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An Interview with Margaret Cho
Roxanne Bogucka

Margaret Choís one-woman show, "Iím the One That I Want," has garnered rave reviews both for her live performances and for the movie of the same name. "Iím the One That I Want" includes a lot of the signature sexual material that has brought Ms. Cho the marked adulation of gay audiences. It also is both hilarious and harrowing when she recounts her experiences as the first Asian-American lead on a TV show, the series "All-American Girl." Producers of the show felt that Ms. Cho was too fat, and a crash diet and exercise plan landed her in the hospital. At the same time, she received negative comments about the show and her performance in it, including one letter from a 12-year-old Asian-American girl who wrote that the show and Ms. Cho "made her feel shame."

Depressed and confused after the show was cancelled, Ms. Cho entered a spiral of self-destructive behavior, abusing alcohol and drugs. When she emerged from this low point, she decided to bring it all up on stage for us to laugh at, and more importantly, to learn from.

Hybrid Magazine film editor Roxanne Bogucka spoke with Ms. Cho by telephone recently.

RB: With all that you went through, having to lose weight so rapidly during "All-American Girl" that your kidney shut down on you, I guess the first thing I want to know is, how are you? Are you all right?

MC: I feel really good.

RB: Okay, great, that is good to hear, but it certainly sounded like your body went through quite a ringer.

MC: Yeah.

RB: I wanted to ask you a bit about the fact that your family is in a lot of your material. I take it youíre an only child?

MC: No, actually I have a brother.

RB: Oh.

MC: And heís younger and heís an actor.

RB: Ö I havenít seen a lot of your work, but Iíve heard about your mom--everybodyís heard about your mom-- and Iíve seen comments youíve made about your father. I was kind of wondering about your mother. I see and hear a lot of her in your routine, not so much about your dad. Whyís that?

MC: Oh, just because sheís just the voice that I think is the most interesting and fun for me to do, and it just exists in me as a very natural part of my performance.

RB: I see.

MC: Thatís why I talk about her more. Her voice is funnier to do. My father doesnít have an accent or anything. His humor is very subtle. Heís more of a brain.

RB: Iíve often wondered, because many comedians mine their family experiences for material, when you get ready to do something like that, do you give relatives warning, or do they just take it that they know this is your job and they expect it? How does that work?

MC: Well, my parents really accept what I do. They love my career and theyíre really excited for me and they know that everything I do is really in the spirit of love, and in embracing them, and in loving them, and so itís not an uncomfortable situation. Itís very easy, you know, itís not something thatís like Iím making fun of them or you know, anyone is ridiculing them, or anything like that. It is very light. So I donít warn them... They like it. They even suggest things for me to talk about, so thatís kind of funny, too.

RB: They do like it then, yeah. So is there anything you would consider off-limits for comedy or something you just couldnít joke about?

MC: I donít think so. I think everything is certainly fair game. Itís all about where it comes from, you know, a place of love and a place of helping people, instead of anger or you know, rageÖ Itís not subject matter, what it is, itís how you approach it.

RB: Uh-huh.

MC: And I always do things with the intention of helping others, with the intention of educating, with the intention of explaining love, so thatís what itís all about.

RB: Okay. I was wondering if you could let me know about anything or any comedians who totally crack you up, or any movies that just laid you out.

MC: I really love Eddie Murphy. Ö I think heís great. Iíve always loved him, all of his comedy and also the stuff on "Saturday Night Live," and then of course all of his films, which are just all really varied and interesting and all great, and Iím really looking forward to The Klumps (laughs). Canít wait.

RB: Your one-woman show, Iím the One that I Want, is extremely successful. Itís had incredible reviews, itís won awards, and I was wondering if you could tell me why you think itís touched such a collective nerve?

MC: I think because itís an honest show. It is very real... Itís really talking about things that I think are difficult for women to talk about--things like weight issues and addiction and disappointment and recovery. And all the stuff thatís very, itís very ugly to deal with actually, and I think women donít like to be ugly in a sense, and I for some reason, really embrace that. I really love it, and itís [the show] not afraid to be ugly. Itís really not afraid to be beautiful, and the show is for me, you know? I think it hits a core of people because itís true and itís really my experience and itís really like my need to share that with other people, and my need to help others through my experience, and I think itís really funny, so people respond to it on a lot of different levels. Itís also entertainment, itís also politics, itís also therapy. Itís a lot of things to a lot of people, and thatís what makes it such a successful show.

