Margaret Cho talks to The Rumpus about BDSM, vanilla sex, Eddie Murphy, fame, comedy, bad TV, learning guitar, writing books, and making music.
The Rumpus: Hey, how are you. What’s going on? How’s the songwriting?
Margaret Cho: I’m good. I’m practicing guitar. I wrote a new song called “Eat Shit and Die.” It’s another relationship song, but it’s more funny. Mostly because I keep getting in trouble for not writing funny enough songs.
Rumpus: I saw that you’re going to debut your music at South by Southwest.
Cho: Yes. You should come. It’s in March. I’m there for the whole week.
Rumpus: This is great for you because you’re a huge music lover. I know you’ve done a lot of music tours with people like Cindy Lauper.
Cho: Yeah. But you know the whole point of it is that I’m still doing stand-up comedy, just as a musician as opposed to the whole spoken word thing. I’m always looking for different way of expression. It was dance for a while; now I’m trying to do it with music. But I’m still a stand-up comic, it’s still comedy. You know, sometimes people who are successful have too many people say yes to them and there can be disastrous results. I think in the 80s Eddie Murphy put out a record with Rick James, My Girlfriend Likes to Party All the Time. And it was so awful because it wasn’t funny at all. It was like, what the fuck is he doing? That’s my nightmare because I idolize Eddie Murphy and I would never want to do something like that. I remember when it happened I was brokenhearted, I felt really disappointed. I never want to make that mistake. I want it to be funny, also.
Rumpus: But with your humor, and especially in your book I’m the One That I Want, there’s a lot of not funny. There’s a lot of sad.
Cho: Yeah. There’s a lot of really awful and sad. But then I think that brings what is funny more quickly into focus. It’s kind of like perverted sex and vanilla sex. I really love vanilla sex because it throws the perversity into great relief. If you add vanilla to whatever you’re doing it intensifies the other flavors. I think you and I are similar that way.
Rumpus: Except I don’t do vanilla sex.
Cho: Yes you do. You like cuddling and kissing.
Rumpus: I do like vanilla cuddling.
Cho: That’s totally vanilla sex. I think of any kind of cuddling or affection as vanilla.
Rumpus: You always do this thing to me where you tell me something’s going to be terrible and then it’s not terrible. You told me that about your music and then you told me that about your book. But the book wasn’t terrible at all. I really liked it.
Cho: Well, it’s not up to my standards. It’s not like your writing.
Rumpus: What made it so powerful is its honesty. You probably learned that from performing. But you have such great stage presence that on stage you can say anything and people will laugh. But with a book people can spend time alone with the work and really pull the meaning out. So there’s a way in which things you say on stage, that you were molested, that you were depressed and suicidal, seem much more vulnerable in the book.
Cho: It’s different when you’re writing it. In a live performance if you’re good enough you can really manipulate people into believing you’re much better than you are. But with a book it’s pretty naked. You don’t really have that kind of false bravado or whatever that is that kind of brings excitement to the stage persona. It’s a little more difficult. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like writing. Because you can’t get away with shit and it’s very frustrating to me.
Rumpus: I thought as I was reading it that I bet it was an entirely different experience hearing you give a reading from the book.
Cho: Probably. Also I would veer away from reading it and just tell stories. I’d do my own footnotes and go into tangents and whatever. I figure, you can read the book yourself, why would you want me to do it for you. But I’m not an author. It’s different.
Rumpus: Even authors who only write are pretty aware of how boring most readings are.
Cho: It’s exciting to see the writer though.
Rumpus: More about your book. We’ll talk half about your book that you wrote a long time ago and half about what you’re doing now, you’re music. It seemed like in the book, which is really a memoir in essays, that fame had a really negative impact on you. First there was the TV show, which made you really famous. Then you wrote a script and that turned into a terrible experience.
Cho: Well, that particular script was great but there were all these things that happened in the process that were really awful. The script was about this woman who found herself attracted to everyone and everything, which is like my story. There were a few years there where I just did everything I wanted and that brought me into contact with lots of different sex and lots of different people. And so I wrote a script about it and I found a financier/producer who really wanted to do the script. But he really wanted to have sex with me because he fell in love with this girl who wanted to fuck the world and he wanted to fuck her, too. I was a little bit uncomfortable with that. He made a pass at me that was so awkward and gross that I wrote it into the script. When he found out he was really upset and the financing for the film dropped out. Later, I was talking about the incident on stage and he came to one of the shows. It was very intimidating to have him sit in the front of the room. But you know, you want to tell the truth about things and sometimes people don’t come off in the best light which is kind of unfortunate.
