Margaret Cho, Comedian
Comedian Margaret Cho sits down with MAKERS to talk about growing up the daughter of Korean immigrants, the impact of the AIDS crisis on her comedy, and how harnessing her identity as a queer woman of color comic allowed her to overcome even the most devastating personal failures.
Margaret Cho, Comedian
ERIN BROCKOVICH: In high school, I was labeled the girl least likely to succeed. So I don't think that they ever saw certainly what I do today coming. I was a dyslexic every time I came home from school with another D stamped on a test and feeling defeated. My mom would say, oh, you have to buck up there and where's your sticktoitiveness? And that struck a chord.
Even today, when I hit that wall, I hear my mother-- sticktoitiveness. It's that persistence. It's that obligation. It's that stubbornness, and you can rise. And you can do it.
I saw medical records in there, and they were blood test results of two little girls. All these autoimmune problems. I couldn't even pronounce some of them.
May not have been the brightest tack in the box, but I certainly knew that the autoimmune system was something that would be very vital to how we survive in life. And if it's impaired, what could it lead to? And that's when I asked Mr. Masry if I could look further into the case.
Roberta shared stories with me about other neighbors. They were complaining not necessarily of diseases at first but chronic nosebleeds, chronic skin rashes, chronic headaches, chronic fatigue, and chronic respiratory problems. I just found it odd, and that's when I really began to start digging. Going back out there and getting well samples myself and getting experts together and finding the documents and showing the readings.
We uncovered what was a massive groundwater contamination. This groundwater had been contaminated since the '60s. PG&E knew it. It was covered up.
It was a long process. There was moments where every single one of us felt defeated. Maybe we're in over our heads. And everybody said this is PG&E. You can't take on this company.
I'll never forget the day Ed Masry called me into his office, and Ed said, you know, I think we're going to have to give it up. I said, are you kidding me? We're sitting in this library of all of these law books that became these laws. How is it you think that came to be, Ed?
Because somebody somewhere went out on a limb, they created law. They changed a life. They made a difference, and you're going to give up. No. So I'm like, let's go get them, and we did.
I was overjoyed. Money wasn't going to give these people that their lost lives, their lost spouses, or children. I don't know that you ever had to give them a dime. The victory was they were heard. The victory was that they hoped something could change in the future.
Hinckley was a microcosm. I'm dealing with 1900 Hinckley's in the United States alone, and I think those people are a beautiful representation of their uprising to be heard. Not for the sake of the suits or for the money but for the sake of what's right.
DOLORES HUERTA: I think the one thing that really kind of hooked me for life was going to the home of some workers who did not have linoleum or wood on their floor, only dirt. And yet these are people who are working. They're working very hard, and you know that this is wrong.
Growing up as a person of color, you just see so many injustices. As a teenager, you saw the way that I was treated, my friends were treated. And it just-- at some point you just wish that things were different.
Conditions in the fields were very bad. Farm workers are not respected at all, to the point that they didn't have toilets in the fields for workers. They didn't have cold drinking water. Workers were earning, like, maybe $0.75 an hour.
I said, Cesar, I think the only way that we can do this is if we boycott all California table grapes. And Cesar thought no, I think we should boycott potatoes because this particularly grower also had potatoes. And so I said, well, you know when people think of potatoes, they think of Idaho, they don't think of California.
Boycott grapes. Boycott grapes.
So we went ahead and started the grape boycott.
One of the tactics that we used very successfully is we got the chain stores to take the grapes out of the whole chain.
During the strike, there were times when my home was terrorized in the middle of the night, my windows broken when I'm there alone with my children. And we had shotguns and rifles aimed at us. When you're in the movement, when you're on this path for justice, you know that things are going to happen.
Within months we were able to win the boycott.
We, as women, that we've got to put big lights around our accomplishments, right, and around our ideas, and not feel that we're being egotistical when we do that because it's a way of letting the world know that yes, we as women can accomplish great things.
BRENDA BERKMAN: It didn't matter if your entire male side of your family had been in the fire service since 1492. It did not matter. If you were born a girl, you were not going to be allowed to even apply to become a New York City firefighter.
I always saw firefighting as a great way of helping your community, because when people are in their direst hour of need and they don't know who else to call, they call the fire department.
There's no way that any of us who went into that first group of women hired by the New York City Fire Department could have understood the level and intensity of the opposition to women coming on.
There was a backlash that was going on from the conservative segments of American society that decided that the women's movement had gone too far. And what was a more perfect example of that than women in firefighting?
The men would turn my locker upside down. They put a huge bra-- I mean, huge. I don't know where this bra came from. And it had my initials on the cups.
They messed with my protective gear. They drained my air tanks. They messed with the equipment that I had to use. It really was intended to send a very clear message that you are not wanted here. This is never going to stop. And frankly, your life might be at risk if you pursue this.
One of the things that I studied while I was in school was the struggles of women to get the right to vote, to integrate other kinds of jobs. So I really felt like it was important not to give up.
I think too often, young people believe one person can never really make a change. I'm here to tell you that's not true. One person can make a change. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but one person can make a change.
MARGARET CHO: I would challenge the stereotype and then kind of go and embody that stereotype and use it to my advantage.
Maybe someday I could be an extra on "M*A*S*H."
There was a way to acknowledge that there was a lot of racism against Asian-Americans, but there was also an understanding, like, well, I can do those jokes, too, and I could actually do them better, because I have a better take on it.
