Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Now, I could hardly believe this, but Margaret Cho, the comedian, actor, and I think we can say it, intersectional icon, has been making us laugh and squirm for 40 years.
Margaret Cho: Whenever I see a beautiful, beautiful Asian woman, she is always with the most busted face, broke down white man-- and I'm like, "Are your eyes that small?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: The outspoken comedian spoke to us about growing up in her parents' queer bookstore.
Margaret Cho: It was really a very difficult time, but a really important time to emerge alive and victorious and to be able to tell the story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The beauty of drag performance.
Margaret Cho: We have a long history of surviving and thriving in this drag world where the most unseen of us are seen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All the things she's livid about now.
Margaret Cho: There is no accusation that is of any merit because it's all ludicrous.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Margaret, thanks for being on The Takeaway.
Margaret Cho: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about what it means to still be as young as you are and celebrating 40 years in comedy.
Margaret Cho: It's so strange how time feels so fast and so slow at the same time. [chuckles] You really don't have a sense of it. I guess I started early because I knew that's what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be a comedian, and I knew this was the right life for me, and I didn't want to wait. I also wanted some agency. I didn't want to be a child anymore.
There were things that I just wanted to escape from childhood, sort of the searching for identity and going into adulthood really quickly, which I missed some things. I missed a lot of education, I missed a lot of really experiencing a cling of age, and so there's a lot about me that's still very childish, which is okay, but it's been a long ride and a short ride.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's so funny to hear you say that, in part, it was about wanting to have some agency, not be such a kid anymore. That's the early adolescence, early teen years, you're like, "Let me get out of here."
Margaret Cho: I know. It's almost like we can't just sit in ourselves for a moment, and I don't have any regrets about it, but I think that, oh, now is the time to go back and maybe do some things, get the high school diploma, [laughs] maybe go and get some higher education, whatever that is. I always try to educate myself in anything anyway, and try to figure things out and learn, read manuals, understand, just because I have a lack of basic learning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask you about that part of your life. Growing up in San Francisco, having parents who owned a bookstore, I'm wondering if, in part, your relationship to learning is connected to being the kid of bookstore owners.
Margaret Cho: Absolutely, because that was my first drug, books. To me, words are an entry point into very psychedelic universe where anything is possible. My parents had this bookstore that was queer-focused and we had a lot of incredible people come through, like Armistead Maupin who would do book signings for Tales of the City. There's Charles Dickens of San Francisco.
I think my father wanted to recreate City Lights because he loved that bookstore, which is very famous for the whole movement of these young people going out and finding themselves on the road, and so he wanted to create that environment.
Also, we were right there in this very tragic period in San Francisco where we had the assassination of Harvey Milk followed right after AIDS, our first pandemic. It was a pandemic. It was really a very difficult time, but a really important time to emerge alive and victorious and to be able to tell the story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do your parents think about your comedy?
Margaret Cho: They are really so proud, and just they didn't realize it was possible. They had never seen Asian American representation, of course, in the media in any capacity. Even though we populated the streets of San Francisco, we were not seen on television or in the movies, and they would get together, and we had one VCR for the whole family.
It was all our extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and everybody would get together. We would watch Bruce Lee movies just to see ourselves for a split of second.
They would all close their liquor stores and snack bars and bookstores a little early, and we would go, and we would get in one apartment that had the biggest living room and watch the VCR, the one copy of The Return of the Dragon. It was really incredible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I can remember my late grandmother. If the television was on and a Black person came on-- and again, she would be 100 now. She would say, "Oh, there's a negro on TV," and just the excitement of going and seeing any level of representation.
Margaret Cho: Right. We hunger to be seen. We hunger to be heard. We have been denied that so long by the silence of invisibility that so when you are invisible, it's so hard to even voice that, to even understand what that means because we've been invisible so long. How do we emerge into being when we couldn't see ourselves before? It's miraculous, and yes, it's very, very exciting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How does that notion of wanting to be seen, heard, understood also play into queer identities?
Margaret Cho: It's hard because there are so many levels of invisibility there, especially within my particular area of queerness, which is bisexuality, which I don't even like the term because that denotes that there is only two genders or that we live in a binary, which is not true either. It's not even the words to claim our identity aren't fully ours. [laughs] It's like hard to wrap your head around it.
It's so strange how the conservatives get so tied up and angry about pronouns and litter boxes at school bathrooms. The litter boxing is like there was a weird rumor in the QAnon sphere that the schools were requiring litter boxes for kids who identified as cats, [chuckles] which is so ludicrous.
It's just to make our identity some kind of scourge or a joke or something that's taking over. It's if we even talk about our identity, we're coming from a defensive space of trying to fight for our own right to be. That, to me, is the most annoying, and it's also the most tragic because then we're framed in this tragedy of defending ourselves or trying to make sense of the violence against us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to be right back with more Margaret Cho, and she's talking to me about queer politics. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Margaret Cho, comedian, musician, and actor, has long been outspoken about her queer identity as a bisexual woman. She's got plenty to say about our current political moment.
Margaret Cho: These real-- I don't know, volatile terrorists are now trying to attack drag shows and drag queens because that's where our joy lives.
