Comic Margaret Cho doesn’t truck much with convention. Born to Korean parents in downtown San Francisco, she started performing comedy in her teens and has been darting around in various showbiz arenas ever since. When not touring around her latest stand-up show – she tours more or less incessantly – she’s appeared in film and television, written two books, emceed rock festivals, and in 2010 released the comedy/pop musical hybrid album “Cho Dependent.”
Cho is also a longtime and vocal advocate of various political, human rights and LGBT causes. Openly bisexual – she prefers the more inclusive “queer” designation – Cho cheerfully deploys comedy to discuss tricky issues around race, gender, sex and politics. In an otherwise unconventional career, Cho is a orthodox believer in one longstanding tradition – that comics should be able to talk about anything.
Cho appears Friday and Saturday nights at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh. She recently spoke with the N&O about growing up in San Francisco, the North Carolina indie rock scene and scary comedy club crowds.
Q: You were recently in the area emceeing Merge Records’ big 25th anniversary music festival over the summer. How did that go?
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A: It was a very nice way to celebrate Merge – a really fun weekend. I love all their artists and I really love Teenage Fanclub, who you never get to see. They’re so good. They don’t play live very often in the U.S. It was a very special, rare treat.
A lot of music that came out of the Chapel Hill scene, when I was younger, was really important to me – Superchunk, and then afterward Ben Folds Five. I really liked that scene. I still do. It’s great to grow up with these artists. We’re all kind of the same age still, oddly. [laughs]
Q: You grew up right in the heart of San Francisco. What was that like?
A: It was a really different time in the 1970s and 1980s. It was amazing, though there was a lot of dark stuff that happened toward the end of the 1970s. The assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. That was devastating. And Jonestown – that had a huge impact in San Francisco. Then right after that, it was AIDS.
There were great, exciting things, too, when I got older. Like learning about drag, learning about gay culture. But people were in real peril.
Q: When you started doing comedy in the city, who were the other people around at that time?
A: My generation was Marc Maron, Louis CK.... Sarah Silverman is a little younger than me, Janeane Garofalo was a little older than me.
In fact, the original owner at Goodnight’s in Raleigh – and this is years ago – was so in love with me and Janeane. He would bring us out in the early, early 1990s, and at that point the comedy crowds in Raleigh were really rough. They were not ready for me or Janeane or our brand of kind of, I guess, more cerebral comedy.
Those crowds could get really mad at us. But the owner had great taste. He wanted women in his club and he wanted us, specifically. It was a hard place to play back then. Now it’s totally different.
Q: Is there a topic or theme around the show you’re touring now?
A: The show is really a reaction to a lot of the violence that’s happening in the world. I don’t understand why it’s so bad. It’s really bad for children; it’s really bad for women. The show is called “There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘Cho’ in ‘Psycho.’”
It’s about – how do we figure out how to get through all of the violence and the bloodshed? This is a very violent time. It’s dealing with that chaos though comedy. It’s a new show. I’m going to eventually film it and put out a special later in the year.
Q: Your style has always been so direct and straightforward. Is there much space between your stage persona and your actual self, or has that changed over the years?
A: Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s really much differentiation for me. I’ve been doing it so long …. I’ve been doing comedy, really, since before I was an adult. I never really developed an adult personality, or anyway it was developed through comedy. It’s probably unhealthy and not great, but that’s the way it happened. [laughs]