Margaret Cho is very, very funny. She is not, however, all that funny on the phone. At least not with me, when she calls from Atlanta one weekday afternoon. She's thoughtful, and sort of calm, and very polite. So naturally I think, oh God, it's me. I'm killing Margaret Cho's sense of humor. But then I remember that part of what people love about Cho, aside from her funny faces and fantastically dirty mouth, is her sincerity. And her seriousness-- about poking fun at the absurdities of racism and sexism and homophobia, relentlessly, until the world gets the message and turns itself into a better place. For an entertainer, Margaret Cho actually carries a lot of responsibility. The people who love her love her fiercely, and rely on her dirty mouth to say stuff no one else is saying.
Lately, though, her trademark humor is being channeled into some surprising new efforts. Her latest album is Cho Dependent, a studio album of songs she wrote and performed with people like Grant-Lee Phillips, Tegan and Sara, Ben Lee, and Jill Sobule (warning: link contains elaborate potty humor and melodic cursing). She was on Dancing with the Stars. And this Sunday marks the premiere of the third season of Drop Dead Diva, the comedy-drama Cho stars in that's been a hit on Lifetime. Cho plays Teri, a part written especially for her. Teri is the loyal assistant to lawyer Jane (played by curvaceous stage diva Brooke Elliott) . The show deals with issues of body image and self-worth and showcases a dynamic plus-size lead, all through the premise that a thin, blonde, recently deceased model named Deb was accidentally sent back to earth to inhabit Jane's body (just go with it). While Cho's methods are always changing, her message is the same. Here she talks to BUST about feminism, Lifetime Achievement, and her achievements on Lifetime.
How did you end up with a major role on a Lifetime series, now in it's third season?
I liked the show. I thought it was a good premise, and its themes are interesting to me. There is a complicated answer to why I wanted to do Drop Dead Diva, but really the reason is this: I like the fact that we are talking about women's bodies in a positive way, and giving a view of all the different types of beauty out there. Because a lot of the show, or the subtext of it, has to do with women's bodies and how certain types of female beauty are valued more than others. Blond-ness and thin-ness have a lot of power in the world. Intelligence and values and depth are sometimes undervalued in comparison. I think what's really important is to enjoy our beauty without having to put it on a social meter, or a social scale. Where it's more valuable if you're thin, it's more valuable if you're white, it's more valuable if you're blonde or young or whatever. It's important to have on television some sort of example of real, beautiful women who are in relationships, who are being pursued, who have opportunities to love but also to be right. To be succesful. To win. And these women look different from whatever the norm is in movies or television. I think the show does a really good job with helping women feel good about themselves. And I think it's something that women can watch with their daughters, and know that they're presenting a positive message to younger women about body image. Plus I like the cast a lot, the writing is great, so I enjoy the whole process of it. It's a cool thing to do.
You've always been outspoken in your stand-up. Do you think you're reaching a different audience now that you're on family-friendly T.V. ?
I guess so. Yeah, I'm a stand-up comic. I do fairly adult shows, it's pretty night-club oriented, it's pretty edgy. And yes now I'm on Lifetime. And yet my message politically is always the same, and it's always a very feminist one. One that's inclusive towards race. In my stand-up, I talk a lot about race, I talk a lot about sexuality, and I talk a lot about women and body image and weight and things that i've dealt with in my life. So taking that from a stand-up comedy setting and actually getting to filter it into something else, into someone else's project which is kind of in the same vein, is very gratifying. It's not my T.V. show. My work as a stand-up comic is a stand-alone thing, and to collaborate is a different step for me career-wise. But I definitely believe in what [my collaborators] are doing.
Your message is the same but you're probably reaching more people, or different people. Or reaching further into the middle of America...
Yeah! Which is cool. My life has changed also. Production for Drop Dead Diva is in Atlanta, so now I spend six months a year there. I've become a Southerner by being on the show. Which is a cool thing, too. My perspective has changed, so that I'm not just about L.A. and San Francisco and New York. I have more of an understanding of the way people live in this country. My Southern perspective is still progressive and still liberal, but I also see a lot of social conservatism out here. And I see more of it up close and first hand. That has been an interesting thing, because you're isolated from that if you're a political person who lives only in L.A. or San Francisco or New York. You don't have such a real sense of who these people are who are voting differently than you. I feel like now I understand those people more.
Will that inform your comedy in the future?
Well, I've definitely been talking about it more. It doesn't make me agree with (conservative politics)it's just... "Oh, I see that view point from HERE, instead of all the way over there."
Your Southern accent impressions have probably gotten better.
I think so. My Southern impressions have been pretty spot on.
Did you ever watch Lifetime before you were on it?
Yeah. I'm a big fan of the movies. A lot of the original movies are amazing. Really pretty edgy. Telling women's stories--it's a cool network. It's nice to do a show on there.
