Know Thyself, Love Thyself
and Jen Kirkman, August 2001
|The Choir of the Converted
(GC*net editors) talks with the Righteous Preacher Girl (Margaret Cho).
One thing I’ve learned through the experience of producing this magazine is that different women mean different things to different women. It’s not as obvious as it sounds. There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Cho is important, as both a female celebrity and as a feminist, but why is she so important?
For me, she is a woman transformed. Cho is a spiritual person, somewhat like a preacher who has risen up from the rubble to spread her word. Dramatic, yes, but if you listen to Margaret speak, it’s sort of true. She has the ability to sway the masses. To my partner in crime, GC*net editor Jen Kirkman, Margaret is symbolic revenge personified; revenge on all the people who told both of them that they couldn’t succeed. Jen’s comments on Margaret scream out to her childhood oppressors: “Yeah, you made fun of Margaret too, and look at her now. I’m next.” Forgive me for seeming New Agey, but Margaret seems to glow to me now. What I see in Margaret is a performer who, after a long struggle, radiates self-awareness. Her message is pervasive and simple throughout her current work: Know thyself, love thyself.
What follows is a somewhat manic tour through our own thoughts, mixed with Margaret’s thoughts during the Girlcomic interview, past interviews in other publications, her book, her stand-up and live speaking engagements, creating a virtual mosh pit of discourse, passion, and funny by three righteous, riot grrls who ain’t taking shit from nobody.
Margaret seems to be finding her religion, a religion of the self:
“I’ve been on quite a journey. A lot of things (caused my transformation) like therapy, reading, writing, gurus, religion: not a particular one, but there’s a lot of discovery through religion, being sober. It’s not one thing; it’s everything. It’s being sober, and not just from drugs and alcohol, but from being addicted to behaviors that I’m so fond of; my eating issues, sex issues, stuff like that—being free from all that.”
As a comedian, we know all too well that comedy can make you desperate. As a young, struggling comic, Margaret jumped at the chance to star in her own sitcom (as any comic would). The sitcom, All-American Girl, was short lived, and her E! True Hollywood Story-like downward spiral was fast and furious.
“The show had a lot of problems because it was the first Asian-American family [on TV]. It was trying to put my comedy and what I do as a comedian in a family setting. It didn’t fit, even though I talk about my family in my act—it didn’t fit in the same context. They were looking for this heartwarming comedy about immigrants, and my life actually isn’t like that. My act is about, ‘My family’s fucked up and I hate them and look at what they did to me!’ And it’s hard to translate that into what they were looking for. They wanted a kind of sweetness that I didn’t have then. Maybe I have more of that now. Back then I was certainly a lot more cynical and I just didn’t understand. I was willing to say yes to anything, because I was sick of going on the road. You know, having a really hard time living out in the middle of nowhere out in a rental car, going from gig to gig and bombing. It was so depressing. Then I’d come home to L.A. and go on auditions, and I would never get a job anywhere. So I was willing to do anything it took to escape that kind of lifestyle. That’s why I said yes to everything.”
The pressure of a network and her own unsteady self-esteem led to a literally starving Margaret Cho (the network put her on a diet, due to her “fat face”). The result was kidney failure.
Wrapped in a cloak of denial and self-loathing, Margaret alienated all who were close to her, including those who were trying to help. At the time, she believed that only a man in the business could help her. Margaret fired her female manager and went with a man, whom she later realized was only helping her for the money. Margaret has since returned to her original manager and feels lucky to have had that awakening.
“The sexism that I had was so deeply inherent inside me that I didn’t even realize it was there. I assumed that he was right and he was better because he was a ‘he.’ I didn’t think that a woman could do the job. Even though I always identified as a feminist and I always believed in that, but when it came time to actually applying it, I didn’t. In hindsight it was this horrendous mistake. I might never have realized it had he been the better manager. I just never would have seen it in myself. We don’t have those opportunities often. I was very lucky. I had fucked up so badly in that period of my life with my career and everything that it was kind of this incredible lightning rod. I was really shaken awake by the rubble that was around me. It was an important time.”
It has all led to one thing: an entertainer reborn with a moving story to tell. The laughs-per-minute rule of comedy does not restrain Margaret. She tells it like it is.
