It's been more than two decades since San Francisco native Margaret Cho launched her stand-up career by performing at a club next door to her parents' Polk Street bookshop, and — despite proudly accepting the mantle of "patron saint of outsiders" — she's been been a mainstay of American comedy for a long time since. Whether she's getting in trouble for outing John Travolta, getting in trouble for talking about Marc Maron's penis, creating a web series about women getting out of prison ("In Transition"), or just generally being her tattooed, outspoken, burlesque-dancing self, Margaret Cho is many things, but she's very rarely boring. Cho performs at the Nob Hill Masonic Center on Oct. 12; she called us in mid-September from her bathroom in L.A. to talk about the tour.
SF Weekly: So this tour you're embarking on is called "Mother" — what were your inspirations? Your own mother has been part of your act for a while.
Margaret Cho: This is more about how I've gotten to the point where people look to me as a maternal figure, this kind of grand dame. Especially because I have a lot of younger gay male friends, and gay men are always looking for mothers, in my experience. You look at music and movies: Joan Crawford, Judy Garland. ... Lady Gaga seems too young to even really be a mother figure, but she is. And you realize it's an identity that's very needed, because people come at me all the time with that role. And I love it, in part because I don't think I'll have children.
You're also frank in this show about your experience of having had an abortion. Did that seem important to talk about now in light of the past couple years of anti-abortion legislation?
Yeah. I think it's really dangerous that somehow this part of women's rights is even up for discussion, when really, it's not. It's ludicrous to me to even question a woman's right to choose. So for me, to talk about it — I don't know how else to explain how strongly I feel about this, about legislation getting out of the realm of women's bodies. And it's interesting, when you talk about abortion in any context, people really freak out. I think if it's something we can acknowledge, hopefully that leads to more understanding about this being a fundamental right that we unfortunately can't take for granted.
How does your actual mother feel about how she's been included in your act over the past two decades? Is she just the best sport ever?
She is, actually, she's great! She loves it. For women in my family, in Korean culture, women are really valued in their youth, and then when they get older, it's like they almost become irrelevant. All the women in my family have gone through that, and it's a painful thing, especially if you're used to being valued for your looks and your body — and when you get older it seems like you should be more than that, but actually you're [treated like] less than that. So for my mother to be the center of attention — she thinks it's really funny, and it's also kind of exciting for her.
Among your other projects — the web series, the new "Monsters of Talk" podcast with Jim Short — we hear you've been working on a second musical comedy album?
That'll come out after the tour, in the spring. There are all these different genres on it; I like to go from country to hip-hop. I wrote a song for Yoko Ono, which I sing as her, and Sean Lennon really loved it, so maybe she'll do it at some point? I'm always lobbying to be in the Plastic Ono Band. And there's one song I'll probably be doing on tour, that basically sounds like "Sister Christian" but it's called "Fat Pussy" and it's about... well, that's what it's about. I wanted to do a super epic metal power ballad, and this is what happened.
You've also been a guest host on The View a few times now. Is it true you're vying for a permanent spot?
Oh, I would love to. I think I would have a good time, but I also think they really need something a little different — someone queer, someone who can be a little bit informal, just a different perspective. And I've been really happy that I can provide that.
It's been 20 years since you were on the ABC sitcom All-American Girl, which seems like it flopped in part because the network didn't know how to handle having an outspoken Asian-American lady on primetime TV. Is it a sign of progress that now they're inviting you onto a morning talk show to riff with Whoopi Goldberg about smoking weed?
Yeah! I think it's great. It's funny, they have a whole different take on things now, there's a lot more happening in entertainment in general, and it's a lot less controlled by studios. In the early '90s, there was such a limited idea of what you could see on TV.
Still, there haven't been that many Asian-Americans on television since then. There's a sitcom called Sullivan & Son on TBS, which has Steve Byrne and Jodi Long, but you know, it's taken 20 years to get there. Even as [mainstream entertainment] gets more multicultural, with people like Mindy Kaling — I don't think it's quite as egalitarian as people think.
You're known for being willing to talk about pretty much anything, especially with regard to your sexuality. How do you draw lines about what you share and what's personal?
For me, honestly, I grew up in San Francisco, and in the late '80s I worked for a store called Stormy Leather on Howard Street, with people like Susie Bright and Carol Queen coming through all the time. And then there was the leather community, play parties, the bear community. I was becoming an adult at a time when people were talking openly about sexuality and about non-monogamy as the norm, expanding ideas about what sex could be. So I had a very San Francisco view of sexuality. It is weird in some ways that I wound up in Los Angeles, because at the time it was like "Oh, I'm gonna be a Potrero Hill swinger." I guess when you come of age in San Francisco during a time period where sexuality is being talked about in this way — there are things other people find freaky to talk about that I just find pretty commonplace.
While we're on your having grown up in the gay community here — you've performed a few gay marriages in San Francisco, yeah? Is that since Prop. 8 was overturned?
It was when it was legal in 2004 that I did a bunch, and I got to do them at City Hall, which was really cool, so hopefully I'll get to go back. There's something about doing it in that city building, especially with the relationship I have with San Francisco and gay politics, having watched the tragedy of Harvey Milk's assassination. ... It's really intense to go back to City Hall where this all happened and help people do this beautiful thing. It feels like you're helping to make it right in a way.
Is there anywhere in particular you always go when you're back here?
When I'm in San Francisco now I'm usually getting tattoos, being with my friends. Tattooing is my social life, too, so most of my time is taken up with that. People like Henry Lewis, Mike Davis at Everlasting Tattoo. The best tattooists are in San Francisco, and they're kind of like my family now. I'm always excited to come back to San Francisco.