Rumpus: Writers have that issue a lot. If I fall in love with someone the chance of me writing about them is roughly 90-95%.
Cho: If someone has a huge impact on you it’s going to enter your work. It’s sort of a silent agreement. And that’s part of the appeal, too. If you don’t write about them they’ll be disappointed because they’ll think they haven’t affected you at all. I think you and I are far enough along in our careers that our work is very much a part of who we are and that’s also what people are attracted to. Also, I always say they’re physically attractive. That’s the key to not offending people.
Rumpus: I do that, too. I have a friend who got a poor review in the New York Times. They didn’t like his book but they mentioned how good-looking he is. If that ever happened to me I’d be handing out copies on the street corner.
Cho: That’s probably because he is really good-looking and has always gotten a lot of attention for it. People like that want to be recognized for their work. I would always rather be recognized for my looks. It’s so real. To me that is real and true and honest. It’s primal.
Rumpus: A lot of I’m the One That I Want made me really sad because you were hurting so much at a time when you should have been at the top.
Cho: It was really sad. I thought that fame meant something, that fame was a positive thing and would actually change or improve your life. But really it’s just this made up idea. I was really disappointed by the idea of fame. I had wanted to be famous my whole life then when I was famous it didn’t change anything. Anyway, in LA you see a different level of fame. I’m such a minor star.
Rumpus: But everybody know who you are. Everybody has heard of you.
Cho: That’s because of my longevity. I’ve been around for twenty years. Also, I’m unusual and a lot of people feel connected because I talk about things that are relevant to them. My fame isn’t like Charlize Theron’s, where her presence is kind of ghostly, where she’s almost unreal because she’s so beautiful and exciting.
Rumpus: So you were kind of out of it for awhile. Lots of drinking and drugs and depression. Are you better now?
Cho: I’m better now. I don’t really think about that stuff anymore. I don’t hang out in the Hollywood scene. I just do my work and I have my home and animals and my family. I’m very settled.
Rumpus: Still, you can’t do everything. You made that great video and then took it down.
Cho: That’s not finished yet. I was just excited because I wanted you to see it. Because I made it for you, but when it’s ready I’ll put it online.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about that song, “Bottom to Top,” and some of your other songs.
Cho: Well you and I were talking and I had perceived some change in my sexuality because I’m a classic bottom. And so all these sorts of ideas about S&M and sex and the way things are. I thought I was changing. So I wrote this song about the experience of changing from a bottom into a top. I think it’s a beautiful song. There’s never been a song written about that particular experience. I want to write love songs like that, songs that fill in the gaps. But they ned to be funny, too.
Rumpus: The line I always repeat is, “I used to be a bottom but now I’m a top/I used to be a prisoner now I’m a cop.”
Cho: Yeah. It’s a very true experience. Except, I don’t think I actually am a top. That’s the heartbreak. I think I’m still a bottom. So the song is sort of false. But it was honest in the attempt, and for a couple of weeks.
Rumpus: I had a similar experience. I had a relationship with someone where I was totally comfortable with “normal” intercourse. I thought I was cured. But after we broke up I found out I was wrong, that I was still into the same kinky stuff and didn’t want to have normal sex. It was just her.
Cho: I think kinky sex is normal. I think of BDSM as being just like anything else that you would do. It’s normal, it’s sex, it’s just your own form of it.
Rumpus: But it limits your dating pool.
Cho: I guess, but it depends. It depends where you’re at and what you’re doing.
Rumpus: So a little more about your journey into music. You’ve only been playing for like two months.
Cho: Well, I have been doing music since 2003 but I was using synthesizers and working with other artists. I’d written lyrics but not music. But wanted to start writing music and doing it live so I started playing guitar. I think I’m pretty adept, I’ve been able to grasp the basics pretty quickly. Also, the music is kind of a response to the change in political climate. For so many years I’ve been doing political comedy critical of the Bush administration. And I think now that era is over there is a little more room to have fun and some joy. Sort of live it up a little bit in comedy. There is a little period of time where things are not as dire. I’m hoping so anyway. Of course, you never know. All this stuff with Proposition 8 is very disheartening. But I wanted to do something that would be comedy for this new ear and democracy and the music is part of this celebration.