Bisexual comedian, actor and activist Margaret Cho visits Birmingham this month as part of her Fresh Off The Bloat tour. Here, she tells Zone about her inspiration, explains why the LGBT community is so important to her and outlines the numerous challenges that it still faces...
When did you first discover that you were funny?
I’m still trying to figure that one out! I don’t really know. I think that it wasn’t a need to be funny or not be funny, it was just me wanting to be a bit like Joan Rivers. I saw her when I was a kid and just really fell for her. I wanted to be just like her. I was really young; it was right after I’d decided to be Wonder Woman. When that didn’t seem likely, I decided to be a comedian just like Joan instead.
How did you first get into standup comedy?
I just started doing shows in San Francisco, where I’m from, and doing these different AIDS fundraising events in the early ’90s. So that connected me very closely with the gay community. There were so many different kinds of things that I was doing, but I was really lucky because I was different in comedy. There weren’t many Asian-American women doing comedy then, so it felt like I had a very special experience.
Where do you find inspiration for your material?
Everywhere. Right now it’s pretty crazy - a lot about Donald Trump and even the Harvey Weinstein scandal. We all have these varied memories of sexual assault. I’ve talked about it a lot in my standup. Whenever something like that occurs, which I guess is a rare thing, but whenever people are coming forward - like with Bill Cosby or Jimmy Savile - you realise a very public figure has been protected. It’s very disheartening and brings back a lot of bad memories of your own experiences. There’s a lot of that in what I’m doing in my shows. I’ve been talking about rape, abuse and healing in my work for a long time, so this has more of a topic to wrap around.
What’s been your best show ever?
It was great to play at Radio City Music Hall. I’ve done it many times in different capacities. I’ve also been kicked out of Radio City Music Hall for smoking pot up there. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that! I was with someone very famous, much more famous than me, and both she and I got busted. I thought that because she was so famous we were going to get away with it, but no. I got to do my show there, but couldn’t use a dressing room because I got kicked out.
How do you deal with hecklers?
I think you have to try and figure out how to use their own words against them and trip them up. It’s a little unfair on them because you have a microphone and you’re going to be louder than them. I think people get intimidated by me because I can come off as pretty ferocious, so I haven’t had that bad a time with hecklers. They get shutdown pretty quickly, I think.
You’re bringing your tour to Birmingham this month. What can audiences expect?
It’s a very topical show. It’s very much about the bloated nature of our crazy politics. I don’t even know if it’s called politics anymore because it’s so insane! There’s a lot about Trump, the global impact he’s having, the craziness of it all. A lot of stuff about Hollywood and how to be an Asian-American in a not-diverse world there. There’s a lot of stuff about rape, about sexuality, gay rights. There are so many things to revisit that I’ve talked about in my standup before. It needs to be expanded.
The last time you performed in the UK was in 2015. Are you excited to be making a return visit?
Yeah, I love it. I have a great time here. The audiences are far more sophisticated because they’re used to the best comedians doing a different show every year. So everyone comes back with new material. It’s always very exciting. My favourite people are Stephen K Amos and Paul Foot. I really enjoy seeing them. They really typify the excellence of British comedy.
Is there a difference between UK and American audiences?
I think there is, because everybody is very familiar with their comedians. They see them over and over, and in different ways across the years, so they get to know them better. There’s a kind of familiarity with their comedians. So I come in and I’m different. It’s really challenging, but I love it.
Which other comedians do you most admire?
There are lots. People like Sarah Silverman, who’s a good friend of mine. Kathy Griffin’s also a good friend. There are so many great comedians now who are very drilled. I love it.
You’re not only a comedian but an actor too. How did that come about?
I was always doing little things over the years. I had my own TV show for a while in the ’90s. So there was always something. Lately there’s been more that’s centred around my comedy. There are things that have been developed from my standup. I’ve just developed a show called Highland. We just wrapped up the pilot recently. We’ll see what’s going to happen with it, but it’s very good. It’s very true to life, and features a very different kind of Asian family that we haven’t seen before.
Is there a dream role or show you’d like to act in?
I just want to focus on Highland. I’d like to complete the trajectory of the story. That’s something I would love to do.
A significant element of your material addresses LGBT issues. Why are those issues so important to you?
Well, I’m part of the community. I’m bisexual and we’re the forgotten sector of the LGBT community. They don’t really pay attention to us, but we’re here! That’s funny to me - the lack of understanding of the bisexual community from both sides, both gay and straight. Also, I grew up in the gay community. I always knew that I would be political. It’s part of my life and part of my upbringing. It’s a very safe place for me to be, and a place I understand well.
What do you feel still needs to be achieved in terms of the LGBT community across the world?
Well, there’s got to be a stop to bans on transgender people in the military. And this idea that you can somehow ban an entire community from using a bathroom. There are so many crazy ideas that conservatives have about the transgender community - ideas that it’s dangerous for people to believe. There’s been so much progress, but also a lot of ignorance and fear about who we are.
Do you see yourself as a role model for the community?
I don’t want to say that I’m a role model, but I try. I’d like to be. That would be great. Ultimately I’m just trying to be one small voice of reason, trying to make a difference and hopefully bring about change.
Margaret Cho brings her Fresh Off The Bloat comedy tour to Birmingham’s Glee Club on Wednesday 29 November. Tickets are now available at livenation.co.uk
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