Margaret Cho was born Dec. 5, 1968 and raised in San Francisco. “It was different than any other place on Earth,” she says. “I grew up and went to grammar school on Haight Street during the ’70s. There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts from the ’60s, drag queens, and Chinese people. To say it was a melting pot – that’s the least of it. It was a really confusing, enlightening, wonderful time.”
Her grandfather was a Methodist minister who ran an orphanage in Seoul during the Korean War. Ignoring the traditions of her patriarchal culture, her mother bravely resisted an arranged marriage in Korea and married Margaret’s father who writes joke books – in Korean. “Books like 1001 Jokes for Public Speakers – real corny stuff,” Cho says. “I guess we’re in the same line of work. But we don’t understand each other that way. I don’t know why the things he says are funny and the same for him.”
What Margaret did know is that she didn’t love being a kid. Racing toward adulthood to escape bullying, she began writing jokes at 14 and professionally performing at age 16. Getting picked on, and feeling disenfranchised, is a subject that’s very near to Margaret’s heart. She has become a sort of “Patron Saint” for Outsiders, speaking for them when they are not able to speak for themselves Along with advocating for gay rights and bullying, Margaret recently began working with Homeless people on the streets of San Francisco as a tribute to her dear friend, Robin Williams.
Soon after starting her Stand Up career, Margaret won a comedy contest where first prize was opening for Jerry Seinfeld. She moved to Los Angeles in the early ’90s and, still in her early twenties, hit the college circuit, where she immediately became the most booked act in the market and garnered a nomination for “Campus Comedian of The Year.” She performed over 300 concerts within two years. Arsenio Hall introduced her to late night audiences, Bob Hope put her on a prime time special and, seemingly overnight, Margaret Cho became a national celebrity.
Her groundbreaking, controversial, and short-lived ABC sitcom, All-American Girl (1994) soon followed. Oddly, while chosen because of who she was – a non-conformist Korean American woman with liberal views – the powers-that-be then decided they wanted her to “tone it down” for the show. Challenging Margaret’s feelings for both who she was and how she looked, she soon realized that though she was an Executive Producer, it was a battle she would not win. “For fear of being too “ethnic,” the show got so watered down for television that by the end, it was completely lacking in the essence of what I am and what I do.”
The experience was a traumatic one, bringing up unresolved feelings left over from childhood, and Margaret developed an eating disorder as a response to criticism about her body. She was so obsessive in her goal to try to be what she thought others wanted, she landed in the hospital with kidney failure. Through out a period of self-abuse, Margaret continued performing to sold-out audiences across the country in comedy clubs, theaters, and on college campuses, working to channel her anger in to something more positive.
In 1999, her groundbreaking, off Broadway one-woman show, I’m The One That I Want, toured the country to national acclaim and was made into a best-selling book and feature film of the same name. After her experience with All-American Girl, Margaret wanted to make sure she would only have to answer to herself, making sure she was responsible for the distribution and sales of her film. The concert film, which garnered incredible reviews, broke records for ‘Most money grossed per print’ in movie history. In 2001, after the success of her first tour, Cho launched Notorious C.H.O., a smash-hit 37-city national tour that culminated in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Notorious C.H.O., hailed by the New York Times as “Brilliant!”, was recorded and released as a feature film. Both films were acquired by Showtime Cable Networks, and produced by Margaret’s production company, a testament to the success of Margaret’s bold business model.
In March of 2003, Margaret embarked on her third sold-out national tour, Revolution. It was heralded by the Chicago Sun Times as “Her strongest show yet” and the CD recording was nominated for a Grammy for Comedy Album of the Year. In 2005, Cho released Assassin, which The Chicago Tribune crowed “Packs passion in to each punch.” The concert film premiered in select theatres and on the gay and lesbian premium channel Here! TV.
In 2007, Margaret hit the road with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and Erasure, along with indie faves The Dresden Dolls and The Cliks, to host the True Colors Tour, benefiting the Human Rights Campaign. A true entertainment pioneer, Margaret also created and starred in The Sensuous Woman, a live variety show featuring vaudevillian burlesque and comedy, which she took for an extended off-Broadway run in the fall.
