• Margaret Cho: the Punchline Magazine interview

    comedian Margaret Cho
    photo by Austin Young

    When Eddie Murphy first crooned of a lady fair whose primary ambitions lay within the realm of “partying all the time,” he may just as well have been speaking of Margaret Cho. Already raucous, fun, and thrill-seeking, there seems to be no territory left to be unturned by the formidable stand-up star.

    And as if a plethora of wildly successful stand-up specials, more TV projects and film roles than any length of stick could be shook at, and the type of explosive comedy career most club-rat upstarts would swallow crude oil just to have a percentage of weren’t enough, the notorious Ms. Cho is preparing to add musical comedy to her list of achievements.

    But fear not, Cho-devotees. Let not your sequined spandex wither in frightful dread of a Murphy-esque kitschy embarrassment. With the release of her first musical/comedy hybrid album, Cho Dependent, on Aug. 24, our favorite mistress of the mic has enlisted the help of musical A-listers like Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Fiona Apple to bring a credible melodic gloss to the album’s silly lyrical snark.

    Indeed, it’s an extravaganza of Cho-ian proportions, and thankfully, Punchline Magazine was able to catch up with the fabulous diva du jour for a little rap session on Bonnaroo, the songwriting process, and the blood-chilling inspiration behind one of the album’s most memorable tracks.

    How did you go about choosing your collaborators for Cho Dependent?
    Well, I wanted to work with the people I loved best, and also, there were a couple of people in there who I’m very old friends with. Jon Brion, in particular, is someone I’ve known for 18 years, and I’m just a huge fan of his work. He’s someone I’ve really, really loved, and I’ve known him for a long time.

    Also, Ani DiFranco – I actually worked with her years ago. A lot of people I had kinships with and wanted to work with, and some people, I was just blown away by them musically that I really sought them out to be a part of it. These were people like Andrew Bird, or Brendan Benson. There were a lot of different types of people who I really admired.

    What was it like working with Brendan Benson? I’m a Detroit girl, so I’ve gotta know.
    He was great. He and I actually performed together at Bonnaroo, which is a really big music and comedy festival out in Tennessee. He is such a tremendous musician. He brought his wife with him, and his new baby, who was born in April, so that was a really exciting thing. He’s phenomenal – he’s just a great guy, and a great person. We wrote great songs together; we really rocked down and hard, and I love it.

    Was there anybody you wanted to work with whom you weren’t able to get?
    Um… I would have loved to [have] worked with Jack White. If I do another album, I definitely want to try and get him on board. Or David Bowie, who I like a lot. So those are two people who I’d love to work with, at some point.

    Conversely, was there anyone who signed on to the project who you didn’t originally imagine being involved?
    Well, everybody who came through with it was kind of immediately fantastic. I was surprised at the response of people, like, “Oh yeah, I’d love to do that.” There were a lot of people who had never collaborated before, and a lot of people who had never done anything comedic before – who had never thought about doing comedy before, or were pretty serious musicians.

    Do you see that there’s a lot of natural kinship between music and comedy? How do the two work together?
    I think that a lot of comedians want to be musicians, and a lot of musicians want to be comedians. There is crossover at times, and also, if you look at like lyrics from Bob Dylan or Morrissey, there’s a lot of humor and comedy in those songs. There are people out there that have always been comedic but serious. I think that comics doing music is kind of an old-fashioned approach: if you look at like Steve Martin, he always incorporated banjo into his comedy before. You have people like Eddie Murphy, too – there was always this relationship.

    What do you think this album has to say about your growth and development as an artist?
    Well, I think the album is really great. I think the album is a great, stand-out album; musically, it’s so great in that it’s all your favorite bands playing different kinds of songs. It’s definitely a very interesting collaborative effort, and also I think it’s very funny, too, so I feel like it’s succeeded on a lot of levels, which I’m very proud of.

    How instrumental – get it, instrumental? – were you in composing music for the album?
    I did very little in terms of composing music. I left that to all of the very, very accomplished musicians. I would bring them the lyrics and we would discuss different songs that I liked of theirs, sometimes different songs that I enjoyed in general, and I’d try to explain to them what I envisioned. But ultimately, I let the musicians take that over, because I don’t really… I mean, I can play guitar, but I don’t know how to compose music and certainly [don’t know] how to produce. I asked each artist to produce their own tracks, which was cool because a lot of them hadn’t before. That was a neat thing, too.

