Comes the revolution

When comedian Margaret Cho talks politics, she doesn’t joke around

Leading a revolution is hard on the vocal cords. When Margaret Cho answered the phone for a recent 8 a.m. interview, her voice was already hoarse with overuse. Though ostensibly her day off, she was engaged in a series of Q-and-As about her new comedy show, Revolution, with journalists throughout the country.

“At the moment, I’m home,” she reported. “I fly out during the week, but I come home to recharge, see my dogs, do my laundry and get something else to wear. I try to figure out where my life is before I get back on the road and go on.”

It’s a familiar routine for Cho, who has made a living as a stand-up comic since she left high school at the age of 16. “I’m always on the road,” she said. “If I’m not actually doing the show, I’m working on something new. It’s like there’s constant motion. There’s never a set point where I stop.”

In the early 1990s, Cho was a staple on the college comedy circuit and performed more than 300 shows in two years. In 1994, she won the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comic and was offered a starring role in the country’s first sitcom about an Asian-American family, ABC’s All-American Girl.

Cho was granted almost no creative control of the project. She found herself subject to the whims of TV producers who not only demanded she lose weight and tone down her humor but also hired an “ethnic consultant” to help her express the precise Asian qualities that would please the American viewing audience most.

“I hope it comes to Nick at Nite,” Cho has said of the series. “It was such a bad show, and I can’t even remember what I did because I was on so many drugs. I think, in a few years, it will be a cult classic. People will want to see it because it was so bizarre.” The show was cancelled quickly, and Cho, who suffered a kidney failure due to the excessive weight loss demanded by the show’s execs, sank into drug addiction and seemed destined for obscurity.

Sometime later, Cho experienced a moment of clarity during which she woke from an alcoholic stupor to find herself in a puddle of urine and thought, “What kind of VH1 Behind the Music bullshit is this?” She made the decision to end her self-destructive lifestyle and began writing her tell-all comedy show I’m the One That I Want.

Don’t hate me because I’m hilarious. Margaret Cho strikes a sultry pose.

Cho’s unflinchingly honest and consistently funny tale of her Hollywood experience, her subsequent depression and return to integrity was an instant success. In 1999, the show debuted off-Broadway and went on to tour the country. I’m the One That I Want spawned a best-selling book of the same title. The concert’s film, which Cho produced and distributed herself, made more per print than any movie in history ($1.3 million grossed from nine copies). Her follow-up concert and film, the bawdy Notorious C.H.O., only increased her fame. Now, two months after the Chicago debut of her current show, Cho stands poised on the brink of comedic revolution … or a vacation.

“I actually will probably take a summer vacation,” Cho conceded reluctantly, as if the idea of time off were foreign to her nature. “I will need to this year. That has become apparent from the way my schedule pushes me around. I do love my life, but I have to learn how to work so I don’t deplete all my energy.”

The last time Cho visited Sacramento, for a screening of I’m the One That I Want at California State University, Sacramento, in 2001, she spent an hour after the film answering questions before inviting the audience to join her for more conversation at an impromptu reception nearby. The admission price was $8. Less than two years later, Cho will spend only a few hours at the Mondavi Center for a $39.50 performance of Revolution in between tour stops in Florida and New Mexico. “It’s great, and it’s hard,” Cho said of her increasing notoriety. “It’s something I really enjoy, but it’s very exhausting.”

Exhausted as she may be, Cho’s ambition has only increased on this tour. “I’m making two movies right now,” she admitted. “I’m doing the concert, and then I’m also doing a documentary of the behind-the-scenes action, of what we actually do on the road. There’s this delightful cast of characters that joins us at different stops on the tour. It’s party all the time, which is great and terrible. It’s really fun, but it’s like putting yourself in this stressful place because there are cameras on you all the time.”

As she described it, Revolution “is a very complex show. It’s very racial and not as sexual as my past work.” In addition to familiar subjects, such as her loser ex-boyfriend and her relationship with her mother, Cho’s new show incorporates more political material, including her views on the Axis of Evil and the state of the nation.

Of course, Cho could not have predicted the change in the social climate brought on by the launch of an Iraqi invasion a few weeks into her tour. “Being at war, feeling out of control and out of power over our situation has really affected people. I think the film of the tour will explain it quite clearly—what it’s like to be an artist in a very censored time. We’re hitting a period in history in which political voices are being silenced more than ever. I hear that publicists are giving courses in how their clients should be talking to the press. It’s very strange that there is this encouragement for people to remain as politically neutral as possible to save their careers.”

Cho completely rejected the idea of personal politics taking a backseat to public image: “I’m like, ‘Why do we live in America if we’re not able to speak what we feel and think all the time?’” When asked how the current political situation has affected the content of her show, she replied, “It’s made me more political and more apt to speak up. There’s no other option. If we don’t speak the truth of what we feel in the moment, our collective years of activism may not survive it.”

Inspired by the urgency of her statement, Cho rushed on, “I’m worried that important issues are not being addressed because of this smokescreen of a war. Really inappropriate people have been appointed to positions of power, and that is being ignored because of the focus on the military. Women’s rights have completely gone out the window. We’re actually arguing about things like the right to choose! What are we talking about? This is not 1973! And I think it’s Dr. W. David Hager, who was appointed to the [Food and Drug Administration’s] Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, whose advice for women with PMS is to read the Bible. I don’t know where in Ezekiel 5:17 it shows you how to deal with lower back pain.”

“But people aren’t aware of these changes,” Cho continued, “because we’re filling the airwaves with pundit after pundit talking about what’s wrong with celebrities who speak out about the war. I’m 34, and I’ve never seen a more right-wing government in the U.S. I’ve never come across this level of jingoistic, xenophobic, racist ‘pride.’ It’s alarming. I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is that I want to fight and try to change things any way that I can.”

For now, that means taking Revolution on the road and expressing her political concerns through her talent for humor. With no trace of her initial hoarseness, Cho summarized the theme of Revolution. “Change happens with an attitude shift and a realization that we have power, no matter who we are. Everything I talk about always comes down to this: We have the power to control our destiny. We have everything we need. The only thing that could even begin to stop us is our own lack of confidence. So, that’s what I’m trying to obliterate: the idea that we don’t have a voice.”