Margaret Cho has precisely detailed every second of her first colonic onstage and written a rap song extolling the virtues of her vagina called “My Puss,” so her latest venture — a Saturday night chat show on TLC called All About Sex — is a logical next step for the hilarious comic with the gift for confessing everything. But the show (which airs at 11 p.m.) isn’t her only platform these days: Inconsolable about the death of her friend Robin Williams, Cho launched the #BeRobin campaign to comfort the homeless and will shoot a brand-new stand-up special this March. Rolling Stone caught up with her in a New York hotel bar to talk about everything from elevator fights to Joan Rivers to the secret to portraying a North Korean dictator.
Is it weird nobody has paid you expressly to talk about sex before?
Well, I do it a lot in my stand-up comedy. It’s something that has been a great adventure of mine and something that I take a lot of pride in. I always wanted to do a late-night talk show about sex in a very frank manner that had an educational bent, with something of a party atmosphere so nobody was ashamed. It’s sort of like conversations you would have with your older sister, or the school slut. Somebody that knew what was happening. We need that person out there.
And you’re on right after Sex Sent Me to the ER.
I’m so proud. What’s interesting about that show is when people come into the ER, they won’t tell the doctor what happened because they’re so ashamed. I want to let go of that shame and embarrassment. I think the most brilliant person at that was Dr. Sue Johanson. She was so direct and so no-nonsense about sex, it was really cool.
After seeing the burlesque show you did a few years ago, it’s clear you really are committed to putting every part of yourself out there.
My origins in sexuality were really difficult. I’m a rape victim, I was sexually abused as a child, I had really terrible experiences throughout my adolescence and a lot of shame about my body. As a response I just got really tattooed and open with showing my body, just to give comfort to anybody who feels body shame so they can see what a real woman’s body looks like. A woman who doesn’t diet, who doesn’t exercise, who doesn’t curb her appetite in any way — this is what that looks like. I feel sexy about it.
I want to put together a pissed-off group of really angry women who will go [to Nigeria]. We’ll get Oprah to charter us a plane.
There were a lot of sex scandals in 2014, and you were saying earlier you respected the Canadian women who came out about Jian Ghomeshi.
What’s so great about Canadian women is they came forward and said their names. It’s next-level shit. Canadian women can teach American women a lot about coming forward and honesty. We blame the victim, like with Janay Rice. I’m like, Ray Rice is an asshole, we have video proof, but people were blaming Janay, like why did she stay? Maybe they had Book of Mormon tickets. Sometimes when you’re in abusive relationships you want to get out, but “I really want to see Celine Dion, so I’m not going to jeopardize this.” My whole new stand-up show is about how can we stand up against violence against women. I’m going to film it here in New York in March. It’s called “There’s No I in Team, But There Is a Cho in Psycho.”
We’ve got to stand up against this violence. It’s the next wave of protest. What really angered me about 2014 was the 258 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. They said the girls are fine, they’ve been married off, and I was like oh, no, we’ve got to go get ’em. I want to put together a pissed-off group of really angry women who will go over. We’ll crowd-fund, we’ll get Oprah to charter us a plane.
Who would you put in this girl gang?
Michelle Rodriguez, Courtney Love – you know she cannot wait to behead someone. I want Judge Judy. I want the scary Japanese bitches from The Grudge. I want Amanda Bynes. Because Amanda, you cannot help yourself until you help other people. And then we have our secret weapon: Solange. We need to train together, we need to all get on the same menstrual cycle, and then we’ll go the week before we get our period and we’ll tear them up. We have the power.
When you saw Solange elevator video for the first time. . .
I felt justified. I knew she would not kick his ass if he didn’t deserve it. I knew there was something we didn’t know, but she knew. I was like, take that shoe off, go for it. It made me feel so free to see her just go at him with that shoe. I just want her to have elevator cage fight: Solange Knowles and Ray Rice. Because women need to rise up. We’ve had enough suffering.
Your TV show All-American Girl was on in 1994. Can you believe it’s taken 20 years for the next network show about an Asian-American family, Fresh Off the Boat, to arrive?