“I realize what I do is kind of sweet and sour. It’s sad and then funny and sad and funny. I wanted to create a cross-section of theater and comedy that really worked for me. There’s a kind of melodious melancholy that runs throughout. It was always there in my stand-up, but I’ve learned to develop it doing the shows, from my one-woman show and [from] writing the book. I’m continuing in that tradition.”
Margaret is a changed woman, and we are all the better for it. If you are still asleep to the idea that women are subtly (and not so subtly) oppressed in this country, then Margaret will wake you up.
“There are magazines devoted to you feeling bad about yourself. There are millions of dollars going into the idea that you have a fat ass.” (From shadow convention on margaretcho.net)
When Jen Kirkman was 20, she met Robert Smith of The Cure and immediately began crying. She told him that he saved her life in high school. This is how she remembers it: “He stared at me through his eyeliner and mumbled in his English accent, ‘oh,’ and walked away. I muttered, ‘prick’ under my breath and walked away. I’ve hated him ever since. I never again told another celebrity how I felt about them, until we spoke with Margaret Cho.”
We don’t think lepers go to comedy clubs, but losers do; losers, geeks, nerds, victims, shy people, and loners. Margaret takes the stage and begins the healing. Nerds sit there and listen to Margaret recount the cruelties of summer camp. Kids called her moron, as her real name was Moran, and tortured her with statements like “You MORON! We don’t want you here infecting our cabin. Get out! Get out!” This causes the nerds in the audience to not only laugh but also to think, “My God, if she can go from moron to star, maybe I can, too.” Margaret gives them hope.
Don’t misunderstand: Margaret is no saint on stage. Her act is at times dark, painful, and dirty (in only the best of ways). By changing her facial expression slightly she becomes her mother and for the public reveals Mrs. Cho’s deepest thoughts: “I hate daddy!” Margaret names names and blasts the industry that told her that they’re “concerned with the size of her face.” And she closes by telling everyone how the smell of “balls in tights” brings her back to her childhood with the drag queens.
Specifically, the “dirty Margaret” has always been Becky’s favorite: “Margaret can even make the vagina funny, with a strength that at times even tops Eve Ensler. I once heard Margaret refer to her pubic mound as more of a ‘pitcher’s mound.’ Then there is the always classic ‘Gwen, the Vagina Washer’ bit: ‘Hi, my name is Gwen, and I’m here to wash your vagina.’ Classic.”
Margaret, unlike Robert Smith (Jen will never forget), gives a shit about her fans.
In her book, I’m the One That I Want, Margaret tells the story of a fan who battled AIDS and in his dying days listened to her CD “Drunk with Power” to laugh over his favorite bit where Cho declares, “Racism affects me in a really stupid way!” Margaret writes, “My heart wanted to burst out of my chest at the thought of it, the idea of the unseen strands of love that connect us all to each other and our ability to help someone when we are not even aware of it. I just want to live in the helping to devote my life to it.”
Thank God Margaret decided to devote her life to helping by being absolutely fucking hysterical, and not by joining the Peace Corps. Let the unfunny people plant trees.
Margaret is a big star who hasn’t forgotten where she came from. Most importantly, she remembers what it was like to be a new comic.
“I just hung around the closed door, not part of the audience, not one of the performers. No one took me under their wing, no one knew I existed. My invisibility wasn’t particularly painful because it was just like everywhere else in my life, but I was determined here to change all that.” (From the biography I’m The One That I Want.)
After Margaret finally realized that she had every right to be in that green room, she started to see newcomers doing the same lingering dance between standing in the audience and hanging with the comics. “There were new, younger, scared people standing by the door where we once were. I invited them in.”
Margaret is a girlcomic through and through. She never hesitates to acknowledge sexism in comedy. She never hesitates to be true to herself. And she never hesitates to use the word “girlcomic.” During our Girlcomic.net interview, when Margaret used the word without prompting and with a comfortable ease, all Jen and I could do was smile: “I wanted to write a book that my friends would read. And my friends are other girlcomics. The girlcomics I know are all very well read, very intelligent women. They are very literary, very smart, and very critical. So I was writing a book to satisfy my peers, in a sense, and to speak to that audience. I thought it was really important.”
Thank you, Margaret. Keep spreading the word.
Margaret Cho kicks off the “Notorious CHO World Tour” on August 30th in Miami!