[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacuba]
MARGARET CHO: My family and, I think, a lot of Korean culture, is really about this sort of politeness that does avoid real truth and meaning. And you have a sense of just trying not to rock the boat, at all times, even though it's just quite a miserable thing.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacuba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, where I talk to people about how they shape their lives. And hopefully by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And as COOL’s producer Maia Tarrell says, Margaret Cho is the patron saint of humor as a tool for survival. Rolling Stone named her one of the top 50 standup comics of all time, and she’s been performing since she was a teenager. She uses her work to start difficult conversations about rape, abuse, addiction, failure, and anger. Anger and humor are deeply connected for Margaret. She sees talking about her pain, joking about it, as a way to help people heal.
MS. PERCY: Margaret, one of the first things I want to ask you about is, who is the person who made you laugh the most, when you were growing up?
MS. CHO: I think probably Eddie Murphy. I remember very much being in total hysterics during Delirious. I didn't realize somebody could be that funny. Also, Joan Rivers was a major, major influence. I really loved her comedy, and I think, of anybody that I wanted to be like, it would be her.
MS. PERCY: Why? What did she say in her comedy that really spoke to you?
MS. CHO: She was just very strong. Here you saw this woman being incredibly — very hard and cruel and abrasive, and all of these in the very best way. I love that, and I loved her.
MS. PERCY: I think she also, from what I remember of her comedy growing up, I always remember thinking, she's saying things that you're not supposed to say.
MS. CHO: Yeah, and she's just such a bitch. And I just think that is so awesome. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. CHO: I really love that. And then, getting to know her, she was not like that at all. She was just incredibly kind and maternal and loving and gentle. But her persona onstage was the exact opposite, which I think is really awesome.
MS. PERCY: So it's funny, when I asked you the question about who made you laugh the most, growing up, I assumed it was gonna be your mother. [laughs] Basically just because of the way you've talked about her.
MS. CHO: Oh, she's funny too. We would — I would really make fun of her, with my brother and I. And that was kind of a common thing. When you have Asian American families, usually, if there's immigrants and then the first generation born here, there's always this friction. And so the main way that we separated ourselves from our parents was making fun of their accents and the things they would do. And I think that was really funny, of course. We would really laugh about my mom. And that was something that I had in common with my brother.
MS. PERCY: Did you do that even as a kid to them, then?
MS. CHO: Yeah. So we were kind of latchkey kids, so we didn't see our parents a lot. And so when we did, it was a really funny experience, always. But there was a store called Montgomery Ward, and my mother couldn't say the name. She'd go, [speaks in a heavy accent] "Montgomery Ward." And we would laugh so hard about that, as it was just the funniest pronunciation of this store. And so that was sort of the beginning of really finding our own identity, there.
MS. PERCY: Silence, and not talking about difficult things, it's something that I grew up with in my family. And when I read I'm the One That I Want, you have this passage that you write, where you talk about your father and how he didn't know how to break it to your mother that he was gonna be deported three days after you were born. You say, "He conveniently avoided the subject. He didn't lie; he simply withheld the truth and at the last minute, he left her holding the bag. Or me, as it were." And reading this, I was struck by how much your decision to be a standup comic, to be so truthful and open, was opposite of the way that you grew up. I wonder: how did you develop this voice?
MS. CHO: Oh, I think it's rebellion. You always want to have this thing where I'm doing the opposite of what my family would have done. And that's kind of a natural reaction, to be directly in opposition of the way you are raised. And my family and, I think, a lot of Korean culture, is really about this sort of politeness that does avoid real truth and meaning. And it's not exactly politeness: it's just this avoidance of blunt truths. And you have a sense of just trying not to rock the boat, at all times, even though it's just quite a miserable thing.
MS. PERCY: Did your family also avoid anger?
MS. CHO: Yeah. And I think that within that, you create more anger. If you try to suppress things, it just comes back more, in a vicious way. So it's pretty crazy. But I think the anger part, it just was inevitable.
MS. PERCY: At what point did you feel like you could use anger in your work, particularly as a standup comedian, to talk about really difficult topics that would make people uncomfortable? You've done so well in talking about sexual abuse and your own rape, and how did that come about? What was the process for that?
MS. CHO: I don't know. It wasn't a directly conscious decision or idea of "oh, how do I do this?" It's really about trying to find what, to me, is right to talk about. And also, I was — we were sort of talking a lot about that kind of stuff around Bill Cosby. This is in the initial coming forward of a lot of these people who — that he allegedly raped. And so there was a lot of talk around comedy about rape, sexual abuse — all these things. And so it was a way to participate in that conversation. So I felt like, okay, this is something that I need to discuss. And so yeah, it was the right thing to do, at the right time, for me.
