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Margaret Cho: Comedy & queer politics are 'absolutely linked'

Margaret Cho: Comedy & queer politics are 'absolutely linked'

Margaret Cho: Comedy & queer politics are 'absolutely linked'

The bisexual comedian, who appears in the new doc Outstanding, sees jokes as a major tool for personal and political survival.

Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution, an upcoming Netflix documentary by filmmaker Page Hurwitz, spotlights how LGBTQ+ comedy has been a major force in moving hearts and minds in culture and politics over the past several decades.

One of the doc’s featured funny people — in addition to legends like Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard, and Wanda Sykes — is Margaret Cho. For the bisexual comedian, a project like Outstanding is long overdue, since “I've always thought of comedy and queer politics as being absolutely linked.”

“I think that we as queers have used humor for coping…for generations. We've needed humor to cope with our state and society, our way of life…. And I think we use comedy and humor amongst ourselves to feel safe…. So much of our history is really linked to humor. Also the way that we present ourselves to mainstream society…. I think the safest way that we can make our appearance [to straight people] is through laughter and jokes, like, ha ha, don't kill us.”

Of course, Cho has made her own major mark in the LGBTQ+ comedy world; her ABC show All-American Girl made history on network TV for centering the experiences of an Asian-American woman. Cho points to accolades like her GLAAD Media Award and an honor from the ACLU as among the highlights in her career, as well as her participation in this Outstanding documentary.

While Cho has broken many barriers in comedy, she sees her work as an activist and a political voice as essential and far from done. “We have a real responsibility to help queer kids, especially nonbinary and trans kids, feel safe and feel like they're gonna be able to grow up in the world and be accepted, and that it's possible to grow up gay and be happy. And so that's my main focus now is to really put that message out there,” she says.

“As gay adults, we have to step up and really look happy, really embrace being a gay adult. Gay eldership is real, and it should be celebrated,” she says, noting how it’s important to set an example for how hatred can be overcome in one’s own personal life in addition to the halls of political power.

As a headlining comedian, Cho is an active mentor to the next generation of LGBTQ+ funny people, a role exemplified in 2022’s Fire Island, where she played the house mother to Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang. Cho takes pride in her “mentorship, and also riding the coattails of the younger comedians I inspired… I'm like, you better give Mother a job,” she jokes.

“I'm definitely so proud of all of the accomplishments of people like Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, and I'm definitely following now in their footsteps and I want to celebrate in their success.”

Cho sees LGBTQ+ humor as playing a pivotal role in 2024 in particular, as the stakes for rights are tied to the outcome of this U.S. presidential election. “It's about mobilizing everyone to get out there and vote to get out there and use their voice and talk about what's happening,” she says. “But I think it's really about calling out this homophobic and hateful rhetoric that we're seeing from politicians…. This onslaught that we're seeing — anti-trans legislation, all of this stuff — is so horrifying. We need to stand up and be heard, and comedy is a really important part of that.”

Cho sees humor as a particularly vital tool in making the voices of marginalized people heard. “I think that our voices go farther because our messages stick because they're often linked with comedy,” she says. “They're often in a joke and so people can really hear that, and I love that. So we need to be out there making a difference this year more than ever.”

Social media has also emerged as a key vehicle for LGBTQ+ humor to reach people. Today, the right joke can make a point and go viral, a potent tool for messaging in a crowded media landscape. “I'm really active on social media, Cho says. “And so I'm always out there... I've always done a lot of stuff with the gay community and trying to figure out ways that we can get out there because we can protect our children, we can protect our communities, and social media is a major part of that.”

Currently, Cho is touring with her comedy and also working on a one-woman theatrical show about her mother — a character who will be familiar to her stand-up fans. In addition to writing a play, she is also preparing to release an album of music, a project she has been working on for a decade.

Cho is also proud to work with Netflix, whose global reach has made it a major hub for comedy, on projects like Outstanding. “They have such an incredible touch with comedy... It's really wonderful to be part of a celebration of queer comedy on Netflix so that people really understand the history and what we are going through, what we've been through.”

Cho had not yet seen Outstanding as of this interview — she was saving that experience for the film’s premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I'm just excited to see it. I love Page. I love Wanda [Sykes]. I love that we got to do this together. I love everybody involved.”

She is particularly thrilled to see Outstanding spotlight Scott Thompson, a gay comedian known for his work on the groundbreaking comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall, which also became an influential TV show of the same name. (Americans likely saw it on Comedy Central.)

Thompson is a “true pioneer when it comes to gay comedy with his work with Kids in the Hall and being out in the 80s doing comedy during the age of AIDS and the incredible homophobia that existed then. A true hero. So I'm excited that we could actually see his accomplishments in this film. It's pretty fantastic.”

Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution premieres June 18 on Netflix and will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.