Comic legend who headlined benefit for GW’s LGBT Health Forum spoke to GW Today about what’s “untouchable” in comedy (nothing).
By Ruth Steinhardt
Groundbreaking comedian Margaret Cho brought her trademark candid brand of stand-up to the Marvin Center Thursday night, headlining a benefit for the George Washington University’s LGBT Health Forum.
In an hour-long set before an enthusiastic and responsive audience, Ms. Cho romped through subjects both political and personal, from her sexual preferences and history of addiction to the problem of minority representation in Hollywood and the “crazy administration” of President Donald Trump.
“We have to get graphic,” said Ms. Cho, who worked for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race, after a particularly raunchy (and unprintable) joke about Mr. Trump. “I feel like we lost this election by trying to win it the right way, with dignity and intelligence.”
Comedy, Ms. Cho told GW Today in an interview before her Lisner performance, can be a key tool for marginalized groups at moments of political urgency.
“When we were going through AIDS and HIV, which was the big topic at the time I was growing up, what we used to get by was humor,” she said. “It was a way of coping.”
Ms. Cho also wrestled with personal trauma in her set, which included jokes about an abusive relationship that drove her to a dangerous peak of substance abuse. “I was trying to break up with him by dying,” she said.
She also touched on the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a family member and called out famous men like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen alleged to have perpetrated it.
Silence around the topic of rape, she said, contributes to its ongoing harm.
“It’s not that big a deal for me to talk about it, but when people hear me talk about it, maybe they’ll feel some relief,” she said.
“There’s nothing untouchable” when it comes to comedy, Ms. Cho told GW Today. She was animated—and bewildered—on the topic of close friend Kathy Griffin, who lost her job after a photo that appeared to depict her holding Mr. Trump’s decapitated head.
“To me, that’s old news,” she said, pointing out that the iconography is old as depictions of John the Baptist or the French Revolution. “I don’t know what that outrage is about.”
There are other subjects worth getting outraged about, she said, like the consistent whitewashing of parts for minorities in movies and television. As the star of “All-American Girl,” Ms. Cho was the face of the first mainstream sitcom to feature an Asian family. Few have followed, though she said there has been at least a little improvement.
“There is some awareness of why there needs to be representation and a refusal to support things that don’t seem to have a lot of representation,” she said. “But there’s a blind spot in movies when it comes to race and erasure of people of color.”
“TV is better, kind of,” Ms. Cho said. She worked with and has enjoyed hit ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” about a family of Taiwanese immigrants: “There’s a great wholesomeness to that, and that’s awesome.”
But she called out the cancellation of other shows with Asian-American leads, like ABC’s “Dr. Ken,” featuring Ken Jeong. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Oh, we already have an Asian family on TV, we only need one,’ and that’s not the case at all.”
Introducing Ms. Cho at Lisner, Stephen Forsell, founding director of GW’s graduate program in LGBT health policy and practice, described her as the “queen of all media” for her work across art forms. She has worked in film, books, music and theater and is currently working on a television show about an Asian-American family that becomes involved in marijuana sales.
But Ms. Cho told GW Today she will always return to stand-up comedy.
“Stand-up is my main art form and profession, what I’ve done the longest and what I will always do,” she said. “It’s just you and the microphone and that’s it, and that’s the best thing—the rawness and ease of that experience.
“There’s not a lot of people who are good at it, and those who are are kind of good at it forever,” she said. “Comedians last the longest. Think of Joan Rivers or Betty White. It’s a forever thing. It’s not about the standards of youth and beauty having to be maintained. There can be some of that too, but it’s much more about what’s funny.”