Comic Relief
For Margaret Cho—humorist, activist, advocate—comedy is more than a punch line
by Bill Donahue

The most memorable moments of last month’s Golden Globe Awards just might have belonged to Margaret Cho. Teaming with co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Cho stole the show with several segments, for which she dressed in the role of a North Korean journalist. The controversial skits lit up social media; some observers lauded the spots as a celebration of free speech, while critics suggested they were in poor taste, even racist.  

The performance was somewhat of a reprise of Cho’s guest appearances on the hit NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” in which Cho, who is of Korean descent, played the parts of Kim Jong-il, the late “supreme leader” of North Korea, and Kim Jong-un, current leader of the secretive communist country. It was also vintage Margaret Cho, a woman who has been taking risks with her unique brand of comedy ever since launching her standup career in the early 1990s.

Cho’s résumé has since grown to include successful forays into the worlds of movies, music and television, including “All About Sex,” the late-night talk show on TLC she began co-hosting in January. Standup comedy, however, remains her “go to,” and she will bring her act at Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia on March 1 through 4.

In addition to showbiz, Cho has worked to defend gay rights, combat bullying and, following in the footsteps of the late Robin Williams, ease the burden for those affected by homelessness. Through a movement that has become known as “Be Robin,” for example, she has hosted street performances in the San Francisco area to raise funds for charities devoted to helping the homeless.

We caught up with Cho just a few days after her Golden Globes appearance. She told us about the evolution of standup comedy, her work away from the public eye and why now, more than ever, we could all use a good laugh.

Q: How did your Golden Globes appearance come about?
A: Tina [Fey] had asked me to do it a few weeks ago, but we didn’t really know what it would be. I went and met with Tina and Amy [Poehler], as well as Seth Meyers and the whole writing crew, on Saturday. We kind of just let it happen. I wrote the jokes as that character, and we all worked together on honing them. We rehearsed on Sunday, and I put on the costume from there. It was itchy, but it was a lot of fun.

Is it good or bad that people are still talking about it?
It’s great. I think it’s exciting. It seems to be the only thing that happened that night, and it was a vote of confidence for me to be able to outshine all those incredible, beautiful people. My favorite part was Benedict Cumberbatch photo-bombing my picture with Meryl Streep.

Eddie Murphy aside, it seems many of the bigger comedians of the ’80s and ’90s were on the cleaner side, even sort of innocuous. Compare that to today, with some of the biggest acts leaving nothing off the table. What’s responsible for the change?
I think people are more sophisticated now in terms of their taste in comedy. There’s better comedy now than ever, and a level of skill and a level of brilliance required to do the job. It’s a great pleasure to be able to not just do comedy but to be part of a social conscience. With people like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Louis C.K. and beyond, there are so many important voices now. Then you have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who made some incredible feminist statements on the Golden Globes. That’s really important, and it shows the power of comedy. Look at Hannibal Buress, who spearheaded this entire Bill Cosby phenomenon; it took a comedian to say, “Why aren’t we talking about this?” That’s incredible, from my standpoint.

I wonder about the power of comedy but also the danger. Look at what happened with Charlie Hebdo [in Paris]; these are just [cartoonists] we’re talking about, and unfortunately they were silenced in a terrible way. Comedy is more important than ever. It enables you to celebrate free speech, and … it’s the most fun you can have.

Some people might not know about your copious tattoos. Exactly how many do you have?
I probably have 80. My entire back is covered, my arms are covered, my stomach is covered; I have none on my face or neck or forearms, so I have just a few blank spaces left. I wanted to have the feel of an old-school circus performer. … You don’t normally see [my tattoos]. I hide them in my acting work and even in my comedy. I just have a lot of friends who are tattooists. They’re great people in my life, and I’ve given some of these people space on my body to do their work—Don Ed Hardy, Kat Von D, Mister Cartoon. This is art from some of the greatest tattooists in the world, so I’m very fortunate. I often give them the space not knowing what they’re going to do with it. … My body is the story of being in a relationship with these artists.

So you’ll be in Philly in March. For people who haven’t seen your show before, what should they expect?
I will talk a lot about the Golden Globes, and really focus on any new thing that’s happening. It will probably have a lot to do with the rising tide of violence against women; it’s a continual rise. … Ray Rice, Bill Cosby—there are too many examples. Someone has to be angry and manage the feminist rage around that, which goes back to the title of my show: “There is No ‘I’ in ‘Team,’ but there is a ‘Cho’ in ‘Psycho.’”

Are there any other upcoming projects of yours people should know about?
I have an ongoing homeless outreach, “Be Robin.” I spent two months—November and December—going out and playing music, and handing out food and clothing. I did it in San Francisco, but I want it to be something that’s done everywhere, to honor the legacy of Robin Williams. Most people didn’t understand that homelessness was the main political cause he supported. I see it as a very mini punk-rock comic relief. All these street performers come together to serve as a meeting point where people can come and donate whatever they’re able to give. I’ve done a lot of music inspired by that, and I’ll have two albums coming out at some point. So with that and being on tour, I should stay pretty busy for a while.