MS. PERCY: On your last album, American Myth, you had a bonus track called "We So Worry." And I know that you've talked about writing this for your parents, and your parents are on the chorus for it.
[music: "We So Worry" by Margaret Cho]
MS. PERCY: It made me feel really emotional, listening to it, particularly because of what you've talked about in your memoir, with your parents, and just as you continue to be so open with all of us in your audience about your relationship with your parents. And I just wanted to hear the story behind that, why you wrote it for them and how you even got them involved in it.
MS. CHO: Well, it was this thing where — my parents are actually both musicians, so I grew up listening and playing music with them and singing and stuff. So that was sort of a natural thing, to want to do something where we all sang together. There's great richness in the vocals of a family band, when you see the Carter Family to the Cash family, all of this stuff, even the Osmonds. Something like that is so intuitive and natural. So this constant thing of my family — they just worry, because they don't understand a lot of what I'm trying to do in my career. They've never seen — I mean even — I've been doing this for so long. And their issues are really about worry. And their response is really about worry, and a continual worrying, that's their interpretation of caring. And so that's what the song is, it's a very simple, direct explanation of that.
So it was fun to do, and they were really nervous in the studio, and they were really funny. And I love that. I brought them to — we recorded at Ben Lee's house, which is this great Neutra, this very, very modern house that he shares with Ione Skye. And so we were bringing my family into this incredibly hip and worldly, exotic, movie star, rock star pad. And they're doing their vocals, and they were so terrified. And it was really funny to be there and do that with them in this space that I've recorded with — I had just recorded with Tommy Chong in there and with Fiona Apple in there. So it was very different from any environment that my family had been in before.
MS. PERCY: I just love that, because the thing that it conveys to me — particularly as the daughter of immigrants, as well — that their worry is actually how they show they care. What you just said. And that comes through in the entire song. [laughs]
MS. CHO: Yeah, I mean because that's the only thing that they really know how to do, is express this anxiety about your growth and your advances and your specialness in a world that they really don't understand. So I think the best songwriting is when you can be very concise about what you are trying to convey. And that's the same in comedy. It's just that brevity is very important.
MS. PERCY: In the episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that you did, Jerry Seinfeld said something to you that I found really profound. He was talking about the criticism that you've received about using comedy as a way to talk about rape and sexual abuse, as we discussed. And he said to you, "Comedy is always on the way. We're on the way someplace else." And I wonder, how would you say that humor — that comedy has helped you on your way and formed you as a person?
MS. CHO: I think it sort of helped me understand everything, the way that I live and the way that I have found myself in comedy, because I started so young. And I learned so much just about using that time as a comedian onstage to reflect on where I was at that time in my life. And so I have a great fondness for all of the time that I had, especially in the '90s, developing and being in this world of whatever was alternative comedy, as opposed to the regular comedy clubs, the branded comedy clubs. And so it was a very different time, and I really appreciate that. And it was really exciting.
MS. PERCY: Is there anything I haven't asked you about this — about the idea of humor as a tool for survival — that you'd like to talk about?
MS. CHO: Well, I think that humor is really just a coping mechanism. I mean it's always been about coping. And really, what is the best expression of humor is something that comes out of suffering and comes out of a sense of alienation. And that's where we find so much truth and connection with an audience. And it can be very subtle, and it could be very heavy-handed and very brash. It just depends on what's going on. And I think it's really profound. It's really great.
MS. PERCY: Well, there's just a sentence that has really comforted me in your memoir that I want to read to you. You said, "My face was shaped like a heart, because through all of the injustices it endured, it still shined with love. Now I have finally learned how to love it back." As someone who also has a full face, [laughs] that brought me a lot of comfort. So thank you.
MS. CHO: Aw. Thank you. That's so nice. Yeah, it's like this very — it's really about self-love, which, for whatever reason, it's very hard to get there. It takes a while and sort of takes all of our effort, sometimes. But it's something you have to do.
MS. PERCY: Well, having watched you go through that process, it's really great to see you getting there.
MS. CHO: Well, thank you.
[music: “Lonely” by Mean Lady]
MS. PERCY: Margaret Cho is the co-host of E! News Fashion Police, taking the torch from her mentor, the late Joan Rivers. The song we talked about, “We So Worry,” is on Margaret’s Grammy-nominated album, American Myth. And she’s currently on tour, so check out where you can see her, at margaretcho.com.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss, and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “Lonely” by Mean Lady]