What makes good "television for women"?
Stories about women! Which talk honestly about our lives, that are well-written, relevant, enticing and important. But I don't know about that thing, "television for women." Television for men? Television is for everybody.
Speaking of lifetime, I hear you were awarded the Morris Kight Lifetime Achievement Award at LA Pride...
Yeah, it's a lifetime achievement award for activism on behalf of the LGBT community. Through my work. And that's great! I think that's amazing. I'm little bit scared of "Lifetime Achievement Award" though just because that sorta means now you're gonna die. Still, I have spent a lot of time working for the causes of this community that I belong to, so it's very important to me and the award is an incredible honor.
So your activism is activism through entertainment?
I never even think about it as activism. It's just that I talk about gay issues, and I have for a long time, and my perspective is from a "let's change things and let's talk about prejudice in a very real way" perspective, so in the end I guess that is activism.
What is the gay scene like in Atlanta?
The whole city is actually very, very progressive. The city itself is in a way very close to San Francisco. There is a very clear [LGBT] community here. And it draws a lot of gay and lesbian and trans-gender and bisexual people from all over the Southeast. It's where people come to from their small towns. It's just as amazing as the gay scene in San Francisco. I'm very happy about that.
Besides the show, you've also got touring coming up for your album, Cho Dependent. You made your career as kind of a one-woman show; how was it collaborating with so many musicians?
For me it was great, because then I have some help doing things that I'm not that educated in. Things that I don't know much about, like composition, and producing, and playing. I could play and I could sing fairly well, but it's wonderful to have that help from people who are really, really great at it.
I've wanted to do an album like this for a long time. If I hadn't gone into comedy I probably would have gone into music. It's something that I really love. And musicians and comedians have a great affinity for one other. There's a lot of love and affection there. I have a lot of musicians in my life who are great friends, and fans. That's true of many people in comedy. We connect with musicians because it's the same life. Certain people were very helpful in getting me and my album up off the ground. Garrison Starr was major. As was Jon Brion and Grant-Lee Phillips. Then there were also people that I played with along the way, like Jill Sobule, Rachel Yamagata, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin. These people were also very, very important.
When I was thirteen I used to listen to the Jill Sobule album, like, every day.
She's a true genius. Her songs can be funny, but they're also very emotional. She's funny but also really heartbreaking. JIll and I have a couple of side projects that we're always working on. We have this banjo band. We also have a band that only does songs about bears.
After stand-up, T.V., singing-and-song-writing, dancing... is there any other form of entertainment left you want to try?
Actually I really would like to do some more burlesque. I did a show called "The Sensuous Woman" in New York, which I LOVED. I have not had a chance to do a real revival of that show; I have this feeling that I want to go back and figure out what it's really about. Burlesque traditionally, of course, is women entertaining men. But now I think burlesque can be more about women entertaining women. And about finding peace within our bodies and celebrating them. That's a very exciting thing. That's a thing I think I would like to return to.
How about any musicians you still want to work with?
I love Lady Gaga and would love to do something with her. I think she's phenomenal. Madonna or Cher would be very cool.
What do you like about Lady Gaga?
I think she's really innovative. I think she's a very, very gifted musician, too. So i enjoy watching her play. I think her music is so electric, and her persona and the way she presents it... it's all very unique and beautiful and new. I appreciate that.
Any kooky megalomaniacs you still want to play? That 30 Rock episode where you play Kim Jong-il is incredible.
That was Tina Fey's idea. I was really proud that I got to do it.
What was it like playing him?
Rather uncomfortable, because the wig was very tight. I have a lot of hair, and you have to fit the whole thing under a wig cap. It was Amy Poehler's wig actually.
Did your family see it?
Yes! They were dying.
Your mom is such a huge part of your stand-up...
She is also sort of like the voice of my Asian-ness. That's really what her character represents in my comedy: the foreign-ness that I feel, and the foreign-ness that I felt growing up. Of course she's a real person too, and a real presence in my life. But the character, what it represents, is the feeling of being the other and existing as the other in our society. The voice of the other can often say things that are almost impossible for the mainstream to say.
Then there's the voice of your lady-ness.
Everything I do is feminist. I think it's very important to be open about your feminism. Very upfront about it. Drop Dead Diva is a feminist show. All of my shows are feminist. It's really important to make that point. Stand-up comedy is a male-dominated industry. So is music. Feminism is something that I always want to talk about. Something that I always want to have in my mind as a goal. To help women get to someplace else.
It sometimes seems like women in the public eye, especially in pop culture, seem kinda hesitant to say the words "I'm a feminist."
Yeah that's weird. I don't know why that is. It doesn't make sense to me.
Drop Dead Diva airs on Sunday, June 19.