by Patricia Grandjean
Nov 5, 2010
12:00 AMBox Office
Q & A: Margaret Cho
Groundbreaking Korean-American comedian, actor, author, fashion designer, Universal Life Minister and, now, musician and “Dancing with the Stars” contestant Margaret Cho never shies away from the chance to explore, and share, a new passion. Tomorrow night, she’ll perform at Foxwoods Resort Casino’s Fox Theater in a show presented by Comix, the casino’s new comedy nightclub. For more info on Margaret Cho’s Fox Theater show, call (800) 369-9663 or visit foxwoods.com.
This is quite the major tour you're embarked on.
It's some thing I really love doing, and to me, being on the road is normal.
Every tour you do seems to have its own thematic bent. Is there a way in which this tour is distinctive from others you've done?
This one is all new material. It focuses more on my family, growing up with immigrants, my childhood, the way my family dealt with me being a comedian. Thematically, my shows come together after all the material's written and I see where I'm at.
Do you have a system for writing new material? I remember George Carlin used to talk about using 3-by-5 cards.
I saw a Joan Rivers documentary and she has a big cabinet full of notes. I thought that was such a cool thing. I don't have anything like that. I'm really disorganized. I think, actually, that I am blessed with a pretty fantastic memory. I know that if I make a joke that hits it'll stick in my head forever, because I'll always want to come back to it and use it again. It's always good to write jokes down, but I'm pretty good at remembering.
What motivates your choice of subjects to cover in a show?
I always want to talk about what I'm discovering—something I'm learning about and discovering about myself and about life as I get older. Those things to me are most valuable. My newest discovery is my singing voice, and the fact that I can make jokes while I'm singing. My show is still basically a comedy show, but there's a few songs in there.
One song in particular is about somebody I was in love with as a young girl, who I continued to love as an adult—and he wound up murdering his wife. That's an amazing discovery in itself. It's a shock to be that wrong about someone you idealize. But it's an important thing to discover and understand as an adult.
One of the things I found fun to discover about your new album, Cho Dependent, is all the musicians you collaborated with, one being Connecticut native Jon Brion.
I love him. He's just a wonderful guy, and probably the main motivation for me becoming a musician. I've been going to see his shows at Largo in Los Angeles for 15 years. He's been my friend, the person who's taught me the most about playing my music, singing, recording and producing. He's the main champion behind the record, and so supportive and such a great teacher and collaborator.
How did you feel about hearing yourself sing?
This is still ultimately a comedy album, so it's irrelevant whether I could really sing or not. My musical ability is secondary to trying to make a joke. But what was important to me was not only to have the music on the record be beautiful, for it to have an enduring value beyond the joke. In a way, it's a tribute to someone I've always loved, "Weird Al" Yankovic, who's not only a great comedian but an amazing musician and really great producer. He's been doing musical comedy amazingly well for years.
It was surprising, though, to hear my voice. I've been working really hard to make sure that I sound good. I've been taking care of my voice in a way I never had before.
How do you do that?
I work with a vocal coach from "American Idol" and do a lot of vocal exercises. I really care for it. I'm a lot healthier in general; when you really take care of your body, you can hear it.
So how musical is this current tour?
The show will feature a few songs, and I've been welcoming special guests on the tour: Ben Lee, Grant Lee Phillips, and Garrison Starr. I don't know what will happen in Connecticut.
As someone who's been touring as a stand-up comedian for years, do you find it easier or harder to do as you go along?
I think it's easier. I love it; I really thrive on it. And I much prefer it to being at home.
As you've matured, how has the stand-up community changed for women? Has it gotten better, or worse?
I think stand-up is still tough for women. I think it's tough all around. There's not more women doing it than when I started; it's always been a difficult world. In comedy, there's not a lot of support for women; that's why there's so few women in it. The men have the advantage of a lot of camaraderie and mentoring. That doesn't exist for women; we're kind of alone out there. But that's also why the female comics I know are so good. They're so driven: They push through that gender gap and just go for it. They're more daring because they have to be better and funnier.
What advice would you give to young women who aspire to do comedy?
Never give up. The people I've seen who are special emerged because they prevailed. Success is guaranteed if you don't give up; I've learned that from experience. It takes a long time to find your voice sometimes. If people are really devoted and committed to what they're doing, it will pay off for them.
You were invited to compete on "Dancing with the Stars" this season—how did that come about?
They just asked me. Of course, I was really excited, because I'm a big fan of the show. I didn't have any dance experience, but my partner Louis Van Amstel came on the road with me. He's an amazing dancer; we became very good friends. We rehearsed three to six hours a day and beyond.
I'm not a physical person; I don't work out at all and I never have. I'm 41; so getting myself into shape was a very new thing. It made me more tired than I've ever been, and starving all the time! But I loved it—I really enjoyed myself. I tried to eat healthy so I wouldn't collapse, at the same time, I supplemented that with a lot of alcohol and ice cream.
Will you be continuing your role in "Drop Dead Diva for the foreseeable future?
Yes, I'd love to. We're still waiting to hear if it will go another season. I imagine we will; it's a great show and it's got a great following.
What's the appeal of your character in that show?
She's snide, and she's a person who knows everything that's going on in the office. She's the person who everyone comes to for the inside story. It's a wonderful supportive and funny role.
Before the whole Proposition 8 debacle in California, you were deputized to perform same-sex weddings in front of San Francisco's City Hall. Now that you're coming to Connecticut, where same-sex weddings are legal, I don't suppose you can officiate here?
Actually, I'm also a Universal Life Minister—part of that Internet ministry—so yes, I can perform weddings in Connecticut.
In recent years, you've become a tattoo enthusiast. Why?
I grew up around a lot of people who were tattooed. The people who worked with my parents were majorly so. They were all tattooed by Ed Hardy, a great artist whose studio started designing my tattoos 20 years later. It had always been a vision and desire of mine to get these tattoos.
What's the physical experience like of having it done?
It's very unpleasant—really, really unpleasant—to get done. I don't enjoy the process at all, but that's something you live with. And the people Ed has tattooing me are amazingly skilled, so part of that is inflicting the least amount of pain. Still, it's a long process. It takes four to five hours for a rose. The three big peonies represent my Korean name; I have a series of roses along my back and many birds, including peacocks, signifying flight. I'm always traveling, so that's a big theme for me.
I've also read that you're into clothes design.
You can see me on the back of my album in the last thing I designed. I'm wearing a huge feathered cape adorned with antique Bedouin-style jewelry. I make very large, elaborate costumy pieces—that's a hobby and a real love of mine. I have trouble keeping up with it because I'm otherwise so busy.
Do you sell any of your creations?
Not now, because everything's so time-consuming and physically taxing to do. I'll pick it up again at some point.
Why would you say you were attracted to stand-up comedy? Why is it right for you?
I don't know actually; that's difficult to answer. It's just what I always knew that I loved ever since I saw Richard Pryor as a little girl and realized I could do that for a living. After that, I had vivid dreams about doing comedy that feel a lot like what it feels like to do now. It's what I know I do well, and this is my life. And the more life experience you have, the better you are at it.Q & A: Margaret Cho