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Margaret Cho – back in Edinburgh after 10 years away
EiF speaks to one of the biggest names in Edinburgh this year, Margaret Cho, about working with Bill Hicks, getting cute with Daniel Kitson and how she'd like to marry a gay couple while she's at the Fringe ...
People like Margaret Cho are a treat to interview – witty, unpredictable, never far from a decent anecdote. She "gives good quote" as we say in the trade.
The most unexpected thing Cho said – and LiF's research drones have been flogged for not knowing this in advance – is that she is qualified to marry people. This led to the extraordinary offer by Cho to marry any gay couples while in Edinburgh. It's not a gay-exclusive offer because she is heterophobic, but because gay rights have long been a cause she has supported. It's her drum.
"It's true," says Cho, "I'm an ordained minister, I have some government credentials so I can perform a gay wedding, and have done so. So if there are any gay couples in Edinburgh who want me to marry them, I'm so all over that – I'd love it to happen.
"It's important for me to talk about gay rights. It's really been an issue in the US at a social and pop cultural level. There was this thing recently where [30 Rock star] Tracey Morgan, who's a famous comedian over here, he made some comments in his show about how if his son was gay, he would stab him to death. This caused outrage in the gay community, and I was hurt by it. I'm a friend of his, so it hurt.
"It's a weird thing. I understand that as a comic you have the ability to say anything and you can say inappropriate things but unfortunately the only thing I can never condone is violence against gays. It goes to the heart of what I am. I've experienced so many episodes of homophobic violence in my life and it was such an alarming experience.
"But things are starting to happen, they've legalised gay marriage in New York, and that's a very, very big deal, politically."
This gives you an idea of what Cho's comedy is like – strong-willed but not ranty, socio-political in subject, and from the point of view of one of life's outsiders. Cho had a bohemian upbringing in San Francisco to Korean parents, has battled addiction to drink and drugs and has suffered abuse for her sexuality (she is bisexual). The 42-year-old is now in a "very conventional and conservative" marriage to artist Al Ridenour.
Talking of strong-willed, political and outsider comedians, it's hard to speak about Cho without mentioning Bill Hicks. She talks about Hicks a lot and he appears to have been responsible for a kind of awakening in her, as they worked together early in her career. She describes herself as a "raunchy, Bill Hicks kind of comic". Now, any old whippersnapper who says something vaguely counter-cultural could compare themselves to Hicks, but Cho more right than most to do so. Their share a sense of iconoclasm, challenging the status quo and standing up for what they believe in – all that stuff that sounds cheesy written down but will never be unimportant. The Bill Hicks fan mafia will never accept anyone else, and appear to think that stand-up comedy died with him, but nonetheless Hicks fans should give Cho a shot.
Cho says: "Bill's reach in comedy is immense. There's a whole generation of comics who are deeply influenced by his work and who he was as a person. He was a very generous, loving, beautiful, kind man as well as an amazing comic. Those of us lucky enough to know him can't help but be influenced by his generosity. I'm a disciple, definitely.
"I worked with him a lot when I was very, very young and watching him help me establish my comedy. I always love how his comedy was raw, very political, emotional and at the same time sophisticated – and it still has so much power."
Edinburgh has missed out on a big chunk of Cho's career. When she was here last, it was 2001 and things were just taking off thanks to her breakthrough second show Notorious C.H.O. Since then, that show has been released as a film, she has founded her own clothing line, hosted the True Colours Tour (for the Human Rights Campaign), and she's had two further comedy shows.
And for her return to the Fringe she is taking another new direction – musical comedy. Her 2011 show, Cho Dependent, has plenty of the stuff, and follows her album of the same name, released in 2010 with the help of unit-shifters Grant Lee Phillips, Fiona Apple and Andrew Bird. She says: "My favourite style is musical comedy that is not necessarily about comedy. I consider some of Dylan's finest work to be comic, and I consider Morrissey to be a great comedian; the music is so beautiful you don't notice it straight away. That's what I'm aspiring to do."
Cho seems unfazed by the prospect of coming to the Edinburgh bootcamp for the first time in 10 years and not being as well-known as she is in the US. She points out that it's an occupational hazard: stand-ups are accustomed to having to win over each audience individually, always starting again, with fame only buying you about 30 seconds of grace before you have to start proving yourself.
Oddly enough her two abiding memories from 2001 have little to do with comedy. Firstly, the food, obviously: she was able to eat vegan doner kebabs, which she's not been able to find anywhere else in the world since. Secondly, some sweet little interactions with Daniel Kitson. "I used to leave things on stage for him," she says, "he performed at the same place as me, Pleasance Over the Road, and I would come down before he came on and leave him little gifts for him to find. I'd leave Mars bars and Aero bars, things like that. He would leave me notes in return saying thank you which was very kind."
So Cho's 2011 Fringe has a lot to live up to outside the hurl burly of doing shows. Now if only she can find a gay couple to marry, it might just make it another memorable one …
If you would like Margaret Cho to marry you during this year's Fringe, then email Edinburgh is Funny at firstname.lastname@example.org and your message will be passed on. Seriously.
• Cho will be writing a song with Aussie comedy-musical trio Axis of Awesome during the festival, and she also hopes to d o the same with Amanda Palmer
• Of British comedy, she is a bug fan of the horror/comedy cross-over such as League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and Garth Marenghi's Dark Place. Also French and Saunders.