Margaret Cho talks bringing Asian American comedy wave to Berkeley

Sharon Pan/Staff

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Margaret Cho entered 2016 as a survivor.

In mid-2015, she made her rape public (with an accompanying music video) and chose to talk about it frankly in her work. Her longtime nemesis Donald Trump, whom she has minced no words in criticizing, shocked liberal America with the strength of his populist support. And she broke down in March 2016 during a set at the Stress Factory in New Jersey — an episode she blamed on jet lag that led to nasty press coverage and a mass audience walkout. In the full swing of campaign season, she checked into rehab.

For most of the early months of the Trump presidency, Cho was unusually quiet. But clearly, this time of self-introspection didn’t dull her critical blade. She roared back to life in the latter half of 2017 with her stand-up tour “Fresh Off the Bloat,” which didn’t pull punches in its condemnation of Donald Trump, white nationalism and her rapist.

Cho spoke to The Daily Californian over the phone about breaking the silence around her sexual assault.

“I just thought it was the right time,” Cho said frankly. “And I still think that there is so much to be gained by being very open about our experience. I’m proud that I talked about this.”

Cho also justified her inclusion in her comedy of her experiences with sexual violence.

“In my mind, it was the right thing because there were comedians like (Daniel) Tosh talking about raping women,” Cho said, referring to 2012 comments made by the host of Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0.” In the following years, an intense conversation about discussing rape in comedy emerged. And Cho, never one to shy away from controversy, took sides in the strongest way possible — she dedicated a significant portion of her 2015 Netflix special “PsyCHO” to joking about rape culture and her own long-term relationship with her abuser.

“If you’re coming from the perspective of a survivor, then it’s very important to talk about,” she said. “There’s much to say, and we can benefit from talking about it.”

In a 2015 interview with Broadly, Cho prophetically observed the power of female anger to cause change. And a year later, the rage crested, sweeping away dozens of predatory, powerful men who silenced their accusers until they no longer could.

“The time is truly up,” Margaret Cho declared in reference to the Time’s Up movement. “It’s so exciting to see what’s happening now and be a part of it. I love it.”

Cho looked toward the future of the entertainment industry as one that fights sexual assault and harassment and amplifies formerly marginalized voices.

“I think diversity is really important. Comedy is an art form, and we need to ask these sorts of questions. It’s really about being an iconoclast, really remarking on what society’s about, and you definitely need diversity for that voice to be valid,” she said.

Cho is returning to the Bay Area next week as part of an all-Asian American stand-up comedy extravaganza at Cal Performances. “Front Row with Margaret Cho and Friends” was organized entirely by UC Berkeley students and will feature the talents of Ali Wong, Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu, all part of a wave of Asian American talent that has buoyed fresh, marginalized voices to the comedy scene.

Notably, all three of Cho’s co-stars have had a presence on the small screen, with Wong an actor on “American Housewife,” Nancherla a voice on “BoJack Horseman” and Kondabolu a writer for “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” which ran from 2012 to 2013.

Cho was especially effusive about rising star Wong.

“I think it’s really amazing to have another Asian American woman out there doing comedy,” she said. “Like when I saw her special ‘Baby Cobra,’ it was the the first time I saw another Asian woman doing a special, and it meant so much to me, because I’ve been doing this for 30 years on my own. I love her take on everything — she’s so different and so uniquely her.”

Cho’s vast influence on other Asian American comedians can perhaps most obviously be detected in Wong, as both flaunt their sexuality in a way that doesn’t conform to the demure stereotype of Asian American women, and they revel in the shock of confessional comedy.

Cho is characteristically to the point when reflecting on the long reach of her influence. “I started something akin to a revolution,” she said.

“Front Row with Margaret Cho and Friends” will take place March 21 at Zellerbach Hall.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].