Margaret Cho Will Not Be Known by Her Son’s Name

The San Francisco native roars back into the scene with a sitcom, a new tour, and even a Netflix film with Will Smith.

Margaret Cho (Courtesy photo)

Margaret Cho is a cop.

Granted, she appears in uniform for only a second in the trailer for Bright, a Netflix film set in a somewhat enchanted alternate Los Angeles that’s largely a vehicle to let Will Smith play himself. But it’s odd to see the famously anti-authoritarian Cho as an LAPD police officer, even briefly. What’s even more jarring is seeing Smith, a fellow cop, whack a faerie to death after it starts to bogart his bird-feeder. “Faerie lives don’t matter today,” he says.

Is that an uncomfortable phraseology for the famously queer Cho? Not at all, as the film — with its modern take on Lord of the Rings-style creatures — is largely a metaphor for race.

“It was ‘faerie’ with an F-A-E,” she emphasizes. “It’s weird, because the movie that we made is different from what’s in the trailer. You never saw any of the crazy special effects, so in my mind, it’s a very dark crime drama, and I never thought about all the magical creatures out there. It’s a lot.”

This is new territory for Cho, who’s been an on-again, off-again San Franciscan since growing up in Japantown in the 1970s. Her most notable recent endeavor in the city was a day spent busking (and stripping) in front of the Victoria Theatre on a cold day a few months after the death of Robin Williams. Meant to draw attention to the plight of people on the street in an increasingly Dickensian city, it was Cho’s attempt to channel the famously generous Williams’ spirit.

“Don’t mourn Robin,” she said. “Be Robin.” The entire thing might have been titled “An Afternoon of Bowie and Elvis Costello Covers by Margaret Cho and Friends (With Striptease),” and her dedication was commendable. Rather than strum a few songs and retreat to a trailer, she stayed outside, barely wearing anything as people stuck dollar bills into her G-string, for more than two hours, while giving away tampons (and the money) to low-income women.

Now she’s back, with a comedy tour called Fresh Off the Bloat that’ll come to the Castro Theatre on Oct. 21 and a new show on TNT called Highland, in which she plays the newly sober member of a Korean-American family in Southern California.

“I created the show,” she tells SF Weekly. “I’ve been working on it the past couple of years. … It’s another Asian-American family show like I did in the early ’90s. But it’s a very different Asian-American family. They’re all caught up in the big marijuana boom in L.A., and I play a wayward daughter just out of rehab coming into this reality of having to work in a pot store.”

Cho famously had a terrible experience with that prior network comedy. All-American Girl ran on ABC for one season in 1994-95, and critics blasted it for trafficking in stereotypes, casting actors of Chinese and Japanese descent as Korean, and for crimes against the Korean language. Cho received a great deal of flak, but none of the production team was Korean-American — and, as she revealed in later comedy routines, she would regularly get directives from network executives that the show was either “too Asian” or “not Asian enough.” At one point, the brass convened a meeting solely to discuss her weight.

Even Fresh Off the Boat, a 2010s comedy about an Asian-American family in the 1990s, poked fun at it in one episode. So even though she carries some scar tissue, Cho says she’s ready to try anew.

“I think TV has really changed,” she says. “There’s this way we look at comedy and drama and race and all this stuff. It’s just so different. I’m actually one of the producers. I’m the executive that’s making the decisions. It’s very much my show, and I’m really proud of that.”

“Comedy is really about hoping, and that’s a big part of it,” she adds.

While the frequently political Cho admits to being thrown a bit by the current situation in the U.S., she’s not above harmless silliness, either. Apropos of a recent Adult Swim show she’d worked on, she posted a picture to Instagram of a pink-frosted birthday cake with ballet slippers and a fist poking out of it.

“Those elements were part of the story,” she says. “And I just thought it was a good-looking cake. The shoes and the fist were all Rice Krispies.”

But Fresh Off the Bloat is a little harder-edged, pertaining to the particular immigration experience many Korean-Americans had vis-a-vis Asian-Americans of other ethnicities.

“We’re more recent,” Cho says. “And the cultures of Koreans are very insular. They’re a very closed-off community in a lot of ways. The amount of sexism that you kind of grow up with is crazy. Most of the women in my family, I don’t know their names. I only know the names of their sons. As a mom, you take on the son’s name. You’re known as ‘That Guy’s Mom,’ as opposed to your own name.”

Performing in Seoul presents unusual challenges, as well. Censorship is strong — but not in obvious ways. Presenting South Korea in a positive light is particularly important, she says. The government takes offense at jokes about being a refugee or references to the country’s impoverished past.

“I did their Saturday Night Live,” she says. “They have their own version and they had to go over my set with this very intense view of not looking a certain way. You can’t say certain things. It’s very interesting. It’s just different.”

Margaret Cho: Fresh Off the Bloat, Saturday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St.; margaretcho.com/tour.

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