Reporter: One of Tennessee's top Republicans targeting drag shows, Senator Jack Johnson, just filed a bill that would ban some drag performances in front of children.
Senator Jack Johnson: I don't want to ban a theater company. We don't have an issue with that. It's like they say about pornography, "You know it when you see it."
Margaret Cho: We have a long history of surviving and thriving in this drag world where the most unseen of us are seen. That's, just to me, the most disgusting part of the idea of framing us all as somehow groomers or pedophiles or whatever. These things don't even dignify a response, but for some reason, we have to respond because it's so egregious, it's a nightmare.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that language of drag shows being the space where the least seen have this opportunity to be seen. I think maybe you've already started to answer it, but the new tour is called Live and Livid. What is it that you're livid about? Is that part of it?
Margaret Cho: The thing is like, yes, that is definitely part of it, and how I have experienced childhood sexual abuse throughout my childhood. It was never from anybody in the queer community. It was never a drag queen. It was always a straight white man. Always without exception. The thing there is like people are saying, "Oh, drag queens are dangerous." No, you know what? The church is dangerous. Let's get rid of the longest-running drag show in history, the Catholic Church. That's what's dangerous. More harm has happened in that space than any kind of drag show ever.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That point alone, just that notion of there is a thing called grooming. It is a terrifying and brutal behavior of pedophiles, of folks who are seeking to harm and abuse, but the notion of where that action is located. It's not unlike the language of who gets to be called a terrorist and who doesn't.
Margaret Cho: Exactly. It's like the constantly having to defend ourselves against it is the infuriating part. That's where the livid comes in. That's where I'm livid. It's like we are only seen because we have to defend the fact that we are not that when we shouldn't even have been accused of it in the first place. That there is no accusation that is of any merit because it's all ludicrous. There's a right to be angry, and it's trying to find the words to sputter out that rage in a way that's eloquent and astute.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not just eloquent and astute, because you're not up there giving lectures, you have to do eloquent, astute, and funny. How do you make this funny?
Margaret Cho: Well, it's really just about bringing it down to very life. It's crass task. It's like you figure out what is the most crass way that I can put this? Then you put that in so that it becomes unassailable.
Speaker 3: For gays and lesbians, marriage is not about romance. It's about equality and having our relationships regarded in the same way, with the same kind of reverence as straight people's relationships. It's about being equal in every way. It's such an important political issue. We need to recognize that a government that would deny a gay man the right to bridal registry is a fascist state.
Margaret Cho: Nobody can top the crassness of the statement. That's the way that I operate. I try to take really highbrow concepts and bring them to the lowest possible point of culture, and therein lies the secret to my success.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A lowest common denominator of humor.
Margaret Cho: Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet, I don't want to leave this for a second because that notion-- because it's not really the lowest common denominator, there is a thing that happens sometimes with really great comedians. I'll just name Jacked Dave Chappelle here. Great comedians who are very funny but who seek to then begin to make humor in a way that, instead of it being funny, is just appalling and abusive.
Margaret Cho: I think what that is, it's really like every comedian has an essential philosophical joke that all of their comedy is wrapped around. My philosophical joke is, "I'm not supposed to be here, but I am." That every joke has that particular joke. I think Dave Chappelle is, "I'm not supposed to say this, but I'm going to." His pushing back, unfortunately, ties in with this idea of let's try to make language equal, and part of that, I think, motivation is what's known as cancel culture, where we're trying to make people accountable for things they've said.
I think David is trying to push forth his essential joke, which is, "I'm going to say what should remain unsaid, or what people say I can't say." I think that's just part of it. Every part of what he's doing is that. I think that's where it's hard, and that's where I think, well, it's too bad because we who are fans feel attacked by it, but at the same time, it's just part of who we are as comedians. Sometimes we can't escape that essential part of who we are.
For me, being queer, that lends itself to a different side of it. I have more, I think, notches in my identity post that I can draw from here in this particular instance. That's why I always push forward the voices of queer and trans comedians, especially like Robin Tran or Alok. Alok makes me cry every day because I think they are just so filled with so much resonance and truth. Alok Menon and Robin Tran, these are an incredible Vietnamese American trans women who just-- they take my breath away the way. The way that they warrant all of this truth and anger and resentment but turn it into just joy and laughter, and it's really sweet to see.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Margaret Cho, where can people see you, find you, hear you, follow you?
Margaret Cho: People can find me on margaretcho.com and at the Margaret Cho on TikTok, where you can see all of my animals. I have dogs, I have cats, I have multiple birds outside, many, many lizards now hiding from the rain. All my animals sleep in the bed, so it's like too hot on one side and cold on one side. It's like I made my bed like a DLT. Remember that when it was like Lettuce, tomato on one side, and then the patty and cheese on the other side? All the animals are on one side, and then I'm on the lettuce and tomato side because I'm menopausal running hot all the time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where can you find Margaret Cho, folks? You can find her on the lettuce and tomato side of the-- [crosstalk]. Margaret Cho, comedian, actor, musician, advocate, artist, lover of the four-legged and feathered creatures. Thank you so much for your time today.
Margaret Cho: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.