″[All of us comedians] are racing to the stage to deal with what’s happening with all of these women and Harvey Weinstein,” Margaret Cho told HuffPost on Thursday afternoon. “You have to turn to comedy to deal with it. That’s the one place where it’s so safe to do that.”
And, sure enough, the first three words out of her mouth to the audience at her sold-out “Fresh Off The Bloat” New York City show some five hours later were, “Fuckin’ Harvey Weinstein!”
From there, Cho went on to skewer the Hollywood mogul, who is accused of sexually assaulting or harassing over two dozen women, as well as Lindsay Lohan, Matt Damon, Bill Cosby, Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Brown ― and that was just in the first six minutes of her act.
But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with the comedian’s work. Cho has been taking aim at inequality ― and those who refuse to stand up to or, in some cases, actively facilitate it ― both on and off stage for decades.
During her conversation with HuffPost she opened up about one of her own personal experiences with sexual harassment and how she turned that incident into something empowering; what she’s learned traveling across America in the months after Donald Trump was elected president; and her thoughts on politically correct comedy and more.
HuffPost: How are you feeling about what’s happening in America right now?
Margaret Cho: It’s crazy. Everything changes so much every day. Politics used to be this very dignified thing and now it just... isn’t. At all. The craziness of what we have now in this president is not good. And it all has an effect and things are shifting ― it’s almost like politics are affecting every other part of society. Like this whole Harvey Weinstein thing that’s happening. It’s happening at this time when we have the worst president ever — and the most sexist president ever and so that, in itself, is amazing. But politics has also become much bigger [than ever before] and more exciting, so there are good things about it but mostly it’s really terrible.
Speaking of Harvey Weinstein... what are your thoughts on him and the women who have come forward?
I am so grateful to all of those women. It’s so amazing that they’re feeling safe enough to talk. If the most powerful women in the world are dealing with this kind of harassment, imagine what “every day” people have to go through. It’s such a brave thing [to come forward]. I feel like it’s going to have a lasting impact on the way we view sexual harassment, rape, abuse — all of these things — and it’s going to make things better.
Do you think it will change Hollywood?
I hope so. It’s got to! We’re going to feel a lasting effect all across society. People are going to see that they can’t take advantage of women or take advantage of our vulnerability in the workplace — I just don’t think it’s going to happen in the same way anymore.
What about your own personal experiences with sexual harassment in the industry?
It’s always existed and it’s always been a place where you feel like you’re very powerless. But I’ve always been so vocal about it. I did a show called “I’m The One That I Want” and I talk about being faced with the question, “Will you have sex with this guy for a million dollars to make a movie?” And I said “No.” And the craziest thing was that he was so angry and he came to my show so angry and he sat in the front row with a lawyer trying to figure out “How am I going to sue this bitch?” and there was no way that he could do it! [Laughs] So, we deal with it and we endure it and we move on and keep fighting and keep going forward but it’s really hard. How do you continue after something like that happens? You just do it.
Comedy can help heal people but after a controversy or a tragedy, there are often those who say, “it’s too soon to talk about this!” What’s your response to that?
No. No. You have to talk about it. You have to figure out exactly how to deal with it. It’s how we get over all of this and can look at what’s happening as a good thing — because it’s all coming out into the open and these women are finally having their day. They’re not waiting fifty years like some of the women had to with [Bill] Cosby. Those women had to wait a really long time for their day in court — and they’re still waiting. So maybe now something good will come out of this and we’ll get above this. It’s never too soon to talk about it. It’s never too soon to talk about equal rights and how we can get rid of harassment and rape in these industries that have been long defined by the casting couch.
The Scottish Sun recently described you as “one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood after taking down a string of A-listers and presidents.” Do you think of yourself that way?
I don’t think about it in those terms. I don’t think about any of it as being something combative but I guess with our society being the way that it is, it’s defined as combative. I think equal rights are equal rights. It’s important to step forward and feel brave enough to do so. At this point it’s just normal for me to be this very outspoken figure.
Did you have to give yourself permission at some point in your life to do that ― or to become that kind of person?
I think you always have to learn it, in a way, but at the same time politics is something that I have felt very strongly about all of my life — even before I was a comedian. When I was really, really young and I was around all of these incredible people who worked with Harvey Milk and so excited about his presence and so all of that has been a big part of my life anyway. I would be political no matter what field I went into.
Last week was the one-year anniversary of the incredibly racist piece that Fox News’ Jesse Watters filmed in Chinatown for a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor. Some people couldn’t believe he did that and other people were like “of course he did that!” Where do you see us standing as far as representation ― much less fair and accurate representation ― for Asian Americans in the United States in 2017?
I think it is getting better but it’s like that Paula Abdul song [“Opposites Attract”], where it’s, “two steps forward, two steps back” [laughs]. It’s going to be a while before we actually get to a point where we really feel a sense of equality and a sense of “OK, we’re getting somewhere.” What’s great is that is that we have social media to back us up. There’s now this feeling of not being alone anymore, which is really incredible. That’s what’s shifted — we have this new way to protest and talk about what’s going on in a very public way.
As you’ve crossed the country on tour this year and you’ve played in the deep South and the Midwest, what are you seeing, who are you meeting and what’s surprised you the most?
They call these places “the fly-over states” or people think that these places don’t have a sense of what’s progressive but there are good people in these places — they’re just very frustrated and angry that Trump has betrayed them. And they’re very confused about what to do now and they’re confused about how to be political when they know they’ve made a mistake. That part of it is heartbreaking to see. But I don’t think of those places as being “fly over” or that they should be neglected or assume that these places aren’t progressive. I was just in Huntsville, Alabama and it’s one of the most progressive places that I’ve ever been. People think of them as stupid and say things like “they’re certainly not rocket scientists,” but you know what? In Huntsville they are rocket scientists — they all work for NASA! So you can’t really predict who is who anymore based just on where they live.
Jerry Seinfeld was recently discussing some episodes of “Seinfeld” that contained content that would be seen as offensive today. When asked if he thought not doing those jokes anymore was a loss to culture, he reportedly responded, “One door closes, another opens... There’s always a joke, you’ve just got to find it.” What are your thoughts on those kinds of jokes?
I think it’s about finding new ways to approach things. That idea that “this is not possible, we can’t talk about these things anymore” — I think we can find other ways to talk about them. Now we have diversity more in play [than we did 20 years ago] and people are looking at language as being a very important tool in getting to diversity. I think we’re adding more voices as opposed to looking at political correctness as something that limits language. I think it just expands our ability to talk ― and to talk in a very free way. I love [how far we’ve come] and of course I love Jerry. He’s an old friend of mine.
What do you think should happen, if, for instance, there’s an episode of a show from 20 years ago that might have a joke that is now considered offensive? Should it be pulled from rotation? How should we approach those kinds of problematic cultural artifacts?
I think [keeping them as part of culture] is a good thing. By looking at them in the context of “Wow, this is something that was OK before and now we’ve learned so much.” I don’t think all of these need to be erased from the landscape because I think we learn so much more about what’s possible now as opposed to what was possible then. It’s important to acknowledge our history and not to forget it because it’s a big part of who we are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.