Margaret returned to TV in 2008 on the VH1 series, The Cho Show. Describing it as a ‘reality sitcom,’ Margaret said at the time, “It’s the closest I’ve been able to come on television to what I do as a comic.” The Cho Show followed Margaret, her real parents, and her eccentric entourage through a series of irreverent and outrageous experiences, shaped by Margaret’s ‘anything goes’ brand of stand-up.
The aptly titled Beautiful came next, exploring the good, bad and ugly in beauty, and the unattractive marketers who shape our world. The concert premiered in Australia at The Sydney Theater, marking the first time Margaret debuted a tour abroad. While touring through the US, the concert was filmed at the Long Beach theatre, aired as a special on Showtime in 2009, and then released as both a DVD and a book. Venus Zine hailed Margaret, and the show, saying “her fierce activism, which addresses bigger issues such as what it’s like to be demoralized by your country and culture…(left) no subject too taboo for the fearless stand-up queen.”
In 2009 Margaret nabbed a starring role in the comedy/drama series Drop Dead Diva, which aired for six seasons on the Lifetime network. Margaret enjoyed being part of a team, and not necessarily having the sole responsibility for keeping things afloat. “(Drop Dead Diva) was very fulfilling. It’s a lot about the things I talk about, like body image, and women feeling good about themselves, and learning to be visible.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Margaret stepped right up to the proverbial plate when asked to do Season 11 of the highly- rated Dancing with the Stars. Paired with pro Louie Van Amstel, Margaret was on one of the show’s most controversial seasons. “I really wanted to do DWTS so much. I love the show and I love dancing. It seemed like it would be very exciting, which it was. It was also very difficult because I was touring as well.” Margaret got a very strong reaction to her Rainbow Dancing Dress during a time when the issue of bullying, especially among gay teens, was all over the media. “I am very proud to have been able to wear a gay pride dress on a show that is so conservative. It is a wonderful thing to have every one remember me by. I wanted to send an urgent message to gay teenagers to make them feel included and loved. That dress was my statement to them about pride.”
2010 culminated with another high honor, a second Grammy Award nomination for Comedy Album of the Year for Cho Dependent, her incredibly funny collection of music featuring collaborations with Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Grant Lee Phillips, Tegan & Sara, Ben Lee and more. The album received critical acclaim, with The Oregonian stating, “This was a chance to see and hear an already drop-dead funny diva growing, flexing new musical muscle, and fearlessly mature.” The album is funny, yes, but also quite musical, featuring not only her surprisingly strong singing voice, but her skill on the guitar, banjo and dulcimer. “I was inspired to make beautiful music with a comic edge. I took this very seriously, taking vocal and guitar lessons while I was touring. I was very devoted to learning and understanding how I could accompany myself.”
Margaret self released Cho Dependent on her own Clownery Records, and was encouraged by the acclaim, as there are only a handful of people putting out albums of comedy music – “Weird” Al Yankovic, Flight of the Conchords, The Lonely Island, to name a few – but no women. In 2011, Margaret released the live concert film of Cho Dependent, which also had its cable network debut on Showtime. Audiences who caught these performances live can attest that Cho hasn’t lost any of her edge. Shot at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA, Cho remains uncensored, taking aim at the Palin family, her stint on Dancing With the Stars, smoking pot and living in a world with ‘sexting.’ The DVD is characteristically no-holds-barred Margaret and instantly a classic.
In 2012, Margaret spent whatever free time she had crafting her all new standup show, the uproariously and aptly named MOTHER, which kicked off with both a US and European tour. According to Margaret, “MOTHER offers up an untraditional look at motherhood and how we look at maternal figures and strong women in queer culture. There’s nothing we don’t discuss, including race, drugs, sexuality – gay-straight-everything in between, celebrity, culture, politics – nothing is sacred – least of all this MOTHER.”
