Since the 1960s, female comics have knocked down countless social, cultural and moral boundaries on their way to entering what was once an exclusive boys' club. But for Margaret Cho, 44, the comedic deck has always been stacked against her. She's Korean-American. Identifies as bisexual. Isn't afraid of addressing issues ranging from eating disorders to substance abuse to social justice to female body image. And that's just on the standup stage — Cho's also a seasoned TV actor, an accomplished author, a part-time rapper and even a burlesque dancer.
Folio Weekly: Your latest role is on "Drop Dead Diva." Give someone who hasn't seen the show the lowdown on your character.
Margaret Cho: [Teri Lee] is the assistant to the lead character, Jane, who is a model trapped in a lawyer's body. So I'm not aware of her inner life — I just take care of the legal details.
F.W.: How true-to-dlife does Teri feel to you?
M.C.: I think there's a great similarity between us. But Teri only owns one pair of pants, and I have a few.
F.W.: How about the standup "Mother Tour"? Do you think the traditional roles of mother and daughter have changed drastically since you've been in the public eye?
M.C.: Well, this show is different every day, as everything changes every day. So it's always new. It's standup comedy at its very best, I think. I want to be the funniest, smartest person I can be — that's what it's really about.
F.W.: You've branched out so much in your career with TV, music, film, books and even burlesque tours. How do those side projects jibe with your comedic personality?
M.C.: It's really all still standup comedy. Being a comic is all I am — the other stuff is just standup in drag.
F.W.: You've talked in the past about your rough childhood growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s. Did those experiences directly influence the standup routines that you started writing as a teenager?
M.C.: Not really. I just wanted to escape and be a grown-up. That's what comedy was for me. It was like joining the circus.
F.W.: So at this point, you must be comfortable performing.
M.C.: I'm still uncomfortable.
F.W.: What was the biggest obstacle for you as an aspiring comic: your ethnicity, your gender or your sexuality?
M.C.: I don't know, as I have no other experience to draw from. I'm only what I am. It was hard, but I don't know if it was harder than anyone else's time.
F.W.: Your dad writes joke books. Was he a big inspiration growing up?
M.C.: He's hilarious — a great fan and inspiration. He likes when I take breaks and rest, though. He thinks I work too hard, which I do.
F.W.: Working too hard took its toll on you in the form of eating disorders, substance abuse, and other travails, which seem to run in the comedic trade. Does it help to have struggled so much when you're writing material?
M.C.: I like writing what is meaningful — lessons I've learned. If it's dark, then it's dark. But there are equal measures of dark and light in life.
F.W.: After your negative experience with the 1994 series "All American Girl," which was bungled by network meddling, you went fully independent. Do you feel like an innovator in comic circles?
M.C.: Yes, I am an innovator. [But] there are many standup comics who are also innovators. I think standup comedy is the very best art form. I love that I have creative control over everything now. It's awesome.
F.W.: You're also an outspoken political and social activist. Do you think those beliefs run in the comic trade as well?
M.C.: I don't know what others feel, but I enjoy my work as an activist.
F.W.: Right now, you only have a few tour dates on your itinerary: Jacksonville on June 29, Cherry Grove, N.Y., in mid-July, and Las Vegas in September. Any particular reason your schedule is so sparse — and why you chose to come to Jacksonville?
M.C.: I'm currently shooting "Drop Dead Diva" in Atlanta, which makes touring hard for a few months. I love Jacksonville, so it's the one place I chose in the Southeast.
F.W.: What is it about Jacksonville that you love?
M.C.: I've had great sushi, the shows [there] were phenomenal, and it was very hot.