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The Cult of Margaret Cho

An overview of the life and career of comedian, singer-songwriter, author, dominatrix, actress and fashion designer Margaret Cho.

Crude, confrontational and squirm-inducing. This is how Margaret Cho’s comedy is often described. A mainstay in American comedy since 1993, Cho first gained popularity with exaggerated impressions of her Korean mother and jokes aimed at the gay community. A native of San Francisco, Margaret Cho is no stranger to outsider culture and fringe societies, which might be why she has gained a cult-like following among such audiences.

A first generation Korean-American, much of Cho’s early comedy included jokes about her mother and her “Korean-ness”, something she says she was bullied for throughout her childhood. One must remember that this is before the popularity of Ali Wong, Ken Jeong or Jimmy O. Yang, before Asian comedians starred in feature films, had Netflix specials or recurring roles on HBO. Margaret Cho came up during the heyday of Roseanne Barr, Janeane Garofalo and Lisa Lampanelli— “ugly” comedians whose jokes were crude and whose humor was dark. She had early success starring in ABC’s sitcom All-American Girl, though the show was cancelled after one season. Cho spoke about her experience in network television, with executives telling her she was too fat, that her face was “too round” and that she was simultaneously “too Asian” and “not Asian enough”.

Cho has written jokes about surviving years-long sexual abuse at the hands of multiple family friends throughout her adolescence. She has spoken about working as a phone sex operator and making a living as a dominatrix. She wrote a song entitled “I Wanna Kill My Rapist”. She talks about her years of substance abuse and how it lead to some pretty awful performances. And therein lies the initial power of Margaret Cho— where some comedians hesitate, Cho barrels ahead, gleaning comedic material from the darkest periods of her life.

Margaret Cho, "The Notorious C.H.O."

But her comedy does not rest on shock value and pain. Sexual abuse is not her shtick, her jokes do not revolve around it, which has saved her from criticism that has ravaged other female comedians, most notoriously Amy Schumer and her reliance on vagina jokes. Cho grows and evolves, performing through periods of extreme weight gain and working through years of being straight-up not funny. And that has been the staying power of Margaret Cho, that she doesn’t care if she is seen as fat, ugly or obnoxious. She is a moving target, routinely lambasting herself, political figures, pop culture icons, dissecting and poking fun at gay and Asian cultures. She performs naked, both physically and emotionally, talking about her fluid sexuality and how her body changes as she ages. Cho is unflinchingly honest about her personal shortcomings and her professional failures, continuing to write jokes through it all, rendering her almost bullet-proof.

In a 2015 article for W Magazine, journalist Joan Juliet Buck speculated on Cho’s decades-long career and popularity, writing:

“Not all women comedians are dangerous; some are just very funny: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are too relatable, Joan Rivers was too firmly ensconced in the society that she mocked. Amy Schumer relies a little too much on the word "pussy" to be any kind of threat, though she would like very much to be a bad person. On the other hand, Margaret Cho knows no boundaries and inspires palpable fear anytime she begins one of her riffs.”

In addition to her work as a comedian, Cho has also filled the roles of actor, fashion designer, author, singer-songwriter and burlesque performer. She has been performing or producing work since 1993, including twelve internationally-touring shows, nine comedy specials, two autobiographies, two musical albums, a clothing line and dozens of TV & film appearances. She is a two-time Grammy nominee for best comedy album. She has been called a humanitarian, having championed LGBTQ and women’s rights. In 2000, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation described her "as a pioneer, having made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity." She has been given awards from both the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, including the First Amendment Award. She was given her own holiday, "Margaret Cho Day", in San Francisco on April 30, 2008.

Currently, Margaret Cho hosts a podcast with Jim Short called “Monsters of Talk”. She is re-entering the arena of network television with a pilot on TNT. Last year, she embarked on a three-month world tour entitled “Fresh Off the Bloat”, with the tagline “laughter will save us all.” Cho recently extended this tour into 2018. Cities & dates can be found here.