Humour helps comedian Margaret Cho heal her traumatic childhood

Margaret Cho says humour helped her feel better about being assaulted by a family friend when she was a child.
Margaret Cho says humour helped her feel better about being assaulted by a family friend when she was a child.PHOTO: PIXIEVISION

Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho will dig deep into issues such as rape and sexual abuse for her Psycho Tour here in March

Forget Madonna's R18 concert in Singapore on Feb 28.

For outrageous antics and unmentionable song titles, as well as an uncomfortable yet entertained audience, look to comedienne Margaret Cho.

The 47-year-old Korean-American plans to rock her Asian debut in Singapore with her new song, I Want To Kill My Rapist.

"It's not exactly a comedy song but it's very cathartic," she says. "A lot of my show deals with breaking the silence around sexual abuse."


  • WHERE: Kallang Theatre

    WHEN: March 5, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $88, $98, $108, $128 and $148 from Sistic (go to or call 6348-5555)


Cho was assaulted by a family friend between the ages of five and 12. She says: "It's very much in my family about protecting the abuser and silencing the victims. It abuses you again. The event is difficult enough and then you have a whole culture silencing you.

"Humour was the one thing that made me feel better about what happened."

Also on the agenda for her show routine here: militant group Boko Haram's brutal pogrom against women and dissenters in Nigeria; Olympic gold medallist Caitlyn Jenner's gender transition and female empowerment in general.

Cho is angry, loud and incredibly funny. Show her a sore spot and she digs deep for comedy gold, uncaring of the after-effects - often earthquakes of outrage, as well as support - across social media.

While co-hosting entertainment channel E's Fashion Police coverage of the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month, she called actress Kirsten Dunst's Valentino gown "as complicated as Bill and Camille Cosby's marriage".

At last year's awards, she spoofed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Sony Pictures pulled its theatrical release of a comedy film in which the North Korean leadership was assassinated.

Her new routine is titled Psycho - because "there is no 'I' in team, but there is a 'CHO' in psycho" and it is her response to the "war against women, not limited to Boko Haram".

She brings up the culture of rape jokes performed by male comedians and the long suppression of Cosby's alleged history as a sexual predator.

"It's something we're seeing in society a lot, so many kinds of situations where women are victims. Of course, rape and child molestation are not gender issues, it's even harder for men to talk about it."

But talking about it is part of the healing, even if it does make audiences uncomfortable, including her family, who she calls "supportive, but overwhelmed" by her humour.

Still, she says, "it's okay to be outrageous and rude" - and it has got her two Grammy nominations for Comedy Album of the Year, as well as stints on comic television series such as Drop Dead Diva and 30 Rock.

No wonder she has, as she says, been too busy to visit Asia before this March.

On the telephone from California, she shows she has been reading up on Singapore, joking that she wants to have a mega-church back her March 5 show at Kallang Theatre.

"Anywhere I go, I tailor the show to the crowd. I want to make the show exactly as it should be for there. Maybe have some kind of church sponsor me," she says.

"Or who were the people protesting Adam Lambert?" she asks, referring to the online petition which failed to dislodge the singer from his headline act at the Celebrate 2016 countdown concert here on New Year's Eve.

"My goal is to get some sort of petition stopping me from coming here. No, I'm definitely going to come, but my show is going to be more gay than anything Lambert would do."

Cho was one of the pioneering female comediennes from a minority race on television. Her sitcom All American Girl in 1994 came two decades before Indian- American comedian Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, Indian- American comedian Aziz Ansari's Master Of None and Asian-American chef and TV personality Eddie Huang's Fresh Off The Boat.

Back then, the producers decided that her brand was "too ethnic". So it had only a short run on ABC.

Today, comedians from under- represented groups in the United States abound - funny Asians, funny females, funny Asian females - and Cho says it is because Netflix and other specialised content delivery channels highlighted the large audiences with specific tastes and a desire to look beyond the so-called mainstream.

But she adds: "We still see a lot of whitewashing and yellowface", bringing up the casting of actress Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, the lead of the Hollywood remake of anime classic Ghost In The Shell and Scottish comedienne Janette Tough playing a Japanese fashion designer in the upcoming Absolutely Fabulous movie.

Cho has been in the comedy business since age 16, counting as her mentor none other than the late actor and comedian Robin Williams.

A tribute to him will be part of her routine here. Williams was a customer at her father's bookstore in San Francisco, a doorman at the comedy club she grew up around and also the incredibly hard act she had to follow on stage in her early years.

She was devastated by his death in 2014, the same year she also lost her other mentor, comedienne Joan Rivers. "And now David Bowie," she says of the glam-rock star. "It's weird when you start to lose your mentors and teachers."

She has her own "comedy daughters", including comedienne, actress and producer Amy Schumer (Trainwreck, 2015) and rising comedy star Kate Willett.

She says: "I'm really excited about the fact that there are so many women in comedy now and ones that are very bold, provocative and aggressive. It's a great, great thing and I'm hoping it will continue."

Her maternal leanings will be part of her show here. "I love kids, I definitely want to have young people around, regardless of my own biology," she says.

She laughs when asked about the pressure on Asian women to settle down and start a family.

"So much of the Asian identity is focused on relationships. My family doesn't acknowledge any of my successes. They're more proud of the fact that I did get married once, which is ridiculous," she says, referring to her decade-long marriage to artist Al Ridenour.

Her current boyfriend, a guitarist, will be travelling with her to Singapore.

"It's going to be great going from a place where I'm used to being a minority and being a majority. I'm thrilled. It's so Asian to be studying but I'm going to be studying the experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Angry, funny and outrageous'. Print Edition | Subscribe