My family came to the United States in 1964 from Korea. They decided to settle in San Francisco. And in 1968, they had me. They bought a gay bookstore in the '70s, which was very unusual for them, for any immigrants to do, I guess.
So I grew up in the bookstore. It was called Paperback Traffic. It was this kind of place where there was a lot of community events. A lot of artists worked there, showing their art and getting tattooed. And a lot of people did drag.
Everything changed because of AIDS. A lot of the employees died. A lot of people that I grew up with died. It was an incredibly devastating thing to watch the community fading away before our eyes.
There were all of these organizations popping up, different kinds of AIDS activism. That's what made me want to start doing comedy, because there was a need for people to come and do performance. There was a need for people to come and speak. And there was a need to have a voice.
I was probably about 14 when I first started performing. A lot of my first shows were at AIDS fundraising events. I was pretty successful right away. My family didn't really understand it, but I really loved it.
I grow up on the rice paddy.
There was this idea amongst other Asian-American comics that I was around that we're not going to talk about our families. We're not going to talk about their Asianness, because we want to be judged as comics, not as Asian comics.
I walked past this guy, and he goes, me so horny.
But I never saw the value in that. So that set me apart, because I was not afraid to go into areas that were a little bit combative.
I remember just seeing so many Asian driver jokes in a night. So then I would go onstage and say, my name is Margaret Cho and I drive very well. It would just do really well, because people would be so embarrassed that they'd been laughing about these racist jokes all night, and then an acknowledgment that, yeah, that's what happened.
I had sex with a woman on the ship.
You get to a point in your minority status where you do become unassailable.
Am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized I'm just slutty.
Especially for me, because I'm queer, I'm a woman of color, somebody that is normally perceived as policing all the things that people say, whether it's racist or sexist or homophobic, you can go to a more outrageous place because of your identity.
It was so outside of my world. I didn't know how to write jokes for TV. I didn't know how to write jokes for sitcoms. Because this was an ethnic minority, there was this idea that we're being so outlaw by featuring these people who are never on TV that we've got to be incredibly conservative in the way we do it. I knew that certain things weren't right and that I should take over to some extent, but I was empowered enough to do that.
The television people were looking at me on-camera and they were really horrified. They said, we have to do something about the size of your face. You have to lose weight or else we can't have this show on television. They were so alarmed that I was too fat to play the role of myself, and so I just stopped eating.
I remember becoming very sick. I was urinating blood. The whole time I was just scared that I wasn't going to lose enough weight. That, to me, was much more important than my health. I wanted to keep this job.
I felt incredible loss, and that I had failed, and that I kind of couldn't go anywhere beyond that.
--to where I was drinking too much. At some point, I realized I can't live like this. I cleaned up. Was going to try to be healthy and try to enjoy comedy again.
I am not going to die because I failed as someone else. I'm going to succeed as myself. And I'm going to stay here and rock the mic until the next Korean-American fag hag, shit starter, girl comic, trash talker comes up and takes my place!
The story of what happened to me in television gave me a framework to hang my stand-up comedy on. Now I had more of a purpose, maybe prevent other people from going through these really dark, insecure moments by saying, well, this is what happened and I survived it. No matter what happens, I don't have any insecurities that are big enough to stop me from satisfying the goal of doing comedy.
- The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women, because an arduous activity would mean that you're gonna get big legs, and grow a mustache, and hair on your chest, and your uterus was gonna fall out. So, I filled out the entry form. I signed my name with my initials, I signed KV Switzer. When I signed it that way, obviously when the form went in, they couldn't tell it from a guy's. [Announcer] The World's most famous foot race even attracts a leggy lady, Katie Switzer of Syracuse.
- So, there we were with my coach Arnie Briggs and my boyfriend and All-American football player, Tom Miller. When other runners would come by they would say, oh it's a girl, and they were so excited. And Arnie was saying, "yup, I trained her." And all of a sudden, the flatbed truck is in front us and I heard the photographer saying slow down, slow down, slow down, and they were taking pictures of us. On this truck was the race directors. One of them was a feisty character by the name of Jock Semple. He just stopped the bus, jumped off, and ran after me. Suddenly, I turned and he just grabbed me and screamed at me, "get the hell out of my race "and give me those numbers." And then he started clawing at me, starting to try and rip my numbers off, and I was so surprised. And he had the fiercest face of any guy I'd ever seen and out of control, really. I was terrified. And all of a sudden my boyfriend, Big Tom, gave Jock the most incredible cross-body block and sent Jock flying. And all of this happened in front of the press truck. The journalists got very aggressive, what are you trying to prove? Are you a suffragette? Are you a crusader? Whatever that is, and I said what? I'm just trying to run. They finally left, then it got very quiet, snow's coming down. Nobody's saying anything, and I turned to Arnie and I said Arnie, I've gotten you into a lot of mess here, I guess. But I said, I don't know where you stand in this, but I said, I'm gonna finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to, because nobody believes that I can do this. And suddenly I realized, if I don't finish this race, then everybody's gonna believe women can't do it and that they don't deserve to be here and that they're incapable. I've got to finish this race. I finished in four hours, 20 minutes. That race changed my life. It wasn't until about midnight when we were driving back from Boston to Syracuse University and we stopped on the throughway to get an ice cream and some coffee did we see the newspapers and they're covered front and back of all the different additions with pictures. I realized that now this was very, very important, and this was going to change my life, and it was probably going to change women's sports.