Margaret Cho talks ‘psyCHO,’ what drives her insane


Courtesy Lindsey Byrnes

Margaret Cho shares personal stories and confronts social issues in her comedy special “psyCHO.”

By Editor-in-Chief

Many comedians have made emotional women the butt of their jokes throughout the years, calling females “psycho” or “insane” for expressing themselves. However, Margaret Cho’s  latest concert special and ongoing tour of the same name “psyCHO” runs the gamut of topics from sexism to police brutality and other serious issues at the forefront of society that she says drive her crazy. The title of her tour and comedy special is accompanied by the phrase, “There is no ‘I’ in team but there is a ‘CHO’ in psycho.” 

Known for her work in film, books, music, theater and television, Cho is equally passionate about causes like gay rights, anti-bullying and the homeless community. She stops in Chicago Oct. 3 at the Chicago Theatre. 

The Chronicle spoke with Cho about her inspiration for “psyCHO,” the evolution of her feminist identity and navigating being a young comedian.

THE CHRONICLE: Did you draw inspiration from world events or personal experiences when developing this show?

MARGARET CHO: This show is a combination of different things. It’s talking about current events and definitely talking a lot about police brutality, gun violence, this rising tide of violence against women. Whether it’s Bill Cosby or the systematic rape being used by ISIS to recruit people, it’s very disturbing and very upsetting, but I’m trying to use my voice to find a way to heal and deal with my own anger.  Also, the show is in great part dedicated to my mentors, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Both of them had a tremendous influence on my life, both professionally and personally. I adored them and miss them a lot. There’s a lot of different parts to the show.

What inspired you to marry couples at each tour stop?

I—like many people who are active in this whole struggle for marriage equality—want to find a way to celebrate this. I was deputized to marry couples in San Francisco by [Lieutenant Gov. of California] Gavin Newsom, so I could marry couples in City Hall. I basically had Kim Davis’ job, although I did the job as opposed to her who didn’t. I want to bring that to my shows and I’m seeking a couple in each city to marry, and that’s really exciting.

Your show addresses women being considered “psycho” or “insane” when they are emotional. Do you encourage women to take ownership of those emotions?

Yes, and to be proud of it and to feel that we have a right to have anger. “Psycho” is often a word [used] to describe women’s anger as hysterical or crazy, but when men are angry, they’re passionate and driven and have integrity. When women are angry, it’s like we’re crazy. That’s why I wanted to use that word because I wanted to empower it and make it positive.

Do you have any advice for comedy students who are just starting their careers?

My advice is just don’t give up. Comedy is very difficult, but if you want to do it, you can do it. It takes a while and a lot of it is trial and error and figuring out what your voice is and to not be discouraged by maybe not doing so well or to not expect too much and not worry too much. It takes a while…allow yourself that space. For me, it took many years to figure out exactly who I was as a comedian and what I wanted to do. I still am so much a student of it. Just have patience and understand that it will happen if you really want it.

How do you tackle difficult subjects with sensitivity and humor at the same time?

I think it’s the rational side that you go to—that’s kind of the actual magic of comedy. It’s taking something that’s very hard to discuss and [making] it cathartic and rewarding. That’s something that takes time and that you figure out. It takes maturity as a person. You need to develop as a person to understand the world and to be able to talk about the world.

You recently spoke out about being bullied and abused when you were younger. How did you decide to share that information with the public?

I have never really felt like any of that was secretive. I definitely had mentioned it in the past for shows and in my books, but I think now, everyone’s got more awareness. We have language around bullying, molestation, rape and sexual abuse. People are listening to it more. I think people are now valuing this idea that survivors can come forward—that we can start talking about ourselves as survivors as opposed to victims, which I think is an important distinction. I think language can really heal, and that might be the way to that healing—by framing it that way in our minds.

Did you set out to give that kind of representation in the beginning or did that idea develop as your career progressed?

I think I developed more as a feminist and became more aware of sexism and how it related to my life as I became older. Then I understood all of that more clearly, so I developed as a person along with being a feminist. It just came along later—it was never a conscious effort.

Did you ever face obstacles trying to communicate those ideas to your viewers?

It’s hard because there is a sort of fallacy that we’re post-sexism, but that’s not the case at all. In the photo that Vanity Fair published of all the late-night talk show hosts, it was all men. They have no women at all. It’s not addressed as being weird or bad—it’s not even mentioned. So of course sexism exists, but it’s hard to talk about when you feel invisible. The idea that we’re beyond sexism or we’re beyond racism is just another way of the status quo trying to keep us silent.

Margaret Cho’s “psyCHO” comedy special premiered Sept. 25 on Showtime. Her accompanying tour runs Oct. 1 through Dec. 21, making stops throughout the U.S. and around the world.