Comedian Margaret Cho As 'Mother To The World'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.
Today, though, we're going to go in a different direction for some observations about parenthood and, unusually for us, she is actually not a parent herself, but her observations about her own mom have been a cornerstone of her career. Here she is.
MARGARET CHO: My mother does not like my tattoos. I don't like tattoo. Is too much. I don't like - I don't like - I don't like. Mommy don't like all that tattoo. I don't like. Meanwhile, she has her eyebrows tattooed, her eyeliner, her blush, her lipstick.
MARTIN: That was the award-winning comedian and actor Margaret Cho. That last clip comes from a performance in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Now, she is about to embark on an all new tour where she expands her observations about her mom and other moms. The new tour is called "Mother" and Margaret Cho joins us now from Glendale, California.
Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
CHO: Thank you.
MARTIN: As long as I've been following you, which has been some time - it's been a long time - you've talked about your mom and I was just wondering how that started.
CHO: I think it was started really young, I think, when I started to understand that my parents were foreign - and I think this is an experience that a lot of immigrants have, you know, when their families are so different, like, from what they're seeing on television and what they're seeing - you know, these immigrant kids - they really feel like they want to separate and I wanted to really sort of separate from my parents just because I was so embarrassed by the fact that they were so incredibly Asian and we were so, like, FOB, which is like fresh off the boat. We were so incredibly, undeniably foreign.
And so I would make fun of my mother because she couldn't say certain words and it was really hilarious to me and my brother and, you know, so it's something that I grew up doing and then, when I became a stand-up comedian, it was a very natural thing to talk about. Also, when I started doing comedy, I was so different from everybody else doing comedy. I was racially different. I was much younger. There were very, very few women and certainly no young women, so it was a weird thing.
So I ended up talking a lot about my heritage and a lot about what made me kind of the way that I was and so I think talking about my mom was a very, very natural thing to do.
MARTIN: Why Mom and not Dad?
CHO: Well, my dad, when he was kind of working in the country, we were very poor and my father ended up getting deported right when I was born and so, when he finally was able to return to America, which was about three years after I was born, the focus for him was to so completely lose his accent that he had no discernable trace of it. He really spoke English with almost a Midwestern kind of a twang. It was a really strange thing and so there was almost no way to kind of see him as foreign in the same way my mother did and it was sort of like - such a foreigner.
And then - so, when I see my mom, it would be so even more apparent. You know, it almost sent her foreignness into relief and that's why she sort of stuck out in our family so much because she was, like, refusing to let go of her Korean-ness and her Asian-ness and, you know, we all wanted to be very Americanized, including my dad, and my mother was the last sort of stronghold of that kind of heritage.
MARTIN: You know, you're actually - you're a very fine actor, as well as comedian, and I just wondered if you could do your dad.
CHO: Oh, thank you. Well, my dad - he's really - he just kind of talks like maybe it's Henry Fonda or it's something out of movies like "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's so...
MARTIN: Really? Oh, my God. That's like Gregory Peck.
CHO: It's so deliberate and so...
MARTIN: That's hilarious.
CHO: You know, it's so much about kind of an idea of like he's built it from movies and trying to copy these men that he felt were like very idealized in his eye.
MARTIN: Like Walter Cronkite, kind of a broadcaster...
CHO: Yes. Very much...
MARTIN: ...kind of voice.
CHO: ...like a broadcaster.
MARTIN: That's funny. But you - I do want to emphasize, for people who may think - who have not heard you - that you're just kind of picking on your parents. There is obviously a lot of love and respect there.
CHO: Yeah. And I really admire all of the things that they did to kind of raise me and, you know, coming to this country and really having nothing and really building everything just because they had this dream and they wanted me to have all the things that they couldn't have. And it was a really, really powerful thing, so I'm very proud of them and, you know, my shows are really a celebration of what they've done and what they've accomplished.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things, though, I think is interesting too is that there is actually a lot of kind of trenchant social observation in what you say through them. And I just want to play a short clip from another previous tour, where this is your mom giving her unique take on being gay.
CHO: I think everybody need be gay.
CHO: You know, you have a friend and you like your friend so much you don't know what to do.
CHO: It's kind of gay.
CHO: I think that everybody have this type of friend, especially in college.
MARTIN: I think some people would say she's onto something there. That there is a - well, I mean, right?
