News Column

Viva la diva: Comedian Margaret Cho has the world on a leash

November 28, 2013


Nov. 28--Some time next spring, legendary TV newswoman Barbara Walters will walk away from her co-hosting gig on ABC's "The View" into retirement, leaving vacant one of the most coveted chairs in the entire TV/media gab-osphere.

Watch out, America, because Margaret Cho wants the job.

"I think I would do really well," said Cho, who has already been a guest host on "The View" a handful of times. "I actually do know how to play by their rules and play in their sandbox. I'm not cantankerous or obnoxious. They know me and they love me. And they know I want the job."

But putting the notorious stand-up comic on a show as prominent and mainstream as "The View" would be like bringing a pit bull to a day care center. She may be perfectly housebroken, but her first impressions suggest otherwise.

She has lobbied for the job in her stand-up, and has even resorted to referencing a rather obscure Hollywood gesture by dressing up as Catwoman just as actress Sean Young did in a desperate and vain effort to be cast as Catwoman in the first sequel to Tim Burton's "Batman."

If Cho were to land the job, it would mark a significant shift in mainstream pop culture. The fearlessly controversial, ambi-sexual Korean-American comic is a fire-breathing defender of all things LGBT and is tattooed over most of her body. She is nobody's idea of a safe choice. She would make Whoopi Goldberg, the show's resident edgy liberal, look like Eleanor Roosevelt by comparison.

Even without "The View," Cho seems to have the world on a leash. She comes to the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Saturday in the midst of a new tour called "Mother." She stars in the Lifetime series "Drop Dead Diva," now in its fifth season, and she's has produced and stars in an online black comedy called "In Transition." She co-hosts a podcast with comedian Jim Short called "Monsters of Talk." She's been nominated for a Grammy twice and an Emmy, and even took a stint last year on "Dancing With the Stars."

All the while, she has relished her role as a champion of gay rights and marriage equality -- she has collected a number of awards from an alphabet soup of liberal advocacy groups including the ACLU, NOW, GLAAD as well as a lifetime achievement award from L.A. Pride. Still, she prides herself on touring into more conservative parts of the country where her views aren't always popular.

"It's really important to get to places like Lincoln, Nebraska," she said. "Those people there, they need a different kind of message than what they get all the time. And they're so appreciative that you've come out to talk to them. It's a wonderful thing."

The only backlash she gets, she says, comes by way of the inflammatory religious group the Westboro Baptist Church. "They actually showed up to a gig I did last week. But it was so sad because it was raining and there were only five of them."

And though the title of her tour might suggest heartland conservative values, it is anything but. "Mother" is literal in the sense that Cho talks quite a bit about her Korean mother, long a foil in Cho's stand-up act. But the show also has a metaphorical resonance, particularly when it comes to gay rights, namely her relationships with gay men.

"I really wanted to explore that idea of being a mother superior to all your friends, and being an icon and archetype of what gay men are always looking for, that mother figure, whether it's Joan Crawford or Judy Garland or Elizabeth Taylor or Madonna. There's a constant search for that mother archetype, which I'm trying to create within myself."

While she has long been one of the most prominent Korean-Americans in the entertainment industry, there is another demographic that she proudly represents. Cho might, in fact, be the world's most tattooed celebrity.

"I believe I might be," she said. "Maybe Dave Navarro (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) has more, I don't know. But this is my problem: I have a lot of work that is unfinished, not colored in. There's some very complicated black and gray stuff that still has to be done."

Cho, 44, grew up in the Haight in San Francisco in the 1970s. Her father was a writer, specializing in joke books for public speakers. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s and became a hit comic, appearing on Arsenio Hall's show. In 1994, she landed a sitcom deal at ABC, becoming the star of "All-American Girl," the first American sitcom centered on an Asian woman.

The show lasted only one season, and Cho has talked widely in her act on the various challenges in doing the show. She said she had no artistic control in the writing of the sitcom. She was criticized for her body. She was told that she was not Asian enough one moment, and too Asian the next. She said that the show's cancellation led to a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and anorexia.

"It taught me a lot about television," she said. "What they were trying to accomplish was not what I was trying to accomplish, and we had different goals in mind. They had a vision of what the show was. My vision of it wouldn't have worked there. It taught me in a cynical way that people are not working in your best interests, which is heartbreaking when you're that young to realize. But I'm grateful for it. There's a whole generation of people who grew up seeing that show as the first Asian-American presence they had ever seen on TV. And that's great."


(c)2013 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

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