Political comedian? Margaret Cho gets that a lot. She’s been performing since the 1990s — stand-up, music, TV, movies — and it hasn’t been easy.
She’s struggled with addiction. She’s been to rehab. She’s survived an eating disorder and described sexual abuse.
Yes, she links her own story to a wider context, and yes, she does blast the president in her jokes sometimes. But Cho says she’d probably get the “political comic” thing anyway.
“You just are political because of the nature of your identity,” she says of working in the traditionally male field of comedy as a queer Korean American woman.
“Political” or no, she has some advice for the elected officials who work in Washington: Decorum is overrated, and talking points aren’t fooling anyone.
“We’re all kind of wounded as people,” she told me in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
You’re coming to Washington very soon. How are D.C. audiences?
People in Washington have a lot of purpose. They are very determined to change the world, and often they’re working in politics and activism. There’s a lot of dedication and integrity.
Usually in D.C., I’m performing for people who just need some relief. So then you’re using ideas almost as a kind of an opiate, hope as an opiate.
I used to go visit [“Harold & Kumar” star] Kal Penn at the White House when he was working in the Obama administration. That’s an example for me of somebody who has an incredible sense of purpose. He’d left this huge career in Hollywood.
I just was there in the capital not too long ago. It’s always that feeling of, “We’re doing something vitally important.” I’m down with that. I believe that, and I feel that.
President Trump is a target for a lot of political comedians, and he’s been part of your acts. Do you have any jokes about Congress?
Well, I do have some Mitch McConnell. I do have a little bit of Elaine Chao and Mitch McConnell in there.
We try to find the quirky side of politics here at Heard on the Hill. But a lot of politicians are very buttoned-up — they stick to talking points. If one of them has a pair of funny socks, it’s a huge deal for us. By contrast, you let it all out. People have called you “fearless and raunchy.” What is your advice for politicians? Should they be more like you?
A sense of decorum and privacy is really overrated. Authenticity is the most important thing.
It’s OK to be wild and crazy sometimes. It’s OK to have that side. I don’t think of that as being flawed. Flaws are more like greed or self-interest, and those two things are highly, highly apparent in a lot of people in politics.
Nobody really is straight-laced. There’s no such thing as that. Everybody has quirks or oddities.
We’re all kind of wounded as people. We’re all hurt. And it’s OK to be. It’s OK to show how you heal and become you.
You say your audiences are looking for relief. When you’re performing onstage, is it an outlet for you too?
Yeah, it’s really cathartic. And it’s fun. You feel a sense of not being alone. When people laugh, it’s this feeling of community. It’s a very deep form of agreement that goes beyond like nodding; it’s a physical reaction. There is a lot of joy to be had in that.
You were on “Dancing With the Stars.” You were on “The Masked Singer.” Which did you prefer?
On “Dancing With the Stars,” I was with the Palins. The people coming to the set were, like, Sarah Palin, Bristol Palin, and then also Brandy Norwood. That was just a strange combination. Oh, and The Situation from “Jersey Shore.”
But at “The Masked Singer,” it was very isolating because you couldn’t talk to anybody. You’re sequestered in your area.
Were you hot in there?
Yeah, but it wasn't stifling, it was more claustrophobic.
I love singing, and I love the idea of, can you measure talent without context?
When you hear an individual voice, could you really put a numerical value on it without understanding their background and who they are? You’re taking away a very big element of what makes a celebrity.
Who in the Democratic field right now running for president would do well on those shows?
Oh, gosh. It’s not like Bill Clinton busting out a saxophone. That was a very, very early ’90s classic, with the Ray-Bans and the saxophone.
I think that’s a meme. Once you become a meme, you’ve made it. Are you a meme?
I don’t believe so, but I would aspire to that at some point.
Who do you think would be a better dancer between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders?
I don’t why, but I could sort of picture Bernie doing, like, a mean tango.
People have called you a political comedian. Do you see yourself as one?
Being a progressive, Asian American queer woman in a field that is mostly cis heterosexual white men is very much a political thing.
Like, you just are political because of the nature of your identity. That’s always going to politicize everything.
To me, the image of a political comedian is a comedian named Mark Russell, who would do these shows on piano in Washington, D.C. It was very of the times, Reagan-era stuff. Or when “Spitting Image” would do all of those puppets — the different presidents and prime ministers and monarchy. That, to me, is what I picture as political comedy.
I want to be the political comedian that’s doing guerrilla theater in the park with, like, a Nixon mask in the ’60s. I like that kind of weird, socialist, free performance. Maybe George Carlin’s involved. Groups like The Committee.
Like, I would be good in the Nixon era. That’s why I work now.
What are you looking forward to in 2020, besides sleep?
Sleep, that would be great.
Change. Change. Some sense of being back to normal. We haven’t been back to normal in a long time. But I don’t know what normal is. The new normal is not normal.
So it’s like trying to figure out where we are and trying to make more sense of it if I can. That’s the key.
But I’m enjoying 2020 so far, even though it’s pretty crazy. Yeah. Pretty hideous.
Yeah, it’s still early.
Margaret Cho performs in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center on Sunday as part of RIOT! An International Woman’s Day Event. This conversation has been edited and condensed.