MARTIN: I mean it sounds funny but there is...
CHO: It's very true. It's very astute and there's a lot of truth there. And that's really, you know, that actually is a real conversation that we had and the situation was my parents had bought a bookstore in San Francisco and it catered to the gay community. And I was very young at the time and she was trying to explain to me what gay people were like, and how they had these relationships and it was completely legitimate and the same as straight relationships, but they just happen to be same-sex relationships. And so it was her way of trying to explain it to me without any kind of prejudice or without any kind of fear or shame. And I think that's really amazing, you know, for somebody, an immigrant from a very conservative background in the '70s to kind of come to. It's really great to be able to take something like that from life and make it into art and share that with all the people who get to see it, you know, it's really powerful.
MARTIN: Does your mother think she's funny?
CHO: I think she doesn't really understand how funny she is or she just says things that are very kind of unedited and very truthful and that people don't really realize, you know, that kind of potential in themselves, but I think she's quite a poet and quite a prophet. It's really cool.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a special conversation with comedian Margaret Cho. Her latest tour is called "Mother." And, you know, you've described this as your edgiest show to date. And I'm wondering how come.
CHO: I think it's - well, when you get to an age where you kind of have experienced everything. And people think like well, people are older, they sort of are more stuffy or they're more conservative and I don't think that's true. And even like the idea of being a mother, which is really a sacred thought and, you know, a mother is a sacred thing, but you can't be a mother unless you've had sex. And I mean the majority of mothers I know have had to have sex a lot in order to have kids. So you really do have like that whole experience to draw from. So I think it's like this show really reflects all the things that I've been through. It's very edgy in terms of like it's kind of not really, it's talking about race and talking about sexuality and talking about politics in a way that's more of a mature kind of a grounded way, but I find that I'm able to take more chances and be much more I think outlaw because of my age and that that sort of puts me in a sort of safer category.
You know, it's not, there's like nudity in the show, which is really strange, but it's not sexualized, which I think is really hard for people to understand. Like I'm trying to point some things out about my body and the body in general and how we think about women's bodies and a mother's body and like an older woman's body and try to, you know, talk about it in a way that is very kind of natural and neutral and important. And so there's a lot of things that I'm trying to do in the show that I haven't done before, which is really fun and exciting.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it's interesting when you talk about the whole idea of a woman's body, what it's meant for and how it is then viewed, I mean this whole thing about breast-feeding in public, for example...
MARTIN: ...which, you know, what could be more natural than that? I mean that's kind of what they're for. And yet, there have been women who have been taken off of airplanes because they've had to breast feed a child or they've been kicked out of restaurants or asked to leave public places because of that. And there's a whole big kerfuffle about these two women in the military who were photographed breast-feeding their children while in uniform who were criticized, you know, for that.
MARTIN: And I was wondering so where did the idea come from for you.
CHO: Well it's...
MARTIN: Do you want to tell us or is it still a secret?
CHO: I think it's really about the fact that I think women's bodies are so sexualized that we really can't do anything with them. You have to constantly negotiate with the world of what can you show or what's too much or what's appropriate. And, you know, something like breast-feeding, I mean, you know, it's a really important thing and it bonds you to your child and it nurtures them and it nourishes them and it's something that has to happen so why does that have to be so politicized? Why do we have to sexualize women's bodies to the point where we can't even feed our children?
And for me, you know, I've had such a history with eating disorders and problems with being in Hollywood and being a woman who will not kind of conform to body size. You know, I can't really find any peace there and so I want to kind of like point out things and talk about it and also being naked and not be sexualized, not be a stripper and not be like kind of this butt of jokes, which is another thing that, you know, celebrities' bodies are really used for. You know, you look at all these things online and they just like tear down women's bodies. And it's like how are people supposed to feel? I want to go from a place of strength with it and talk about the body in a way that's very important and political but very comfy and easy too. So I think it's a very freeing thing and a very fun thing.
MARTIN: I do want to ask about something that's also kind of complicated, which is your own feelings about having kids yourself. I was reading your blog from the fall and you wrote: It might not be a fear of kids themselves, as I usually get along with them in truth. They like my tattoos and my uncomplicated child/adult face. They identify with my orange shoes. I look like I would let them get away with stuff, and I do. My fear of having children is that, frankly, I just don't want to love anyone that much.
