Emil Guillermo: Margaret Cho talks to me about the Golden Globes, the White Oscars, "Fresh Off the Boat," and Sex

January 16, 2015 5:32 PM

More than Jennifer Lopez's dress, it was Margaret Cho on the Golden Globes that made me do a double-take last week. And she was in that sexy North Korean military drag.

merylcho.jpg
At first glance, I just wasn't sure it was her. If you've seen Cho's stand-up shows on cable, you know she's outrageously tatted, speaks her mind, and is as amok an Asian American as it gets.

I liked her lampoon of a North Korean general and movie fan. I thought it was toned down, given the current spikier Cho, but conservative enough for the venue. So I was shocked to see the reaction she got this past week from people who actually  thought she was racist.

I talked to her on Friday by phone as she prepared to shoot her new TLC talk show, "All About Sex" (Saturdays at 11 pm). 
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E: Let's go to the beginning. Did they approach you? Did they say, "Hey Margaret, why don't you do this for us?"

M: Yes. Well, Tina [Fey] asked me to do it a few weeks ago, and I was delighted because I love her and love working with her. And so I just came in the day before and we worked it out. And I wrote the jokes for like the whole thing and we just did it.

E: And it was planned to do the open with the magazine and the selfie or the "semi-selfie" with Meryl Streep?

M: Yes.

E: She was in on it?

M: No, not really. But she's kind of up for whatever, so she was into doing it. It was great because we were ready to handle whatever, so it was fine.

E: And Michael Keaton, he was going to take [the picture]?

M: Yes, so we arranged that beforehand. That worked out well.

E: And [Benedict] Cumberbatch, he did his [photobomb] thing. That was a surprise, or was he supposed to do that?
M: That was a surprise.

E: It made it even punchier...Tell me about going into this. Any trepidation at all? You knew it was going to be somewhat polarizing?

M: No, I didn't think there would be any...I thought it was great. I was [hearing] laughs. I really enjoyed myself. It was a moment to have some fun with my friends, whom I never get to see, so it was great.

E: When I saw you, I said, "That's Margaret Cho;" it didn't surprise me considering the edgy nature of your comedy. I thought it was funny, but the reaction was mixed. Do you understand why some people might have felt...negatively? 

M: No, I'm not a racist person so I don't know. It's only people that are racist who were acting negatively, unfortunately. What is really racist is that I'm the only Asian person involved in the entire event. And what's really racist is there's no people of color in any of the acting nominations for the Oscars. 

E: People in the background, in the wings, you didn't see any Asians there at all? 

M: No. Wait, there was one Asian cameraman. That's it. I know him. So that was awesome...I said hi to him [giggle]. Julie Chen was in the audience, but she was not presenting or anything.

E: What's amazing is you've been at this for so long. It's been 20 years since the cancellation of "All American Girl." March of '95. And we're still fighting for representation.

M. Right, I don't know over what. But something. 

E: We're still fighting for some kind of representation.

M: Right.

E: And even then when you broke through in '94 and we were all rooting for you and I was writing for Asian Week at the time, even then you had a kind of mixed reaction to "All American Girl."

M: Well, yeah. But I don't know why. I don't think there really was anything that could have been done. That wasn't the show I would have done. I don't think it would have gotten on the air if it hadn't been the way that it was. I didn't have that much control then over what I could do. But I guess anytime there is Asian American representation in the media in Hollywood and television and movies, whatever, there's got to be some kind of backlash because people are racist and they are not used to seeing Asian faces out there.

E: I thought it was incredible to see that cast, Amy Hill, BD Wong, a Lincoln High guy from San Francisco, but now 20 years later, are you still astonished that it's taken so long?...[TV] is [still] not quite the perfect mirror to society.

M: No.

E: It must be frustrating for someone like you.

M: It's very frustrating.

E: Now 20 years later, we've got "Fresh Off the Boat." Have you seen it? What do you think?

M: Yes, I helped Eddie [Huang] tremendously in the beginning. And I feel like in a lot of ways, this is my show too. I'm really proud of it. I think it's great. It's really funny. And I feel like it accomplishes a lot of the things that I set out to do, but could not do 20 years ago because of the time, my own situation within show business, my own inexperience then. Now, finally, there's someone who can do it, Eddie Huang and the show "Fresh Off the Boat" is genius. I'm very proud of it.

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Back to the Globes, free speech, and satire. 

Cho said because free speech is being threatened, "it's important to do jokes about that kind of stuff and be very aware of the world around you.

I related to Cho some of the free speech her performance inspired, in the form of the criticism I got after I defended Cho on the AALDEF blog. One comment in particular came from an Asian American English professor in Wisconsin, who seemed to over-intellectualize the issue to such a degree that I wasn't even sure what he was saying. And we were just tweeting.

But after consulting Cliff Notes, I think I understand. 

The professor believes it doesn't matter whether you call it satire or free speech. If the tools Cho used were the same tools, same stereotypes, used by the racists, he said, then the result is the same; Asians are lesser beings, making General Cho no different than Charlie Chan.

If you look at the "absolute value" of a racial image--and discount all the major differences--I guess it doesn't matter. The images of white supremacy win. Hence, we all lose. 

Hmm. This is why we have PhDs. It figures an academic would come up with that. Sounds like a good thesis topic, right alongside "the homosexual themes in Moby Dick."

Cho responded: "That's the dumbest thing. People trying to qualify their racism by saying that I was trying to be like Charlie Chan. They don't understand that I'm actually Asian, I'm actually Korean. That's the stupidest justification for their own racism."

But what if they're like this English professor, an Asian American? Does she buy into his belief that using the same stereotypes as the racists actually furthers white supremacy?

"And therefore people of color can't make commentary on people of color, therefore Asian people cannot talk about other Asian people?" Cho responded. "This is basically saying white people can only talk about white people. That's what they're saying. They're racist."

It's also likely the reason that whites and the white media are happy to leave us out of things. Under the guise of not wanting to offend anyone, we end up with this irony. As society gets more diverse, some of our cultural institutions--in an effort not to be offensive--get blander and whiter by the moment. It also doesn't leave much room for real Asian Americans to talk honestly. 

Or take another example: Some Asians may think it's free speech when they talk amongst themselves. They're just too afraid to talk freely in general. But that's not free speech, that's self-censorship in action. And that's exactly why First Amendment protections exist--to make sure minority opinions are not intimidated by the majority.

On any topic. Even talk about sex, which Cho is doing a lot of these days on her new cable series on TLC on Saturday nights at 11 pm. 

"It's a new kind of role going into a talk show, to be an expert on this subject, and being from San Francisco, which is a very common thing," said Cho. "I'm proud of it."

Being from San Francisco, I guess having three kids makes me some kind of expert. But maybe not to the degree of Cho, self-described as polyamorous, which has nothing to do with a love of polyester.

She's also is a multi-tasker as the only bi-sexual co-host on the show. So I asked her whether, among all the different formats she works in, the talk show allows her the freedom to be who she really is.

"Yeah, I think so," Cho said. "But they're all different aspects and types of performance and they're all easy for me."

We ended the conversation with her last line at the Golden Globes. Would she host the award show as dictated by the general next year? Or was that a joke? 

"I don't know, I'd love to," she said. "We'll see."

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. 
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.


Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.

2 comments

1. I am the "Asian American English professor in Wisconsin." My response is here: http://bit.ly/1yvVKe3
Posted by: David Shih | Jan 17, 2015 1:15 PM

2. Funny is in the eye of the beholder, but context is everything even for stereotypes no matter how benign or awful and hurtful.
Posted by: sjx | Jan 25, 2015 1:43 AM


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