As a 41-year-old counter-culture-type person, I feel like I've grown up with the charmingly brash and fearlessly in-your-face comedienne Margaret Cho.
Cho, born Dec. 5, 1968, just five months ahead of me, was an icon for mainstream exiles in the '90s. We watched her stand-up specials on cable and even tuned into her infamously failed sitcom, All-American Girl.
Her unapologetic bio, I'm the One That I Want, hit the bookshelves almost a decade ago. In the book, she talks candidly about her rise to success and network TV humiliation, from mandates to lose weight to bouts of depression to her emerging "fag hag" sympathies with the San Francisco gay scene.
Like Janeane Garofalo and Laura Kightlinger, Cho was among the "slacker" female comics of my generation. Along with admiring her spirited rebellion and advocacy of gay and lesbian rights, I've identified with her zany pop-culture references from Charlie's Angels to Grease to that "Ancient Chinese Secret" commercial. Cho mimicking her mother ("Moran!" Her name in Korean) gave me a special chuckle since I myself also grew up with a loud old-world-immigrant mother (mine Italian) who embarrassed me from time to time.
A lot has happened since those heady, pre-9/11 days of youthful dysfunction. The openly bi Cho has grown up but not grown out of being a lovable weirdo. She wrote a second book in 2005, a collection of essays on all subjects political and pop called I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight; she starred in feature-length documentary (Notorious C.H.O.) and starred and wrote the script for the low-budget indie comedy, Bam Bam and Celeste. In addition, she's performed in a burlesque-style show, toured with '80s pop stars like Cyndi Lauper, and has been happily married to offbeat experimental artist, Al Ridenour, with whom she collaborates on occasion.
This year, Cho did what many of us fantasize about -- she became a rock star -- and collaborated with her favorite musicians. In addition to learning to play guitar and polishing up her already gifted singing voice, Cho released a comedy-pop album, Cho Dependent, August 2010. It includes Jon Brion, Tegan and Sara, Andrew Bird, Grant Lee Buffalo, Ani DiFranco, A.C. Newman (of the New Pornographers), Ben Lee, Fiona Apple, Garrison Starr, Brendon Benson and even comedian Tommy Chong.
Cho performs a few tunes from the album during her live performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall Thursday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m., along with her topical rants, hilarious anecdotes and self-deprecating admissions.
I got a chance to catch up with Cho Thanksgiving weekend for a little post-tryptophan e-mail Q&A action ...
Cho Dependent, with all its cool contributors, is like a fantasy come true. You said that you have to pinch yourself when you think about it. Would you say that this experience highlighted the best year (if not one of the best years) of your career? Have you stayed on a high note throughout your tour, and have the songs kept the performance routine from getting stale?
Yes, this has been an incredible year! I loved making this album and it really has been one of the highlights of my entire life. Doing the songs live is fun! I don't do that many my show is still very much a stand-up comedy show, but I love to sing and play and it is very, very exciting!
Your video with Andrew Bird, "I'm Sorry," has you crooning a country ballad about murdering your boyfriend and dressing him up in bandages and corpse makeup. It looks like it was fun to shoot. I have to admit that I get a little jealous watching it (Bird's one of my musician crushes). Were you beside yourself the first time you heard Bird's trademark whistle in your very own tune?
Yes, Andrew Bird is so dreamy and amazing. I love him so much and I love the song we wrote together. He was so fun to work with and, yes, I was all crushed out but I was crushed out on everyone on the record from Fiona to Jon to Tegan and Sara and of course Ani DiFranco.
Have you seen Bird do Dr. Stringz on Nick Jr.'s Jack's Big Music Show? Do you ever think you'd do a kids comedy album in the spirit of Yo! Gabba Gabba now that you're a bona fide musician yourself?
Yes, I love it! I'd love to do a children's album. "Hey Big Dog," which I wrote with Patty Griffin and sang with Fiona Apple, is really a kids' song!
Speaking of your budding music career you have a really nice voice. You recorded a song a couple of years ago, right? When did you first realize this talent and was there an incident or conversation that led to you recording Cho Dependent?
Thank you! Cyndi Lauper really discovered it, and insisted that I write and play and sing. I have been working on my voice a lot. My mother is a singer. We just recorded a duet for my next album! It's really cool. We are like the Judds.
In your first book, you're pretty honest about hitting rock bottom with drinking and depression, talking matter-of-factly about how you peed the bed. Since then you've been a spokesperson for LGBT rights, written about human rights from a global perspective and been honored for your efforts, along with performing burlesque, designing clothes, making music and participating in collaborations with your husband. It's been a very productive time for you. You're quite accomplished. How do you reconcile your success with the underdog-slacker-Gen X side of your persona? Is that the Margaret of the past, or do you still retain that?
I think that I will always have that slacker side and I love to be lazy and real silent, but then again I come from such an immigrant background, where it's all about work, and I love to be busy, so I have it all in me! Activism and art is what my life is, and I want to do as much as I can before I can't anymore! Also, my entire social life is based around my work, and so if I wanna hang out with anyone, we have to be creating something, too.
While we're on the subject, how much do you identify with your generation as the newly middle-aged, counter-culture-influenced contingent in contrast to the emerging hipster adults of today?
I definitely feel like a '90s refugee in my cords and Doc Martens that I still wear the Breeders, anyone? I see my peers dressing their infants up in skulls and crosses and I think that is my generation!
You got tattoos in your late 30s. What influenced you to get your first tat?
I've been wanting to get a full-on Japanese tattoo bodysuit from the age of 12, when I was being cared for by lots of tattooed hipsters who worked for my parents, so the desire was in me for a long time, but I never actually did it until I was much older because I wanted everything to be perfect and the right thing. I am glad I waited. I have work from the best artists in the world like Ed Hardy, Kat Von D, Mike Davis and Chris O'Donnell. I am really lucky.
Getting back to your LGBT advocacy, the news has been filled with heartbreaking stories about bullying and young gay suicides. Have you been involved in promoting awareness for the Trevor Project and similar causes?
Yes, I have done lots of benefits for Trevor and was close with the founder, Randy Stone, before he died. Taking care of LGBT teens is such an important job and we as the elders have to take on the responsibility! We must parent these kids!!
What does 2011 have in store for Ms. Cho?
I've started work on my next album, which will be even more amazing I think and working on a new show, touring Australia and New Zealand and the UK and maybe smoking some pot.