Margaret Cho Interview
Margaret Cho became famous in 1994. That year, she was thrust into the spotlight by ABC, who had developed a show around her. The sitcom, All American Girl, was touted as one that would shatter the television racial barrier for Asians. When it was cancelled after one season, Cho was made a pariah for the downfall. Perseverance through a dark period involving drugs and alcohol led her to greater success in stand up by becoming even more brutally honest about her life and experiences.
On August 24th, Cho will release an album of musical comedy entitled Cho Dependent. Following the release, she will tour extensively.
Rooftop had Nathan Timmel sit down for an afternoon conversation with Cho to discuss her upcoming album, current acting gig, and recent show at Bonnaroo.
NT: So how was Bonnaroo?
MC: Bonnaroo was great! I’m a big fan of Conan O’Brien, so I saw him twice, and I was making a music video there with one of the artists I collaborated with, Brendan Benson, who’s just fabulous, and he also plays a scene in my show. I just love music festivals, because it opens me up to see so much good music. I was able to go see people I just adore, like Jay Z, Jack White, The Dead Weather… I love Jack White, he’s a great musician and a great person, so that was really cool. I got to see The Punch Brothers, and they also were in my video. I love the presence of comedy at those kind of festivals, so I’ve been playing them more. This was my second Bonnaroo; I did South by Southwest the past couple of years because I enjoy that, because I get to do the comedy stage and then go visit the music stages.
NT: Tell me about the video you were filming.
MC: The video, it’s great, it’s called “Baby, I’m With the Band.” The initial idea was having me walking around, not being able to get backstage, but what we found [laughs] is that many of these bands felt really uncomfortable rejecting me or acting mean. So, right now we might be moving in another direction; it’s not done yet. It’s being directed by the great, great Liam Sullivan, who is making all of my music videos. He’s a really great comedian and filmmaker, and he’s someone I’ve toured with many times, so I’m really happy to be working with him again. But yeah, a lot of people were really scared to not be nice to me, so I want to point out that everyone in the video was actually very nice.
NT: What you should have done is had these bands watch the Ricky Gervais show Extras, where he had Kate Winslet act like a diva, and Patrick Stewart played a perverted version of himself…
MC: [laughs] …and David Bowie sang the song about Ricky being a “sad little fat man…” I love that show.
NT: It would have been perfect for the bands; “You don’t understand, no one will take this seriously.” The music video is to promote your new album, Cho Dependent, and on your website you said, “I have wanted to make an album like this forever.” How long did it take to go from concept to reality regarding the album?
MC: The concept is an old one, something I’ve had since the nineties, I think, where I’ve wanted to do something like this but never had the time. But when I finally did sit down and decide to call some of the musicians I’ve known for years, like Ani Difranco, who I used to tour with, and write songs and learn to play guitar and learn to sing and record, that took about a year and a half.
NT: You learned to play guitar for your album and didn’t just leave it to the musicians?
MC: Yeah, I wanted to. I wanted to be as involved as possible.
NT: Nice. You work with an amazing array of musicians—Fiona Apple, the already mentioned Ani DiFranco to name two—how did you approach them, did you encounter any hesitancy, and what was the overall experience like?
MC: Some people I had known already, like Ani and Jon Brion and Grant Lee Phillips; those guys I just asked and they were instantly excited about the project and wanted to be a part of it. Everyone had their own way of working, but in general, I would write the lyrics and then we would have a writing session together, or I would just send the words off and receive a demo some time later. Everyone was so generous with their time and worked on it extremely hard, which was so amazing. I also got a lot of voice lessons and guitar lessons as well as lessons in production and engineering! I feel so lucky that such talented people wanted to help me as much as they could. It was totally incredible.
NT: It has been said every rock star wants to be a comedian, and every comedian a rock star; would you agree with that?
MC: Absolutely, but I don’t think comedians would want to be musicians if they understood all the hard work that went into it.
NT: Comedians just have to show up and stand behind a mic, they don’t have to lug around equipment or do sound checks.
NT: How do you plan to present the new material, music and comedy, to audiences? Will you tour with a band?
MC: I won’t be travelling with a full band, but I will have musicians with me. It’s something you have to approach differently from a normal stand up tour, because you have to find that balance between comedy and music. Since it’s stand up comedy, you have to hear the lyrics, but at the same time I don’t want to overlook the fact that musically it’s still a big production because the album is comedy songs. I haven’t figured out which songs I’ll play live, yet.
NT: How important is touring to you?
MC: I love it. I’ve been touring for twenty-five years now, and it’s something I’m very passionate about and enjoy. It’s not something I can do as much right now, as I’m living in Atlanta and working on the show Drop Dead Diva six months out of the year. But normally I travel constantly, so it’s sort of weird being anchored in one spot. I still do a lot of sets here, though, and a lot of comedy, because I love it, but I’m looking forward to getting out on the road.
NT: You mentioned Drop Dead Diva; how did you end up on that show? Did you ask to audition, or did you get that phone call every actor wants where they said, “We wrote a part for you”?
MC: Well, the part was written with me in mind. I was in the very beginning stages of my album, and was working with an artist named Jay Brannan, writing songs all day, and I went to his show that night and the creator of the show, Josh Berman was there, and he approached me and said he had written this part that was perfect with me. We talked about it, and he was really excited, and I ended up being the first person cast, and that set it all off. We filmed the pilot in Atlanta, it was picked up, and I’m really proud of that because it’s a great show, and its changed my life dramatically because I’m used to touring all the time, but now I’m staying in one place.
NT: You’ve two books under your belt; any plans for a third?
MC: Yeah, I’d like to write another book. It’s not my first thought, though, to write another book, because it’s so much work. Comics sort of want to do a little bit of work, we don’t like to do a lot of work [laughs].
NT: When and how did you begin your journey into the world of body art? Do you think it was a natural progression of your creative side, meaning you’re a comic, you’re an author, and this is another medium of expression for you?
MC: Well, I think I’m done, as far as my own art is concerned, because I don’t have any more room. Right now everything I’ve had done is in that Japanese style, where it’s not full sleeves, it’s cut off at the elbow so it can be easily covered up. Whenever I’m hired as an actor, it’s generally in a part that’s pretty conservative, like a cop, or a doctor, or right now I’m a legal assistant, a paralegal. My interest in tattooing goes back to my childhood; I think I always knew I would get tattoos someday, I just didn’t know when. My parents owned a bookstore in San Francisco, and I was raised amongst all of these people who were very artistic, and very wild. They were all tattooed, and tattooed by Ed Hardy, who also sold a lot of his tattoo books at my parents’ shop. I’ve known him since I was a child, and he ended up being my tattoo artist, then, too.
NT: You’re very famous for being actively involved with Gay and Lesbian rights; how did this first come about—did you cater to a gay fan base, or did one discover you? Describe the founding of that relationship.
MC: I started working, as a young comic, as gay clubs. I mean, the majority of the work I got was at small gay bars and venues. They were showing my comedy videos at a bar called The Midnight Sun, and through that I got quite a gay following in the neighborhood, The Castro. I think my [activist] work came about because I was in the gay scene already; it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. All my friends were gay, so it just made sense and felt right.
For all the information you need on Cho Dependent and her upcoming tour, visit www.margaretcho.com.
Drop Dead Diva can be seen Sunday on Lifetime.