    What sort of genre would you put the melodies of the songs into?
    I dunno, like indie rock, basically. I don’t know if that’s a genre. I mean, it’s definitely unique in the same way that a lot of these artists are, but it’s comedy so it’s also, it’s got it’s own thing happening. Yeah, I don’t know.

    Were the lyrics written first, with the comedy elements drawn out, and then the music composed around it?
    Yes, that’s how it always would work. Every once in a while, like Ben Lee was good at this, Ben Lee, who I worked a lot with, would write the music first, and then I would come up with lyrics around the music. So that’s how we worked. But in general, I would write lyrics, and then I would meet with the artist, and we would kinda talk about it and then figure it out from there.

    What sort of source material did you tap into for the lyrics? Was it sort of your usual comedic material?
    No, there was different stuff. Like, there was one story about like… well, I used to go out with this guy, and I really loved him. He worked on All American Girl, which was my first TV show. He really didn’t like me back, and it was a horrible experience; I still liked him for 17 years. Still liked him, like, loved this guy, and I never found out about him, because I didn’t want to know that he was going to be successful and happy and have children and married [sic]. I just didn’t want to know that he could be happy without me, but after 17 years I thought that I should find out what he’s doing.

    So I Googled him and something came up that had his name that said like “American screenwriter and producer on All American Girl with Margaret Cho,” and then in 2007, he was convicted of the murder of his wife. He bludgeoned her to death, and then stuffed her body in the attic, and left it there until it had partially mummified.

    Are you kidding me? That’s horrible!
    Yeah, I was really upset, and I didn’t know what to do.

    That could’ve been you. That thought must’ve crossed your mind.
    I know. Like, it’s really horrible. So I wrote a song about it. That was like the only thing I could think of doing. I wrote it with Andrew Bird, and it’s called “I’m Sorry.” It’s from his perspective. He never really apologized, through all the court stuff that I read about the case. He never said he was sorry, so I felt like it was my duty to say “I’m sorry” for him.

    There’s a deeper inspiration [behind that one]. There are still jokes in it, even though it’s so dark. I think that’s where the best jokes actually can come from – from a very dark place.

    Was that the guy you mentioned in I’m The One That I Want that left you while you were peeing blood?
    Oh no, that was a different one. [Laughs].

    Do you have a favorite track on the album?
    “I’m Sorry” I think is probably my favorite. I also love the opening track, “Intervention,” which is all about the nature of an intervention. Or about that TV show, maybe, but it’s not about the TV show – it’s about the reality of having an intervention. It’s about Tegan and Sara intervening with me. That’s good; I like that a lot. I mean, I love all the songs. They’re all really the products of a lot of work and a lot of luck.

    You’re touring in support of this album. What can your fans expect from this tour? Will it be a blend of live music and straight-up stand-up?
    Yeah, it’ll probably mostly be stand-up, I think. It’s hard to turn away from that [style of performing], although there’ll be music in there, too. For me, it’s going to be mostly a stand-up show, although the music is part of the stand-up, too. To me, it’s all kind of the same.

    Are you going to bring any of your collaborators along with you?
    I hope so. I hope that some of the people will come out. Garrison Starr is going to be joining me for a bit – we collaborated on a song called “Gimme Your Seed” on the record, so that’s great.

    You probably haven’t thought this far ahead already, but do you think you’ll be doing anymore musical comedy albums in the future?
    I would like to. I mean, I have a bunch of songs that didn’t make it on the album that are great, that I still wanna release. There’s definitely be another one in the works, and I’d either be working with some of the other people I didn’t get to work with this time: people like Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Linda Perry, and just people that I love that I really want to get involved in it. Maybe another one with Jon [Brion]. We’ll see what happens, but there’s definitely another one in the works.

    What would you say are some of your ultimate goals with both the album and the tour?
    I just want to expand what I do as a comedian, yet not leave it. I just want to diversify, grow; do something different and new. I’d like to get better on my instrument, too. I saw Conan at Bonnaroo, and he was so great – he just sings so beautiful and funny. I want to be a better musician.

    For more info on Margaret, check out margaretcho.com. To buy Cho Dependent, just click the image below.

    Emma Kat Richardson

    Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in xoJane.com, Bitch, Alternative Press, Real Detroit Weekly, 944, and Bust.com. She’s enough of a comedy nerd and cat lady to have named her Maine Coon Michael Ian Cat. Follow her on twitter: @emmakat.

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