It’s actually taken this long. There was another Asian-American family show called Sullivan Sons, but it was on cable. [Fresh Off the Boat creator and star] Eddie Huang and I worked together to make sure his voice is heard. I’m so proud of Fresh Off the Boat; it feels like a dream realized. I’m so grateful that he reached out to me during the development process. I felt like, wow, I actually am the only person that can help out, because I know what that’s like. I think the show is going to be great, and they don’t have to deal with the stuff that I was dealing with, because I was a young woman. When you’re a young woman in television, your body is judged as a kind of property. You have to be sexually viable. How are we not judged for our ability, why are we judged by our bodies and how our bodies age or gain weight? For me it was so heartbreaking because I looked at comedy as my savior from all that body shame.
Having played Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, what’s the key to portraying a North Korean dictator?
What’s weird is it’s hard to do a real imitation because their images are so guarded, we don’t have a knowledge of what they sound like for real. You have to make it up. Half of my family’s from North Korea, so that sort of made it a little easier. I don’t know if my impression of him put them in work camp.
Did you feel empathy for Seth Rogen and James Franco for what they went through with The Interview?
Yes, but I was also angry because they never came after me. I think that my impression was so accurate that they actually thought I was Kim Jong-Un.
You’ve launched a big project to help the homeless in Robin Williams’ name. Where were you when you found out he’d died?
I was sitting on the couch in my house looking at the news on my computer. It came up as an alert, and I didn’t think it was real, I thought it was a hoax. But part of me did think it was real, because I knew him and I knew that. . .all comedians have that emptiness and pain. There’s kind of a weird, precarious thing as a comedian that we do have that edge of sadness, and that’s been true with a lot of the people in comedy who have died that I love.
When Mitch Hedberg died, I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. And with Robin it was the same. I couldn’t accept it for a long time, until I spoke with Mike Pritchard who worked with him, who’s a comedian and homeless activist, and he said, “Don’t grieve Robin. Be Robin.” Immediately I was like, I’m going to go to San Francisco and stand on the street corner and put a can out and I’m going to make a meeting point for homeless people to come to take stuff, and people to bring stuff.
To think of somebody that brilliant and gifted and successful living with the disease of depression is so hard. I think Robin knew how to give but he had a problem receiving, so for me the Be Robin project is “let’s give and let’s receive and partake in this.” I want people to take it and do it in their town. If you see a homeless person on the street, don’t just walk by. Homeless people are so invisible and you want to avoid them, but that’s somebody’s child. I was hugging this homeless man, and he was crying and saying, “Don’t you realize I haven’t been touched for years,” and that was so heartbreaking.
And so soon after Robin’s death, we lost Joan Rivers.
When I first saw her, I was like, oh, that’s what I’m going to be when I grow up. Some people want to be a fireman. I wanted to be her. And she really took care of me, emotionally. She was always very conscious of who I was dating: “He’s not good enough for you.” She was critical, too. She was like, “Oh, you’re so fucking fat. If you fucking gain any more fucking weight I’m going to die.” And then she died anyway. So you can’t win.
She was so loving and she reminded all of us comics — myself and Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin and all these women that she loved — that we should be grateful for what we had: “We were the ugly ones in high school,” and I was like, speak for yourself, you fucking bitch. And now I really have to remember that, and I don’t know what the world is without her. I can’t sort of settle myself with this idea that I can’t go visit her, I can’t ask for favors. She was a trailblazer for women in comedy, she was a mother figure to all of us.
Speaking of other women in comedy, I imagine you score some points for being in the short-lived Golden Girls spinoff, The Golden Palace.
It rarely comes up. I think it’s because Bea Arthur wasn’t in it. What’s amazing is Don Cheadle was in that show. Rue McClanahan helped me so much because I was supposed to sing in that episode and I couldn’t get the pitch, so she put her hands on my shoulder and sang a perfect A in my ear.
And you’re likely the only performer on Earth with credits in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation and The Rugrats Movie.
I have a broad appeal. The Araki film was really cool, it was crazy and it was Rose McGowan’s first film, and it was very queer, it was very violent, and it was really exciting to be a part of that. They don’t make movies like that anymore.