'Comedy is about being offensive': Margaret Cho

PHOTO: LAMC PRODUCTIONS

But the comedienne, who will be in Singapore next week for a stand-up tour, finds that it is getting harder to shock audiences

Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho has courted controversy for her use of Asian stereotypes in her work, most recently when she played a scowling North Korean officer at the 2015 Golden Globes ceremony.

But in the last few weeks, other comics have come under fire for Asian caricatures.

The creators of the long-running animated series, The Simpsons, were criticised for the use of the Apu character, an Indian immigrant who speaks catchphrases in a comically exaggerated accent.

"Hari is a good friend of mine," says Cho on the telephone with The Straits Times.

She is speaking of Hari Kondabolu, the Indian-American comic whose television documentary, The Problem With Apu, details the racial taunting he and other Indian-Americans received as children from classmates because, for most white Americans, their only experience with Indians is through The Simpsons.

Cho will be in Singapore next week for her Fresh Off The Bloat stand-up comedy tour.

"He made a perfect film. It made a huge statement about how Asians are continually dealing with stereotypes. I am a fan of The Simpsons and I am a fan of (Simpsons creator) Matt Groening and I would like to see what their response to what Hari is saying is," says Cho, 49.

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Since the call with her last week, Hank Azaria, the white actor who voices Apu, has said he is willing to step aside. But Groening has been combative and was quoted in the USA Today newspaper as saying that he is proud of the Apu character and that, these days, "people love to pretend to be offended".

As for her use of caricature - in her stand-up, she quotes family members while putting on a strong Korean accent, and there was the much-criticised Golden Globes skit - she is fine with it.

The identity of the person making the joke matters, she says.

"I think the point to remember is perspective. The jokes come from an Asian-American perspective," says Cho, who gained national attention in the United States when she appeared as the lead character in the sitcom All-American Girl (1994-95).

Also, it is not the comedian's job to adopt a civil tone, she says. "Comedy is really about being offensive."

She applauds comedienne Michelle Wolf, whose caustic jokes about the Donald Trump presidency at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last month provoked outrage among his supporters.

While some might say that people are too easily offended these days, Cho, who is known for raunchy material that dig into the intimate details of her sex life, feels the opposite is true: It is getting harder to shock audiences.

Being outrageous is simple, she says. It is harder to make the material hit home. "It can't be gratuitous - there has to have some value, some meaning to it. At least, I am trying to do that.You want to be incredibly adept at being offensive, but also be profound."

There is a line she does not want to cross though, in these polarised times in America: politics.

Unlike other comedians, she keeps her Twitter and social media feeds free of political opinions. She learnt a painful lesson some years ago, when trolls stalked and harassed her.

"I've had my home broken into and my dog was poisoned. This goes back to the early 2000s. I will go to the women's marches and show my support. But I won't get into fights on social media."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline ''Comedy is about being offensive': Margaret Cho'. Print Edition | Subscribe