You'd get the idea watching Margaret Cho that she's always been a confident person, but she says it's really been something else.
"I had desperation, which I think is as important as confidence," says Cho in a phone call. "When you're desperate you'll just do anything and if you're confident you'll do anything. I think desperation and confidence have a lot more in common than most people realize!"
Cho is touring with her new stand-up comedy show "Mother," mostly made up of routines inspired by Cho's mother.
"I've talked about my mom for years," says Cho. "And I just wrote a bunch of filthy jokes. And that's been my goal for my whole life to write the filthiest jokes that have economy. Having short explanations for things that require long ones. That's the artistry of comedy is telling stories in a short amount of time."
While many of Cho's bits are shockingly frank and raw, Cho says her family loves it.
"My family is so into it," she says. "My parents love show business. I'm nominated for an Emmy and my parents are going to come with me to the ceremony. They're like my dates at everything. They love show business. They're like crazy political refugees. Starved and stuff. Now they're walking the red carpet. It's totally like a different consciousness."
Cho's parents immigrated after the Korean War and settled in San Francisco. Humor came naturally. Cho's father writes joke books in Korean and his daughter began performing comedy at the age of 14. By 16, she was a professional. When she was in her early 20s, Cho moved to Los Angeles and began pursuing her craft with a vengeance. She landed her own television show, "All-American Girl," in 1994, but it wasn't a good fit for a comedian with Cho's edge. Then in 1999 she premiered the off-Broadway one-woman show "I'm the One That I Want," which established her as one of the country's most cutting-edge humorists. Successful tours, concert films and TV specials followed.
Cho did return to TV with greater success in the 2000s with "The Cho Show" on VH1, and in 2009 she joined the cast of "Drop Dead Diva."
It's her portrayal of Kim Jong Ill on "30 Rock" that earned her a Emmy nomination.
"It was great," says Cho. "It was all Tina Fey's idea and it worked out so easy. I loved getting to play him — after his death even. I transform into him very easily. I was like, 'Of course I'm doing that! I can't believe I haven't already done this!'"
Cho has never been a person to pass up something that sounded fun or challenging. For several years she's kept a side project recording music with favorite artists. She plays several instruments. In a 2009 interview she had just seen Joni Mitchell playing a lap dulcimer on YouTube and went out and bought her own.
"I have a double lap dulcimer," says Cho. "It requires two players. They face each other. They're called 'courting dulcimers.' They were used, I think, in Amish communities when people would go on dates and they'd listen and if one stopped or they both stopped ..."
Cho says she keeps her goals small.
"I break them down to daily goals. I'm learning to play the cello. That's very hard. So I committed myself to playing for three hours before doing anything else today. I learned the Radiohead song 'High and Dry.' ... An hour a day, an hour a week, I can do that. I set small goals like, 'I'll try to be a better musician,' or 'I'll try to be a better comic.' You try to do that."
Most celebrities say that audiences have misconceptions about them, but Cho says she had her own about herself.
"I did a television show for PBS called 'Finding Your Roots' and they did a DNA test on me and found my genealogy and I'd been assuming all this time that I was Korean, but actually, I'm Chinese. I didn't know that. Actually, all Koreans were Chinese. We originated from the same place in China. So it's a weird thing to think, 'Oh, I'm not who I thought I was.'"
Cho says she likes to tour during election years so she can talk about the election and, to her, it's more important than ever for comedians to weigh in.
"It's where we get the real news — from people like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Those guys are just as important as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Somebody who is like a real correspondent talking about what people really need to know. Steve Colbert is so important. He's changed the way we think about politics. And it's stuff they can joke about, so you can really enjoy that process of learning what's going on, but having fun with it."
Cho says she's proud to still be on the road after 30 years and still making people laugh.
"I still love it. I hang out with comics. Comics are family to me. ... I love that I've gotten to endure."
Margaret Cho performs ‘Mother’
With: Selene Luna
When: 8:30 p.m. today
Where: The Bijou Theatre
Tickets: $25, available at Knoxville Tickets outles, 865-656-4444 and www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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