“It’s really crazy what’s happening here…” Margaret Cho is reflecting on America’s year thus far. “Every day it’s worse, whether it’s making crazy threats towards North Korea or supporting Nazis. I don’t understand why Trump has to defend Nazis., it’s really crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The comedian, performer and actor has never shied away from being controversial or outspoken, but there’s a suggestion of being offered too much opportunity. Civil rights are being withdrawn, people are denounced for kneeling during the national anthem, feelings are more important than facts and racism is returning to the norm. so Cho is on the road with Fresh Off The Boat, a huge touring show which attempts to make sense of the senseless – or at least wring a few laughs from an ever-more bizarre and brutal news cycle.
Currently her country is at war with itself. The United States appears increasingly divided, and its mercurial administration is doing little to ease tensions. The Oval Office endures a fragile relationship with the truth, and a bullish attitude towards opponents. Although this chaos is inspirationally fertile for comedians, it’s easy to incur the wrath of the emboldened right. Especially if, like Cho’s friend Kathy Griffin, you pose for photos with a mock-up of the Commander-In-Chief’s severed head. “It was like a QVC French Revolution. I love it when she gets fired, because I’m always next in line for whatever job that is. I’m always supportive of her losing a job.” Not that controversy is completely alien to Cho herself. She’s a propensity for dressing up as Kim Jong Un (in the name of comedy, not whilst relaxing), and feels comfortable tearing into sensitive subjects – like race, body image, religion, poverty, sexuality, and often her own hangups and Korean heritage.
Humour allows her to cheerily negotiate a cultural battleground, where hand-wringing progressives and fame-hungry right-wing commentators rage on 24-hour TV news or social media. She maintains comedy became more important after 9/11, offering a tool to criticise and explore different opinions. “The one great power that comedy has is that it can point out stereotypes, falsehoods, ignorance and all the things we’re fighting against to make a better world.” Acknowledging it probably sounds corny, she suggests it’s about ‘finding a voice for the people.’
She’s due to embark on her first proper tour of the UK, bringing Fresh Off The Boat to Brighton Dome on Sat 2 Dec.
One of the benefits of the internet and global news is there’s little need to adapt routines for a European audience. ”Everyone knows about everything really fast. The world has become smaller, so that’s really great for comedy and art. We come up with the same frame of reference everywhere.” The show offers something of a consolidation for her boundary-defying comedy. Inspiring it is a society where body image is increasingly politicised and white supremacists aren’t called out, for fear of offending their delicate sensibilities. “There’s a weird sensitivity around that makes people call them the ‘Alt-Right’. It gives them a weird kind of dignity, which they don’t really need to have.” In many southern states there’s a consensus the Caucasian population is under threat. The removal of monuments glorifying civil war leaders and slavery has become a flash point for some communities. “There’s no reason why these structures need to exist. It’s a part of our culture which we should be ashamed of.” She says she is scared by sickening rhetoric masquerading under the guise of free speech, but there is optimism for the future. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Cho is quick to laugh during our conversation, especially at her own expense. She’s also very excited about a new TV sitcom she’s co-writing and starring in. Highland, which focusses on two dysfunctional Korean families during California’s ‘Green Rush’ marijuana boom. Some things across the pond remain quite liberal…
We agree the world may be returning to an 80s Cold War ethos. Instead of Russia, now North Korea is portrayed as menacing the American way of life. As far as bad political combinations go, Donald John Trump and Kim Jung Un stands as possibly the most dysfunctional yet. And Cho, like many of her peers, is increasingly weary of shameless behaviour from the ex-reality star. “He’s operating very much on his lizard-brain, reacting in a very base, crazy childish way. The presidency used to be a very dignified job. It really isn’t anymore, which is sickening. If you’re in your right mind you have to question him. I blame NASCAR and energy drinks. I don’t what to do and I don’t know what to think. But it is good to make jokes about. That’s the one thing I’ve found.”
Margaret Cho’s Fresh Off The Boat comes to Brighton Dome on Sat 2 Dec.
Words by Stuart Rolt