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43 Minutes With Margaret Cho

A discussion of the meaning of Jersey Shore and nonmonogamy in the comedienne’s hotel room.

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M argaret Cho leaves the door open while she changes clothes.

Just minutes ago, in the dimly lit Maritime Hotel elevator, she warned me she had to get out of what she was wearing—a sequined top that looks like disco armor, which she’d put on for a TV appearance. Inside her tiny room, I sit by the window and concentrate on the sun setting over Ninth Avenue as Cho steps into the bathroom. She stays in full view of the wall mirror.

For Cho, who is 41, making herself more comfortable may mean putting on softer clothes, but it doesn’t involve our seeing less of her—especially now that she’s in such good shape from Dancing With the Stars. Recently kicked off that show (burlesque she can do, but “Viennese waltz? I have no idea”), she’s still dancing as fast as she can, with a new album called Cho Dependent and a comedy tour, which played the Beacon on November 5.

Now in a threadbare gray T-shirt, her black bra showing through, Cho sits opposite me, speaking thoughtfully through red lipstick about her multitudinous crushes. Truth be told, Cho is herself a girl-crush magnet. She’s just obnoxious enough (infamously saying, “Sarah Palin is the worst thing to happen to America since 9/11”) and trashy enough (“Where’s my parade? What about slut pride?” she quipped on her stand-up DVD, I’m the One That I Want) to get in your head and hang out longer than is proper. Cho concedes she very much likes her husband, Al Ridenour (oh, right—him), but adds, in an increasingly dim hotel room, “We’ve never had a monogamous relationship … I need the ability to be myself and do what I want.”

I learn that Cho has a thing for her DWTS co-star Jennifer Grey; the burlesque stars Jo Boobs, Dirty Martini, and World Famous Bob (“They make you feel beautiful”); Fiona Apple (“Very sexy!”); and indie-rock sisters Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She gets especially moony over Liz Phair, about whom she deviates from the nineties-music-fan party line that Phair betrayed her fans by taking off her clothes for promo pictures and chasing mainstream fame.

“I always thought she was sexy,” Cho says, making such direct eye contact that I lose my train of thought. “Even in the first album, that was kind of her cross to bear, her sexuality. So why not pose naked? Why not be heavily produced? Why not get all up into that sexual image, because that’s part of it?”

Even as she’s ventured onto prime-time reality television and composed a Weird Al–inflected album, Cho retains her underground cred—which is to say, she’s still niche-famous. “I don’t really know what selling out is, exactly,” she says. “I’m dying to sell out, but nobody’s buying it. I would love to go mainstream, but my comedy is too edgy. It’s always too dirty. It’s always too filthy.” She can’t help herself.

Enough about her career. Back on track: Cho also has a crush on the cast of Jersey Shore, especially Snooki (“She looks quite like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra”), and can wax philosophical on the show’s profundity. “The characters fulfill some sort of mythological purpose,” she insists. “You have this deadly man-eater, JWoww, who’s very powerful in her silence. And then there’s your homegirl, Snooki. She gets left out and overlooked, like the kid sister. And then you have the ingénue, Sammi. So you have these archetypes. It’s like a Greek myth. Somebody should do a dissertation on it.”

On her new album, Cho has a song called “I’m Sorry” that’s about another former person of interest, the sitcom writer and producer J. J. Paulsen. She had a crush on him when she was in her twenties and they both worked on All-American Girl, a sitcom based on her stand-up routine and Cho’s most mainstream moment. It was unrequited. Years later, she Googled him on a whim and found out he’s serving a 26-year prison term for killing his wife. When police eventually came to the house to investigate, they found his wife’s partially mummified corpse—and the couple’s young son alone in the house. The song is a great homage to crush-Googling gone wrong.

“What’s horrible about it is that I really loved him,” she says sadly. “It wasn’t like a fleeting thing, and it wasn’t something that I anticipated in any way. You know when you’re young and you fall for somebody and it really stays with you? Again, it’s really nineties. It wasn’t just him; it was the time period. It was corduroy jeans. It was the Breeders. The house I was living in where he would come over and hang out with me.” On my way out, I go to write down her e-mail address, get flustered, and drop my pen.

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