Americans are, in that sort of
"model minority" myth that we're not supposed to be that
way, so many people suffer because we don't have attention put on
us with these problems, so I think it's a big issue.
On the response
by the Korean community in particular
I think it's
great. I don't know what different generations have to say about
me. I think the older generation probably doesn't really approve
of what I'm doing. I don't see how they could because my work is
so kind of out there. But at the same time, I think it lends such
great visibility to Koreans that I think that's really a great thing.
A lot of the younger people that I've encountered have grown up
with me and are very excited by all the things that we do. We can
expand the notion about what Asian Americans are and what Korean
Americans in particular can do.
On the topic
of Asians in Hollywood in non-martial arts roles
I hope so. I
would really love to see that. I know that there is a real need
for that. Because we're just not seeing ourselves represented in
any way. Even though there are great people coming out of Asia that
I love, I think that it reinforces the idea that we're foreign and
that we're not really American. And you know, it seems that for
Asians to be in movies these days, you have to have special powers,
and it's not fair. So I would love to see more Asian Americans in
the media in any capacity.
Part 2 of this fascinating roundtable with Margaret Cho!