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Moontower Comedy Fest headliner Margaret Cho on her comedy children and 'Face/Off'

Eric Webb
Austin 360

The past year has changed everything, Margaret Cho says. 

The comedy icon — who started her stand-up career at 14 and has gone to score multiple Grammy nominations and an Emmy nod — is hitting the road again, now in a showbiz world altered by the pandemic.   

The news moves fast these days, and everyone knows what’s happening minute to minute, Cho says. “We’re more well-informed, in terms of what’s happening globally, than ever. That gives you an opportunity to write faster and talk about more subjects faster. It's just a different playing field.” 

It's not all 'Bling Empire':Margaret Cho talks Asian American 'visibility' in TV, movies

Comedian Margaret Cho will headline the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin this month.

Cho says she’s up to the challenge. Austinites will get a chance to see her in action as she headlines Moontower Comedy Festival on Sept. 24 at the Paramount Theatre. 

Born and raised in San Francisco, she won a contest to open for Jerry Seinfeld in the early ’90s and went on to perform for Arsenio Hall and Bob Hope. Cho, who is Korean American, created and starred in the 1991 sitcom “All-American Girl,” which broke barriers for Asian American representation on prime-time TV. Since the early 2000s, she’s sold out multiple comedy tours, had a VH1 reality show, recorded music, played Kim Jong-Il on “30 Rock,” voiced a character in Netflix’s “Over the Moon” and so much more. 

Also, in case you didn’t know or you forgot, Cho was a supporting player in the 1997 action-thriller “Face/Off,” starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. (For real, what hasn’t she done?) 

“I forgot that I was in that!” she says with a laugh. “It’s such a rich, really ridiculously ‘90s movie, too, because this is one of the very last huge action blockbusters without CGI. A lot of these huge stunts were actually done. They did explode an airplane!” 

Even with a stacked resume like hers, Cho has always considered herself a comic. And since performance venues across the country were shut down for months starting in spring of 2020, in-person standup shows were harder to come by. Cho did some virtual comedy work (an art form unto itself, she says). The limbo also allowed this entertainment polymath to stretch her skills.

Comedian Margaret Cho is also a prolific actor, appearing in films like "Good On Paper" for Netflix.

“I’ve been lucky, because it’s really allowed me to go and do more acting work,” she says. “Even though the pandemic has happened, a lot of productions have implemented COVID safety (protocols).” 

This year, she starred in the Netflix comedy film “Good On Paper” with Iliza Shlesinger. Another one of those acting projects is “Fire Island,” a queer reimagining of “Pride and Prejudice” starring comedians Bowen Yang (of “Saturday Night Live”) and Joel Kim Booster (of NBC sitcom “Sunnyside”). Yang and Booster, who are of Chinese and Korean descent respectively, are part of a thriving generation of Asian American comedians.  

When Cho was coming up on the scene, comedy was a much whiter space — and it’s still pretty white. “I feel like I started this idea that we can be in comedy, and we can be in all of these spaces that were really just hetero, cis, white men,” she says. 

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Now, she sees stars like Yang, Booster, Ali Wong and Awkwafina starring in major movies and high-profile standup specials, and she feels proud. 

“I love it,” she says of seeing those performers in the spotlight. “It reinvigorates me. It makes me feel like I have done something really worthwhile. … I don’t have children, but I do have all of the Asian American comedians who have come after and done such great work. That kind of fills that need for me to feel like I'm a mother.” 

Cho knows firsthand the damage that the lack of representation in media can do — "centuries of erasure that have really been internalized,” as she says.  

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That dearth of authentic Asian perspectives also is related to anti-Asian violence, which has increased since former President Donald Trump, among others, responded to the coronavirus pandemic with racist rhetoric.  

The problem’s not new, Cho says. 

“I think that we have a long history of anti-Asian American violence in this country,” she says. “It’s existed far beyond what we’re experiencing in this moment. … All of the things that people have put the blame on Asian Americans for whatever reason, for the pandemic — we’ve experienced this kind of violence anytime Americans are in crisis. Our American-ness has come into question.” 

Cho traces that shameful history back to the Gold Rush of the 1800s. The recently wrapped second season of her podcast, “The Margaret Cho,” is subtitled “Moral Minority.” In it, the comedian invites guests to take a “very deep dive into these hate crimes, looking at it from the lens of Asian Americans in comedy,” she says. Guests have included comedians like Helen Hong and Jenny Yang, as well as author R.O. Kwon and “America’s Next Top Model” photographer Yu Tsai. 

And it’s required a lot of research. 

“We don't know so much about Asian history in America. We know so little about gay history. We know so little about so much of our history, collectively, as people of color in America,” says Cho, who also identifies as bisexual. 

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Cho has been called the “patron saint of outsiders,” and her advocacy for the rights of marginalized people has been a hallmark of her decades-long career. Even in a time of fractious politics and reactionary pushback to social progress, Cho remains heartened. 

“I don’t get discouraged by the homophobia, misogyny, sexism and racism that I see. There are so many people who are filling in with their voices,” she says, adding that there’s been a lot of progress on social media. 

She’s grateful for younger creators, especially in the queer community, who are expanding the realm of entertainment to social media content on TikTok and Instagram. Cho notices people whose perspectives were previously unheard embracing technology at the ideal time.  

Ahead of her Moontower appearance, Cho said she loves coming to “artistic, cultural, cosmopolitan” Austin. She even made a record here with musician David Garza, yet to be released.  

“I love the way that the city is so different than anything in the world,” she says. “It’s just right in the middle of Texas — so Texas, but not Texas in any way we know.” 

For any local fans excited to see Cho, know that she’s matching your energy. She’s ready to get back out there. 

“I think I appreciate stand-up comedy more than I did before, because I realize how much of a privilege it is to perform,” she says. 

At Moontower Comedy Festival 

Margaret Cho headlines the Paramount Theatre at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 24. Austin favorite Daniel Webb opens. Single tickets are technically sold out, but go to austintheatre.org/moontower-comedy to check access for badge-holders and to review safety protocols.