"Hello, this is Margaret," the comedienne answers in a polite, but curt, tone. She's in full professional mode, exhibiting no trace of the wise-ass humor for which she's known. She sounds exhausted
You can't blame her, really. On the brink of her third major national tour, Revolution, Margaret Cho has been fielding phone calls from journalists all day.
Cho has long fought the good fight for gay and women's rights, delivering a feisty political punch with some of the raunchiest, dead-on humor around. She's unapologetic. She pisses people off. And that's why people love her.
I've watched her latest film/stand-up routine-the brilliant Notorious C.H.O.-four times in the past two days. There are a million questions but only minutes to ask them.
I start by inquiring about her family, a regular topic in her routines. Cho's trademark, campy imitation of her Korean mother is gut-busting hilarious (say "ass-master" in an exaggerated accent to any gay man and he'll know exactly what you mean). Beyond the surface humor, however, it's clear that being brought up a Korean-American in San Francisco both scarred and shaped her.
"With Koreans," she explains, "there's a real discrepancy with the way they raise girls and boys. The way that we're socialized is that boys are treated better than girls. I never really noticed because that was the norm."
Luckily, Cho's unique charms were not lost on all-especially not the gay men who worked in the bookstore that her parents owned.
"[They] noticed that I was treated really badly by my parents compared to the way they treated my brother. So they took it upon themselves to parent me," she explains. "They saw something in me that was special, and that was a really, incredibly joyous kind of exuberant personality and they wanted to mold me into something they could be proud of.
"And so I had five nannies, so to speak. It was like being raised by The Village People."
Her adopted gay family provided support and instilled in her a fervently open mind, but Cho still failed to meet her parents' expectations. Not only was she overweight and a poor student, but she bucked cultural traditions by hoping for more than a steady career, marriage and motherhood. In spite of these shortcomings-or perhaps because of them-Cho developed a wicked sense of humor.
Cho, now 34, dropped out of high school at 16 and became a comedienne. By her early 20s, she'd performed more than 300 concerts and, in 1994, won the American Comedy Award for Female Comedian. A Bob Hope special soon followed, and Margaret Cho became a national celebrity.
Nothing was taboo in her act. With an unshakably loud voice and perfectly timed, deadpan expressions, she found material in the inequities and injustices of the world, quipping about her weight, family, sex, misogyny, gays and racial identity.
The decidedly non-mainstream laughter she inspired somehow caught the attention of the producers at ABC, who pegged her to star in All-American Girl, the first-ever sitcom about an Asian-American family.
But what could have been a dream come true turned into an all-American nightmare. The producers didn't think Cho was "ethnic" enough, and told her that she looked too heavy on camera. As a result, she went on a crash diet that nearly killed her. The show was cancelled anyway, and she turned to drugs and alcohol.
Cho's experience with All-American Girl formed the basis for her successful off-Broadway show, I'm the One That I Want. While the material is funny-sometimes hilarious-Cho's pain is so raw it makes viewers cringe. She seems to have barely picked up the pieces.
If I'm the One That I Want shows Cho on the brink of recovery, her follow-up, Notorious C.H.O., reveals a bad-ass woman in control. Older and wiser, Cho refuses to be constricted to a narrow identity, particularly when it comes to being Korean-American.
"I've spent a long time trying to get out of racial identity," she says. "Because racial identity has defined me so much. More than I'm a woman, more than I'm a comedienne, I'm a race."
Ethnicity shouldn't be a defining characteristic, she adds, anymore than being a woman or being gay should. In an ideal world, people are people equally, no matter what. Her audiences-gay, straight, tattooed, buttoned-down, fat and skinny-reflect that one-love diversity. According to Cho, the media (purveyors of the "norm") have a clear responsibility to push for such equality.
"I don't think [the media has] brought [minorities] that much acceptance," she says, "yet somehow there's this relaxed attitude that we're finally all on a level playing field."
The level playing field, she argues, should be a reality. But for the time being, it's a myth that must be dismantled-not just by the media, but by everyone.
Towards the end of the interview, Cho's polite tone has long disappeared, and she cracks jokes and makes astute observations with a fiery passion. Revolution, she says, is about achieving small, personal victories. Every time an individual stands up for what's right in his or her own life, we're all a step closer to winning.She pauses briefly, and concludes sweetly: "You can do it, too."