RB: Okay. I thought that your story about weight and about lookism is really a cautionary tale, especially for women and girls everywhere and one that I think, you know, that girls should hear. It seems like a lot of your audience is a gay audience that you came up in, in the neighborhood, but I wonder also if you have a lot of young girls in your audience. Do they get to hear this story, because I think they should.

MC: Yes, there are lots of young women, lots of women. The show is really very important, I think, for women, because womenís culture is just the opposite, you know. We have womenís magazines that are all directed at a different goal, you know. They really promote this anorexic body in subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways and in a sense, make us feel uncomfortable with ourselves, no matter what weight weíre at, and itís a very devious and subtle process of being, really under the systemís thumb, and itís sexism at its worst because it masquerades within us, you know, the enemy resides within us and itís really hard to root out. You think itís self-loathing and you think itís not being thin enough and all this stuff, and itís just another way for sexism to rear its ugly head, and so itís incredibly important for younger women to see the show. I wish I had seen it when I was younger, it certainly would have affected the way I view myself and probably would have colored my experience. Eating disorders and the like are so common among college-age women, itís an epidemicÖAnd itís not really addressed as much as it should be. I think a lot of the press is directed at how skinny actresses are and how bad that is, and yet weíre blaming the actresses, weíre not actually going into the system and looking at whatís wrong and trying to correct it somehow.

RB: You know, Iíve read that under the age of 16, the number of young girls who are dieting is, you know, is exploding, itís outrageous.

MC: Itís outrageous.

RB: And itís not necessarily because you know, thereís diabetes in the family and you need to lose weight, or thereís heart problems in the family, but just lookism, you know, the idea that youíve got to get that Barbie body.

MC: Yeah, and it doesnít exist. Itís insane. Itís just Ö I donít understand why the system is like that, but it is, and we need to fight it.

RB: Well, I think your show is a good start and I understand youíre writing a book. Can I presume then there will be more about your experiences with lookism in there?

MC: Oh, absolutely yes, and in much greater detail, and itís treated in a similar way and lists the same sort of honesty and funÖ The book is actually finished and is coming out in the spring.

RB: Oh great. And the publisher is?

MC: Ballantine.

RB: Ballantine. Great. Okay. Well, I definitely would have wanted to read something like that when I was younger.

MC: Yeah.

RB: I was wondering, you started doing stand-up when you were 16. I mean a lot of young people donít know what they want to do with their lives even after college, but apparently you knew rather early. So when did you know you were funny and that you wanted to be a comedian?

MC: I think I always kind of knew it and that I didnít reallyÖ I didnít really start performing until I was a teenager. I always had the desire Ö it was just the truest desire of my heart, and a chain of events, a very unfortunate chain of events happened to me when I was a teenager, which led to me really needing to focus on the truest desire of my heart. You know, I was expelled from my school for really bad grades and bad behavior and I just, I disappointed my family so much, and didnít have anywhere to go but to myself, basically. I basically was cut off from my family, cut off from school, and I had to make some choices pretty quickly about what I wanted to do and because I didnít have anywhere else to go, I just went to the trust desire of my heart which was performing and being a comedian, and it was very easy for me to do it. You know, I just went on stage and started it, and so I always knew that I could. It wasnít something I thought about, or wondered about. I always knew that that was in me and that would be my true lifeís purpose. I just didnít want to waste any more time, and I just got started as quickly as I could.

RB: It sounds in some ways, I mean, thinking back on things you said in Iím the One that I Want, it sounds from what Iím hearing here, you really knew yourself better as a very young woman in some ways and then after you had toured and come back and been offered this show and become more successful, you kind of lost your sense of yourself a bit.

MC: Yes, I really did, because it just ... I think that I was just, you know, still trying to grow up. I mean, I still needed some growing up to do, even though I was like half done, basically, and so even though I had the conviction and knew that I wanted to chase my dreams and knew that I wanted this for myself, I still got a lot of my self-esteem and my self-worth from the outside. I never looked within for any of those things that are so important to have.

RB: Ö I notice in other interviews and in the show, you talked about acceptance and feeling like you fit in. Now that youíve accepted yourself, is that pretty much off your agenda?

MC: I think so. I think that weíre constantly in need of acceptance of ourselves, no matter what, because lifeís changing, and from day to day we feel differently and we always need to accept what weíre feeling and you know, that itís part of us and our experience, but you know that self-acceptance is a goal and every day we get closer to that goal.

