We weren't always ready for Margaret Cho.
Sixteen years ago, Cho was using her comedy to start many of the conversations we are having today, by talking about diversity, representation, and the way we treat women. But her sharp and prescient commentary was relegated to the sidelines of pop culture — it was something you had to seek out.
A survey of the television and comedy landscape today yields plenty of sterling success stories — stories that are rooted in what Cho was fighting for. Consider, for instance, TV series like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, or, well, anything that Amy Schumer or Shonda Rhimes touches. They all propagate messages of diversity, representation, and feminism that are as prominent in pop culture as they've ever been. Cho helped pave the way for that to happen.
"We really needed that kind of comedy at the time," Cho told Vox. "We just didn't have the language yet. Now we do, and it's really a great time for minorities and women in comedy. We have people that are brilliant and talking about feminism, race, and equality in an important, exciting way."
Cho's comedy is important. She continued a long tradition of female comedians — including Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and Wanda Sykes, among others — who shattered the mold in terms of the type of comedy that women were "supposed" to perform. And on a larger scale, female comedians like Cho and the women who inspired her have blazed a trail with their sharp social and political criticism, pushing for equality one joke at a time.
Things are different for Cho now. Some of battles she fought have been won. Some of her go-to targets, like George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, are out of the spotlight. And politically, society is more in line with her vision of equality and diversity than it was 16 years ago. But that hasn't stopped Cho from pushing the envelope.
Margaret Cho's early comedy still rings true today
In 1999, Cho embarked on her "I'm the One That I Want" comedy tour following a tender point in her career. Five years earlier, she'd landed her own TV show on ABC called All-American Girl. It was the first primetime sitcom in the history of the medium to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast.
It was also a living hell for her.
And as we would learn through the standup she performed during "I'm the One," network executives commented on her appearance body so frequently that Cho developed an eating disorder. She was also waging a war against ignorance and a general lack of familiarity with Asian-American faces on television — ABC even assigned an Asian consultant to Cho's show because they felt it wasn't "Asian enough."
"When you're on television you become a kind of community property, and people say whatever they want about you," Cho revealed during one standup appearance. "And because I'm a woman, a lot of people said that I was ugly, and that I was fat," she continued.
What Cho said in 1999 still resonates. The main difference is that in 2015, Americans are more apt to acknowledge our own ignorance and failings outright. We're also more ready to address those deficiencies through pop culture. For example, a recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer's third season boldly addressed the way we talk about women's looks in a skit that expertly parodied the play 12 Angry Men.
"I feel like [Schumer has] taken what I've done and really expanded on that," Cho told me. "She's really powerful, and I think that feminist voice is so important."
Though Schumer and Cho have touched upon some of the same topics and clearly share similar viewpoints, Schumer's comedy is markedly different from Cho's. It's less pointed, less angry, more subtle. Cho had to fight to further some ideas — like that of representation in the media — that we didn't yet have names for. Her comedy was more political, more biting. In some cases, it was almost reminiscent of motivational speeches. It was all those things because it had to be.
"It was really great to be able to do that. And that kind of comedy was needed at the time," Cho told me. "We didn't know how to talk about things like invisibility."
What's next for Margaret Cho?
Margaret Cho loves playing men.
At the 2014 Golden Globes, Cho performed a bit in which she played a North Korean character named Cho Yung Ja. Though some people found the character offensive, Cho Yung Ja was a timely riff — Seth Rogen and James Franco's The Interview and the ire it caused in North Korea was a news fixation at the time — on the former/current North Korean leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, two figures Cho had previously played on the NBC comedy 30 Rock (for which she earned an Emmy nomination). And in the recently released film Tooken, a comedy spoof of the Taken franchise, she portrays another eccentric, villainous Asian man known as Brownfinger.
"Brownfinger, he's an angry man and he's just pissed off at the world," Cho says. "And I understand that. And he tries to get back at everyone by wreaking havoc in people's lives."
Playing men has been a liberating experience, Cho says.
"I really love playing men. I think it's letting go of having to put on makeup, and actually it's a longer process to make me into a woman than to make me into a man," she said. "I just really appreciate that. It's fun to kind of challenge yourself. You're able to let go of the trappings of being an actress. It's exciting."
Cho is now in the process of recording a comedy album she plans to release this fall, as well as trying her hand at producing and working behind the camera on scripted and non-scripted TV shows that are in the nascent stages of development. All of these projects tie into Cho's upcoming "PsyCHO" comedy tour, which launches in October.
Cho says she was inspired to return to the standup circuit because while she's worked hard to start meaningful conversations about plenty of social issues, there are still many that she feels strongly about, many to be angry about. The point of the "PsyCHO" tour is to channel that anger and use it for good.
"There's so much violence against people of color, women, and the LGBT community — 'PsyCHO' talks about the right to anger," Cho says. "We have a right to that anger, and we can harness it and use it to benefit ourselves."