Paradox not lost, Margaret had to re-schedule some of the shows she had booked mid-September so she could attend the Emmy Awards with her mother. Nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her hilarious stint on 30 Rock as gender-bending North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Margaret was thrilled with the role and the nomination, and with Tina Fey. “Tina and I did a pilot together, Cabot College, and I was so happy to be working with her again. She is such a force, and I am grateful to know her. I will take any opportunity to team up with her.“
Although the pilot wasn’t picked up, Margaret’s creative side is moving ahead at full speed. First up – honoring her late friend, Robin Williams. “I found I couldn’t stop grieving Robin. He was an idol of mine before he became a friend, and he was an amazing advocate for homeless people, raising over 70 million dollars for homeless Men, Women and Children through the Comic Relief comedy Specials. He’d also stipulate in his movie contracts that a certain percent of the crew had to be homeless. Robin was a naturally compassionate man and he understood implicitly that what these people needed was to be treated with dignity.” When the sadness of his passing overwhelmed Margaret, a mutual friend told her not to grieve Robin, but to ‘Be Robin’. The hashtag #BeRobin was born, and Margaret began setting up shop in different places in and around San Francisco, putting the information of where she’d be on her Facebook and Twitter pages. “It’s very simple, all I do and create a distraction – comedy and music – for several hours. The generosity of people has amazed me. Hairdressers and nail technicians have come down to give services to the Homeless community, we’ve had incredible food donations, sanitary supplies for women, clothing, money and more. Our motto is ‘If you have, give; if you need, take.” Margaret has a GoFundMe page for the project: Http://GoFundMe.com/BeRobin.
Incredibly, the #BeRobin project has led to more music from Margaret. She recently decided that her next two albums worth of material would be an outgrowth of the work she’s doing for the homeless community. “I am performing some new songs with the #BeRobin events, and wasn’t really sure how I was going to release my next set of music. I was waiting to see what the right thing was, and this presented itself.” Margaret takes her musicianship very seriously, taking lessons, practicing and working with top musicians. Produced by David Garza and Garrison Starr, the next album will be a comedy-music hybrid not unlike Cho Dependent. “I have so many friends in music, and it’s such a big part of my social life, so I am always recording and finding ideas for songs. Now I have a plan, and all the proceeds will benefit this cause.”
Margaret is also excited about the new talk show she has debuting on TLC in January called All About SEX. Margaret is part of the panel of hosts that include comedian Heather McDonald and actress Marissa Jaret Winokur. “All About SEX is a late night talk show where viewers call in and ask questions about sex. I cover sex toys and alternative sexuality. I understand that world from the inside. In fact, I was on the Board of Good Vibrations, a pioneering sex toy store for women that removed the stigma of women not only buying sex toys, but experimenting with what makes them feel good.”
2015 also brings Margaret back to the Stand Up stage, as she films her next comedy special, There’s no I in Team, but There is a Cho in Psycho, at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City in March. “This show is about insanity, about the anger I feel about everything happening in the world right now, from police brutality to racism to the rising tide of violence against women. I think everyone has a feeling about that mania and that rage. This show is the advanced version of MOTHER, the Wolf Mother.” One of the things Margaret is most excited for is the artwork for the show, a portrait she commissioned that was painted entirely in her own blood. “The artist Vincent Castiglia did an amazing portrait of me using my blood. I found it to be very symbolic since There’s no I in Team, but There is a Cho in Psycho has a lot to do with anger, rage and blood letting. It’s a very beautiful portrait and I am really proud of it.”
With so much going on in her artistic life, Margaret has never turned away from the causes that are important to her. She is incredibly active in anti-racism, anti-bullying and gay rights campaigns, and has been recognized for her unwavering dedication. She was the recipient of the Victory Fund’s 2008 Leadership Award and the first ever Best Comedy Performance Award at the 2007 Asian Excellence Awards. She also received the First Amendment Award from the ACLU of Southern California, and the Intrepid Award from the National Organization for Women (NOW). Throughout her career, she has been honored by GLAAD, American Women in Radio and Television, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and PFLAG for making a significant difference in promoting equal rights for all, regardless of race, sexual orientation or gender identity. In June of 2011, Margaret was honored by LA Pride, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing an individual whose lifetime body of work has left a lasting major imprint on the LGBT community.
Through her hard work, Margaret has had the opportunity to be heard, to extend her point of view and become regarded as a true pioneer in her field. She takes none of it for granted. “It’s a wonderful thing to be known as a ‘safe haven’ for people. A lot people who come to my shows don’t necessarily consider themselves traditional comedy fans. I seem to be a safe alternative for people who don’t think they’re being represented in society. They come because my point of view satisfies a lot of what needs to be said out there, and that makes me really proud.”