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Margaret Cho Is the 'Empress Dowager' of Queer Asian Comics

Margaret Cho

When veteran comic Margaret Cho was approached for the rom-com Fire Island — from writer Joel Kim Booster and director Andrew Ahn, with a cast of queer Asian men — she was proud to lean into what she calls her “Joan Collins phase.”

“Do I get to be their guest?” she self-queried, perhaps picturing a dramatic entrance in a wide-brimmed hat. “Like when Bette Davis was on Hotel?”

Indeed, Cho’s lesbian character Erin is the doyenne of queers in the film that stars Booster as Noah, a handsome young gay man who dons his Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet persona and sidelines his Fire Island hook-up plans until he helps his friend Howie (Bowen Yang) get laid. Banished from the lesbian enclave of Cherry Grove for reasons that may include arson and a bad breakup (although not necessarily related), Erin owns the home where Noah, Howie, and their friends have gathered each summer for years. A leader for queer Asian visibility in comedy, Cho plays a mother figure of sorts to Noah and his lost boys onscreen. But the dynamic within the film is rooted in the off-screen chosen family they’ve made.

“I can claim that they really are my children and my grandchildren. I’m very proud of them. And that’s what sort of makes our bonds strong,” Cho says.

Shooting the film during the pandemic in the summer of 2021 amid two hurricanes and cold weather — while the men were mostly shivering in their Speedos — strengthened their bonds further.

“We got so close like a family when we were shooting on Fire Island. We were all in one little place. It was so great to just hang with everyone by the pool. And you know, spray on sunblock and mosquito spray,” she says, painting a picture of her surrounded by a bevy of queer men laughing and lathering lotion on one another.

A stand-up comic and actress, Cho kick-started her career in the early ’90s, appearing on The Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace and her own series All-American Girl, which, ahead of its time, featured a primarily Asian leading cast. Long a queer icon, she discussed being bisexual as early as her 2004 comedy show Notorious C.H.O. The comedian grew up in San Francisco where her parents owned a gay bookstore, but as a groundbreaker in her communities, she’s aware of the role that chosen or logical family holds for a lot of young queer Asian folks. It’s something she says Fire Island portrays well.

“In terms of growing up and when your family rejects your homosexuality, you turn to curating your own family. And then for Asian-Americans, there’s such a strong need for familial bonds. Yet, Asian culture oftentimes is pretty much the most patriarchal and the most homophobic,” Cho says. “So, you have to make your own way in creating that chosen family. We really have that in the film, but also in life and in comedy, too.”

“Asian-American comedians really look to me. I’m like the Empress Dowager weird comedian,” she says.

While Cho cites actress Nancy Kwan as someone who made inroads for her in entertainment, she’s the first of her kind as a queer Asian comic. And she takes her role as an inspiration and comedy elder to Booster, Yang, and Good Trouble’s Sherry Cola (Cho plays the comedy mentor to Cola’s character on the Freeform series) seriously. She views their successes as a positive sign for the future.

“I didn’t have the generation of elders to look to. I have more of a direct relationship with Joel and with Sherry, and with Bowen, and Conrad [Ricamora, who costars in Fire Island],” Cho says. Bearing witness to the new generation’s growth — with Booster writing and starring in Fire Island, Yang blowing up everywhere from Saturday Night Live to Nora From Queens, and Cola voicing a character in Pixar’s Turning Red — is a career high for Cho, who’s other big queer-adjacent role this year is in season 2 of The Flight Attendant.

“It makes me feel like I took the right path in life. My greatest achievement is to inspire such an incredible generation of artists,” she says. “It shows that society can change, that entertainment can change, that the world can change in a way that’s meaningful, and that your achievements are held up by the works of others.”

On its surface, Fire Island is rife with raucous sex jokes, stunning vistas of that Bacchanalian strip of beach and bars, and pretty men, but it also goes deep into important themes of anti-Asian sentiment, class struggle, queer hierarchies, and body-shaming among gay men. 

“It’s the way that Joel wrote it,” Cho says. “It is what Andrew Ahn, who did such a beautiful job in directing this film, was calling the ‘Trojan horse.’ You’re bringing in this gift of a beautifully shot, summer romance film, with a lot of young, beautiful men in it. But then there’s a lot of important hard-hitting truth about class, and race, and all of the difficulties that come with being a young gay man of color, and especially in New York.”

“There’s so much there that is asking us to look deeper into society — look deeper within ourselves to our own biases, which I think is really smart. But it’s all cooked in this frothy, romantic comedy, which is also very satisfying,” she adds.

Fire Island begins streaming on Hulu June 3.

This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 issue. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. 

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