By Xanna Don’t, PQ Monthly
Comedy royalty Margaret Cho is soaring with what is billed as her edgiest tour to date, “MOTHER” — which will nest for four shows in Portland Oct. 12-13. Cho chatted by phone with PQ Monthly about her family’s escape from North Korea, her forays in network television, and what remains her “most important work” — stand-up comedy.
PQ: You just received your first Emmy nomination for guest actress in a comedy series for NBC’s “30 Rock.” Was the role written for you? What was it like working with television’s smartest lady, Tina Fey?
Cho: Yes, Tina wrote it for me and I was so excited to do it. She’s a master, a genius, and a great person. We had never met, but we had close mutual friends. She’d wanted me to be on the show for the longest time and this was the perfect thing.
PQ: You’re nominated for playing Kim Jong-Il, the late dictator of the northern half of your family’s native country, Korea. You’ve joked your mother proclaimed your participation in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” the hardest thing in her life — “And mommy live through war!” Is your nomination bittersweet for her? Do you still have relatives there?
Cho: I do, but I don’t know them because we’ve been separated for over 50 years and genealogy records were lost. My family suffered a lot from the North Korean regime. It was tough for them to get out because my grandfather was a political activist. My mother’s side of the family was living in the mountains starving. This nomination brings my mother from those mountains to the red carpet, because she’s going to be my date. It’s an American triumph story.
PQ: Your Emmy category is awarded a week before at the Creative Emmys. If you win, you’ll be a presenter at the main awards on Sept. 23. Any idea what you’d wear?
Cho: I’m planning on winning! I mistakenly thought I could wear the same dress to both. For the Creatives, I have an elegant Ina Soltani gown; it’s glamorous, way over-the-top, but not crazy, refined. For the telecast, I would wear LuluLemon track pants, so I’ll need help from other people because I don’t care what I wear!
PQ: Of the other women nominated in your category, which one would you be most comfortable with winning if you don’t?
Cho: Getting nominated with people like Elizabeth Banks, Kathy Bates, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy is an honor. They’re all so amazing. But in my mind, I’ve already won, so it doesn’t even matter.
PQ: The theme of one of your “30 Rock” episodes, “Everything Sunny All The Time Always,” is whether we have control of our fates. You’ve mastered many aspects of the entertainment industry: stand-up, television, music, acting, and producing. Do you feel at this point in your life that you have control over your fate?
Cho: I have control over my attitude towards it and how I react. It’s something that took a long time. Everything doesn’t have to be a catastrophe or a big crazy awful thing. I loved learning that.
PQ: On “The Today Show with Kathie Lee & Hoda” last month, you flashed your heavily-tattooed legs under micro-short spanx. What does your body ink mean to you?
Cho: It’s fun. I love to hang out with tattoo artists and be in that community. It’s not about the image; it’s about my relationships to the tattoo artists. I just say, “This space is available,” and then leave it in the hands of the artist.
PQ: You play Teri Lee on Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva,” now in its fourth season. In the fickle landscape of series television, what is it about the show that keeps it renewable? Do you think the affordability of filming in Atlanta helps keep the show viable?
Cho: I think so. The relationships between the characters have grown and mirrored the relationships we have as actors.
PQ: Your character branched out as a musical performer as you did with your Grammy-nominated “Cho Dependent.” Are the writers consciously drawing from your life?
Cho: Yes. Teri is becoming her real self. I’m a musician and a singer; that’s from my life. The writers are getting our voices and rhythms and incorporating them into the characters.
PQ: The show has a delicious soap feel. Do you think there’s still an audience for soaps?
Cho: Yes, definitely! Most hour-long dramas we see now are really that. They’re about thinking characters showing they have flaws, and secrets waiting to be revealed. You’re looking at the same kind of structure thematically as [AMC’s] Mad Men, creating from that perspective, where you have a lead who is basically an imposter.
PQ: How do you address a demographic like Portland that is somewhat anti-television when so much of your success this year is on the small screen?
Cho: I’ve been a nightclub performer for such a long time that TV is a relatively new thing for me. My most important work will always be stand up.
PQ: How do you feel about a generation of consumers who feel all content should be free and may illegally download your work?
Cho: I’m thrilled. It’s a flattering thing. But for myself, I would rather see a performer live because I want to have that experience.
PQ: It seems like the tolerability of off-color humor is constantly in flux. Why are comedians getting in trouble for it now?
Cho: Comics don’t always think about what they’re saying and we don’t always mean what we’re saying or understand its effect. But nowadays, everybody’s being recorded, so you can say something inflammatory and then you’re put in a position of having to defend it, even though you don’t necessarily believe it.
PQ: Is there ever an instance where a bullying joke could work?
Cho: I think if you’re sharing an experience where you’ve been bullied, that’s great. That’s a way to change things.
PQ: In this election year, as you embark on a tour about women and their roles, does the thought of a Romney/Ryan White House make you nervous?
Cho: That can’t happen. The GOP has shown themselves to be bigots and insane people. They can’t have a chance at all. I don’t want to think that it’s possible. I can imagine it, but I don’t want to.
Margaret Cho’s “MOTHER” tour brings her to Portland Oct. 12-13 for four shows at Helium Comedy Club (www.heliumcomedy.com/portland). Kyle Ashby and Stephen Duplechien contributed to this interview.