Margaret Cho Comedians have to walk a tightrope on issues of race. That will make the art form better.

I appreciate the struggle of wanting to push boundaries while knowing I'm limited in what I can say. But it means we are finally being seen.
Image: Margaret Cho
Margaret Cho performs at The Stress Factory Comedy Club on June 8, 2018, in New Brunswick, N.J.Bobby Bank / Getty Images file
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By Margaret Cho

I love the art form of stand-up comedy. It didn't matter to me what my career would look like or whether or not I would be successful when I started out as a teenager in the ’80s. I just loved the feeling of doing it. And that carried me through the loneliness of being the only Asian American woman out there. I was so enamored of performing that I didn't question the solitary journey.

I loved it because it gave me so much power over something that would be terrifying in a social situation. I have a lot of social anxiety, and it could be hard for me to speak to even one person, so the fact that I could speak to a room full of people and get them gasping and talking and laughing and reacting — there was a supreme feeling of having control over people and society and my own fears.

If all of us who are considered “minorities” have more of a presence as voices in the media, then we could be in a space where racism was less of a trigger.

I didn’t face open hostility coming into comedy clubs and breaking into the industry. Instead, the feeling of not belonging came from not seeing anybody else like me. That didn’t necessarily make it harder for me; as artists we all long for specialness and singularity, and it's hard to achieve that if you're just like everyone else. Because I'm so naturally different, it helped my voice stand out.

But racism against Asian Americans is definitely still out there in other ways. It's almost as if we wear the idea of foreignness on our skin. In some regards, we represent immigration in America, so that’s something that’s used against us. Since there hasn’t been that much inclusion for Asians in media and entertainment, it's almost like you can continue to think we’re still foreign.

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The fact that now we're starting to participate more is a really good thing. The cis white male heterosexual voices have been heard in comedy for as long as comedy has been around, and now we're finally welcoming other voices.

With this shift has also come a change in how comedians deal with race. Now comedians need more to come across as not flat-out racist when making jokes dealing with identity. They need to finesse those messages, to make the presentation so stylish and so covert that their opinions are heard without being blamed for out-and-out prejudice.

It's a fine line, a tightrope that we all have to walk. And I welcome it because this is really the beginning of societal change where we’re paying more attention to the voices of the other. It's really a special time.

Of course, I also am concerned about getting called out and facing a backlash for something I say. You don’t have to be in comedy to be concerned about that, because anybody who’s engaging in a public dialogue is at risk. I'm definitely aware of those boundaries and aware of the struggle of wanting to push them but at the same time knowing that I'm also limited.

But that's also the beauty of it. It's like we are finally being seen, and what a great thing. Having to question everything might be good for the art form. It might be good for what we're able to bring forth as artists.

Taken altogether, I don't know that society has gone too far in policing speech, but more that we finally have a place to put our frustration -- social media. Maybe these feelings existed all along, we just didn't have a place to express them.

When we're underrepresented, when our voices as minorities are minority voices, that's a problem. When we’re equally represented in the media, then race becomes less of an issue. It becomes a lot easier to be lax about what we say about each other. I think that's the answer: If all of us who are considered “minorities” have more of a presence as voices in the media, then we could be in a space where racism was less of a trigger.

I myself can play off Asian stereotypes when I perform, but it's the truth of who I am. I'm only talking about my family as they actually are. Any of those things I do that are looked at as parody are actually real impressions. The question is, what do we own racially? I think we own what race we are.

Comedy is really about courting the dangerous quality of language. Comedy by nature is an art form that is meant to offend and meant to cross boundaries. Unfortunately, oftentimes that includes using stereotypes, using prejudices to sort of reinforce these societal evils. Comedy is one of those last frontiers of art where you can do whatever you want — but the consequences are there. They're not optional. You just have to live it. If you really believe in comedy and what you’re saying, you accept those consequences.

I deal with hearing stereotyped Asian jokes personally by really shutting it out. I realize that part of that performer’s show isn't for my benefit or for my enjoyment. So I just tune it out, which for me is enough. But everybody has a different way of dealing with these things.

Comedy is one of those last frontiers of art where you can do whatever you want — but the consequences are there. They're not optional.

So I know that Shane Gillis, whom “Saturday Night Live” fired after audio of him making racist Asian jokes came out, will still be able to find the audience that his work is intended for. Even without being on “SNL,” he’ll be fine. He’ll reach his audience, which is the point of comedy — to find your crowd. At the same time, I'm celebrating that “SNL” hired Bowen Yang. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a while now, and it's really great that they hired him.

For the longest time, I felt like I was the only Asian American woman out there doing stand up. And now I have a whole generation of Asian American comedians to look to as people who were inspired. It's phenomenal. It's so great not to be alone, and I'm really excited about the future of “SNL.” I'm really excited about Bowen Yang's casting, and I think they should have me on as a host. I deserve it now.

As told to THINK editor Hilary Krieger. Edited and condensed for clarity.