RB: Okay, Iíd like to talk a little bit about your show, "All American Girl" which I have to confess, I never saw. But now that Iíve seen Iím the One that I Want, it kind of struck me that a lot of your really funniest stuff that seemed, from the audienceís reaction, to be sort of your signature material, wasnít, shall we say, material that would translate readily to network TV? And I was wondering how it was that a comedian who was known for this sort of material would, why would someone think, "Oh, candidate for prime-time series?" I mean, how did that come about?

MC: Well, the show actually was conceived outside, away from me. Ö The network had wanted to put a show together for an Asian-American family for a long time, and when I came along as a comedian, you know, and I was doing jokes about my family, in addition to the other material, they just saw me and thought I was the missing link to the part of the puzzle that they didnít have, to complete the picture. It was that sort of a situation. And because I had some family material, you know... that just seems like, you know, that I was the perfect choice. And I was young enough, and just the right age, the right look, well, almost the right look (laughs), except for my weightÖ They just saw me, and an idea they already had.

RB: Now when I was young, which was a long time ago, any time there were black folks on TV, and they werenít on the news, we ran to the set to see them, because it wasnít usual to see someone like us on TV. And I kind of think about those poor actors, you know, I mean they were working, which was fabulous, but they had all this weight to carry of being first, and opening doors plus having all these expectations from every African-American viewer across the land. Itís like, "oh look," you know, and I wondered, when you were on "All American Girl" did you have this sort of pressure, you know, of being the great Asian-American hope on this TV show...

MC: Oh yeah, absolutely.

RB: And how did you live with that and work with that?

MC: Well ... again itís like that self-acceptance thing. You just have to accept that itís there, and I mean, I was always terrified that I was first and that I had to be first, and I couldnít believe that I was first, you know, and that was really terrifying, but now itís just accepted. And then, it was on such a massive scale and it was promoting a project that I didnít believe in and I wasnít really good in, and so it was hard to stand up for somebody that was not me, and thatís what I was doing then. And thatís why the show is so important, because the show is 100% me, you know? "Iím the One that I Want" is exactly what I want to be doing at this time Ö It feels very good to stand by my work now and not be afraid to be first, and not be worried about it or concerned about it. But you know, it is amazing, the lack of images of people of color out there, and how we really have to scrutinize and judge and mull over the ones that we do have. And itís unfair, but at the same time we need to do this so that there can be more.

RB: Okay, I was really just jaw dropping, part of your show "Iím the One that I Want," you know, there were many parts where Ö I was laughing but I was horrified at what I was hearing, and I was very, very surprised that a young [Asian-American] girl wrote and said she felt shame [at your weekly portrayal on "All-American Girl."].

MC: Yeah. I know, itís shocking, but ... thatís really typical of the kind of things that were happening during that period. You know, there was a lot of Asian-American backlash toward the show, which I think was generated by the networkís insistence that this was Ö the quintessential Asian-American family, and the way the show was presented to the mainstream audience as, finally Asian-Americans on TV, you know, and made it out to be this incredibly humanistic effort to multi-culturalize the world and it was, um, the show wasnít good. I mean, it wasnít stereotyped, it wasnít racist, it just wasnít funny Ö I donít know if people responded to that as much, as they just felt dissatisfied by me, because my work before had been so outspoken and so wild and so really true and honest, and to suddenly have this mediocre thing was really shocking, and so there was huge backlash. I mean, although in a sense, like, those families, you know, and the little girl letters, they may have been worse had they really known who I was (laughs).

RB: (laughs).

MC: But you know, itís really like now, itís a great learning tool and now itís great to just have that experience, and Ö just to know that reaction is out there, and thatís interesting, you know, and thatís great. And that weíre discussing something is the most exciting thing because that means thereís something to discuss Ö people of color going out there and creating great work and people commenting on it and thatís better than no argument at all.

RB: Yeah, well Iíd like to congratulate you again on your movie, "Iím the One that I Want," and your one-woman show. I understand that youíre attending, I believe, is it the first San Diego Asian Film Festival next month?

MC: Yes.

RB: And how did that come about? Were you involved in the organizing of the festival?

MC: No, no...

RB: Was it a timely thing?

MC: Yeah, so Iím coming with my film and Iím really looking forward to it.

RB: And then whatís next for you after that? More touring, more movies?

MC: A concert tour--a brief one--for my new show, Iím writing a new show, so thatís going to happen, within the rest of the year Iím writing and then I will continue touring with it next year. And then Iíll go on a book tour, when the book will be released in the spring Ö

RB: Sounds great. Iím looking forward to it.

MC: Wonderful.

RB: Thank you very much for your time.

MC: Thank you.

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