That's kind of painful stuff, Margaret.
CHO: Oh, yeah. It's deep and, you know, the parents that I know, it's changed their lives completely to have kids. And the transformation is extraordinary because they become really much better people and much deeper people and much more concerned people. And it's not just about themselves anymore. They have more responsibility in a way that's too profound for me to comprehend. And so I have a tremendous fear of it because I know the responsibility that it really truly is, your world becomes so much larger and I don't know if I'm emotionally equipped or prepared to do that. But I do think it's possible for, you know, women like me to mother the world, that we can actually be mothers to everyone and that our maternal side does not have to go to waste just because we don't have our children. Everybody can be our children, which I think is another part of the show too.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, would you like to have kids?
CHO: Yes. I mean it's something that I would like to have the freedom to do and I would like to have the ability to do. I mean, you know, at this age now - I'm 44 - and it's something that if I'm going to do by myself I've got to make a decision quickly, I think. Or, I mean there are so many, they are so many children in the world who need homes. There's really also that idea of fostering children, fostering older children, possibly. Or, you know, going and talking about like special needs kids. There's so many kids out there who need parents. And so there's no shortage of children. I just don't know if I physically would be able to at this point or if it would be too difficult for me.
MARTIN: I don't know. Is it hard to say I just don't want to?
CHO: No. I think because it's not really true. I think that there really is a desire in me to want to and to need to. You know, it's almost, like it's beyond want, it is a need to nurture and a need to kind of realize your kind of destiny. But it's also something that I've always felt like in a sense, you know, when you're a woman in comedy there's a lot that you have to kind of not give up but there's a lot of aspects of gender that kind of get a little bit muddled because you're operating in a man's world. And so there are some things that I did tend to think about sacrificing, you know, those things like relationships and those things like really kind of being feminine, I sort of discarded a lot of that when I first started doing comedy. And then like, I've achieved some measure of success so I'm like am I going to go back and relive that? And that's sort of what the show is too. And there's an expectation with women, some stretch with myself, in our 40s where people just relate to us as maternal figures no matter what. You're kind of are looked at as a mother at this age, at this time in your life even though you may not want to, you haven't had the opportunity to or you haven't even thought about it.
MARTIN: Do people ask you for advice or do they come to you for sympathy or if they're...
CHO: Yeah. Both advice and sympathy and also comfort. It's not even conscious. It's hormonally present in its kinds of like connections with people who are younger. It just happens.
MARTIN: How do you feel about that?
CHO: I'm really honored that people would want to ask my advice or, you know, come to me for any kind of comfort or seek that in me. So that's really beautiful. And I think it would be wonderful to be able to do that on a regular basis, you know, to have kids around me that I could do that with. But it's also something that happens with younger adults. So I'm not necessarily lacking in that, I just don't have the real hands-on experience of being a parent, which is a really divine job.
MARTIN: You know, when you were younger and you were thinking about what your life would be as, you know, we all are at some point, you think this is what it's going to be like when I'm a grown-up, did you think you'd have kids by now?
CHO: I never thought that I would have children and I never imagined that. But I also never imagined that I would be in a relationship. I never imagined a partner. I've never liked really pictured things in my life. I never sort of even imagined the kind of success that I had. I didn't think much beyond really dreaming about being a stand-up comedian. I didn't know even what it would have looked like. But I also oddly thought that I was going to wear like wraparound dresses and wraparound everything and I never do that.
MARTIN: You didn't do that either.
MARTIN: OK. So things change. And so do you have any advice that you would want to pass on, either that you got from your own mother or that you get from being the motherly you that you now are now?
CHO: My mother and I both, you know, she would just always tell me how beautiful I was and that being beautiful is really a right that we all have, and that we have a right to say that we're beautiful because it's all true. If you can just think of yourself as beautiful and tell people that you're beautiful and it just sort of starts this great rumor about you and that's really what we need. We need more of that. We need more beauty and appreciation of our own beauty. And I hope people can see that. It really helps our lives so much, especially with women, but everyone.
MARTIN: Margaret Cho is a comedian/actress, three-time Grammy nominee. Her latest tour is called "Mother." You can go to her website for dates to see if she will be appearing in your city. And she was with us from California.
Thank you so much for joining us once again and happy New Year.
CHO: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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