Comedy and social change: An interview with Margaret Cho

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Margaret Cho is no stranger to the current political landscape of free speech. With a robust repertoire of politically engaged comedy, a long history of involvement in the LGBTQ Rights Movement and an upcoming show tackling Donald Trump and the politics of being fat, Cho is something of a veteran when it comes to bringing comedy and social change together.  

One the crucial variables in this equation is free speech. Cho believes that boundaries should not be placed on comedians and that it is important for them to be able to “say anything.” In an interview with The Daily Californian, she described comedy as a liberal art form in nature — not really the environment of choice for those with more censorial tastes. “I’ve never really met someone who’s funny in comedy who would disagree with me,” she said.

But she does recognize that the political landscape of comedy has changed in recent years. “Ever since 9/11, we definitely look to comedy for answers,” she said. Cho spoke at length about using comedy as a means of coping with the current political administration and how the mercurial nature of Trump’s presidency requires comedians to pay close attention to the political landscape and “carry it forward.” Cho said comedy is a helpful tool in combating white supremacy and that it has always been a voice of reason and an agent for social change.

Speaking directly about Trump, Cho stated: “Yeah. Everybody’s crazed. Everybody is scared, and I’m right there, I’m so terrified.” She said she could not have imagined a worse president than George W. Bush and that the results of the 2016 presidential election were deeply shocking. “It can get so much worse,” she said. “I don’t know how that happened, but it’s how it is. It’s really worse.”

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. “Laughter is an inherent, healing thing,” Cho said. “It’s very much about coping with your adversities and rising above them. That’s what comedy has always done for me.”

The conversation then turned toward Berkeley and the would-be “Free Speech Week” that was scheduled for last month. Interestingly, Cho has some connection to the big names of Free Speech Week.

“Ann Coulter is a vulture,” Cho said. “She’ll go wherever the carcasses lie.” Cho stated that she actually has known Coulter for a number of years and described a surprising political evolution. Cho described Coulter as “a neutral political force in the ‘90s” who wore long lace skirts to the floor and chunky knit sweaters — an early version of the Free People aesthetic. “She wasn’t liberal, she wasn’t conservative — she was a thinker.”

So, what happened? “People seek fame in different ways,” Cho said simply.

And her own road to fame? “I’m really of the belief that you should go at things as your authentic self.” Following the route of authenticity has allowed Cho to be free from keeping the lies and stories consistent and to go with her gut.

Cho projects this commitment to authenticity very well. Her voice is affable, and she laughs easily at herself and at the world.

This was reflected in her description of her relationship with the gay community, which seemed to play a definite role in her origin story. She identified Harvey Milk and the Gay Rights Movement as having played large roles in her coming of age and discussed performing for charities during the AIDS Crisis early on in her career.

“I was always in connection with the gay community,” she said. “I was always talking about gay rights and working for gay rights; it’s where I come from, and it’s who I am.”

This makes Cho’s upcoming show at the Castro Theatre a special occasion. Cho has been to the Castro to see movies but has never seen a live show, and now she will be performing her new piece “Fresh Off the Bloat” in one of the most iconic venues in her hometown, San Francisco.

“Fresh Off the Bloat” is something of an amalgamation. Cho described it as being about “whitewashing, Donald Trump, the bloated nature of politics and the politics of being fat.”

“(The show) is looking for a safe place to just think about the body,” she said. Cho discussed how weight is very political in the United States and how she has felt the need to create a piece to consider her own body and the current political climate.

The intersection of personal experience and political reality seems to be one of the driving forces behind Cho’s work. She speaks about it with invigoration. “I’m just excited to be out there and working,” she said. “It’s gonna be great.”

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].