How Margaret Cho walks the line between comedy and outrage

Tribune Content Agency

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Margaret Cho isn’t the only comedy legend to hail from the Bay Area, but she might be the angriest.

She grew up in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and began her comedy career doing sets at a local club across from the bookstore her family owned on Polk and California streets.

After a few years in stand-up, Cho got her big break as the star of “All-American Girl,” a 1994 ABC sitcom based on her comedy routine. While the show was canceled after a short run, and some disruptions to her career ensued, Cho is a fighter who refuses to stay down for long.

After 40 years as a performer, the five-time Grammy- and Emmy- nominated comedian and actor has been hailed as one of the “9 best female comedians of all-time” by Vogue Magazine. She’s known for her topical, biting and unapologetic comedy style, as well as for being a fierce icon of both queer and Asian American representation.

She’s bringing her “Live and Livid” comedy tour to her hometown on Friday for performances at the Palace of Fine Arts.

In between touring, filming new projects and working as a full time cat and dog mom, Cho somehow found some time to speak with us about her upcoming return to the Bay — what audiences can expect from her, and what she expects from them.

Q: You’ve described your ‘Live and Livid’ tour as a response to our current cultural climate, could elaborate a bit on that? What exactly are you responding to?

A: I’m responding to the queer bashing and recent movement towards anti-drag and anti-trans laws in this country. In particular, I’m pushing back against this idea that because we are queer, we, or even symbols of our pride, are somehow threats to children. I’m responding to the anti-women actions and efforts to remove bodily autonomy by not only the American government, but all over the world. I’m responding to the anti-Asian hate crimes and overall racism that has been occurring and inspiring violent vigilante “justice.” There’s a lot of things I’m responding to, because I just can’t understand how we got here. It’s really infuriating, this particular flavor of ignorance that we are being served.

Q: How do you, as a comedian, balance humor with the more threatening and ominous nature of these threats to our communities?

A: It’s a fine line to walk, because you want to have compassion for everyone involved. At the end of the day, they are hurting themselves too, and we are all suffering. You want to be the bigger person, while also fighting for what’s right, and that is a challenge. Ultimately, I try to maintain the real truth that I am an entertainer, not a politician. That’s what I’m always going to put first, but I get depressed if I don’t find the humor in these things.

Q: As a Bay Area native, what does it mean to finally be back in your hometown, performing live for the first time in years?

A: I love it, I’m so excited to be back. San Francisco is always the place where I’m the most creatively inspired. I’ve made so much music and done so much comedy here, so it’s really meaningful. I’m performing at the Palace of Fine Arts, and that’s also such a symbolic and historic venue, so on top of my own personal history here, I’m just really thrilled to be back. It’s going to be a great show.

Q: You had some troubling times here in San Francisco during your younger years. Does it ever feel difficult to come back? Are there mixed feelings there, or is it just water under the Bay Bridge?

A: It’s very much water under the bridge. I had everything happen to me in San Francisco, whether it was good or bad. I don’t have the same ties here anymore, since a lot of my family and friends have relocated, so I don’t come back as often, and the city has changed so much. This is where I grew up though, and I love hanging out in the Castro and at the Haight, so coming home is always really special.

Q: The Bay isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, some people might think the crowds are a bit too touchy. How do you, as a very politically outspoken comedian, feel about the audiences here?

A: I love them. San Francisco audiences are super sophisticated, and they know comedy. There’s a reason why comedians want to come here and do shows and develop material, and why great comedians come out of San Francisco. It’s a very important place for politics, social awareness and activism, and it’s been that way since the ’60s, so I’m really proud of that. I admire San Francisco crowds because they’re going to question you. They’re going to question your motives and your sources. I appreciate that, because as comedians, we should be held accountable for a lot of these ideas we are presenting. It’s a way to check yourself, but it’s also a fun challenge.

Q: Part of this tour is celebrating your 40 years in comedy — a long career, and certainly not an easy one, especially with someone whose voice is as unapologetic as yours. What message do you have for young comedians who are just starting out, and facing that very scary battle of coming into their own, comedy-wise?

A: Keep on working and growing as an artist. Always remain willing to learn, and willing to take other opinions to heart, but don’t let the inner critics sabotage you. We have so many people come into comedy from backgrounds other than heterosexual, white male, so we are always going to have these sensitive issues, like imposter syndrome, or this worry that we’re not going to fit in. What you need to remember is that in comedy, identity is currency, so don’t be afraid to go for it, and be yourself.

Q: You’ve never been afraid to be yourself, and so you’re a very influential role model for a lot of people out there, but who does the role model look up to? Who are your comedy inspirations?

A: I love Paula Poundstone, who is another San Francisco comedy legend, and a real pioneer in terms of gender non-conformity and asexuality. I’ve been following her comedy for 30 plus years, and I just admire her so much. I also like to look to the younger generation for inspiration, people like Bowen Yang or Ali Wong, yet another great comedian to come out of San Francisco.