The name Margaret Cho instantly brings to mind hot-button political activism and outrageous first-person humor, things you'll find in equal measure during her shows at Helium Comedy Club on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Whether as comedian, actress or author, Cho covers racism, feminism, abuse, LGBT empowerment, sexual liberation, corporate interference, bullying, and more. Her current stage show is titled "There's No 'I' in Team, but there is a 'Cho' in Psycho". She also has had a late-night talk show, All About Sex, which recently completed its first six-episode season on TLC, and documentaries such as Adventures in Comedy.
Cho, 42, is still as passionate about stand-up comedy as she was when she first gained national attention in the early '90s for her frank takes on being young, bold, and Korean American. "I love this job," she says matter-of-factly. "It's never not exciting." She says she is motivated by the chance to come to terms with the woes and wonders of humanity . . . plus work out some personal issues. "These newest shows," she says, are about "trying to figure why the world is so violent, and getting through that. It's personal, observational, and, in a way, quite motivational."
Those motivations were at work in All About Sex. A panel-based program hosted by Cho and featuring fellow comics and relationship counselors, it embraced all levels of intimacy, tackled sexual taboos and misconceptions, and gave women a comfortable rest stop on the sexual information highway. "TLC reached out to me, but I had wanted to do something like this for a long time," says Cho. "I believe in this show. It's wild, but there is a lot of genuine helpful information."
All About Sex seriously tackled a very wide range of topics, including polyamory and alternate sexualities. Cho says she's an expert on such things, claiming, as she does, to be a bisexual who is in an open marriage. "I know a lot about sex, know how to relate to people around it, and I feel comfortable talking about it," she says, "and that's important."
Her personal openness, long central to her act, is both fodder for riffing and a step-off point to larger themes and issues. She often talks about being bullied as a kid and facing institutional racism at ABC when filming 1994's autobiographical sitcom All-American Girl. The network gave her notes on being "too heavy," "too Asian," and "not Asian enough." That show has come back into the spotlight as another Asian-themed show, Fresh Off the Boat, tries to make it 20 years later on ABC.
She has also said on Twitter that she is a rape victim and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. "I never had a sense of keeping anything inside," she says. "As an artist, I deal in full disclosure. There's nothing that I need to censor or protect or not want to share."
At January's Golden Globes, Cho parodied North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, with exaggerated accent and stiff military bearing (similar to her take on Kim Jong-il on Tina Fey's sitcom 30 Rock). For this, Cho caught wrath on social media, odd considering that a) she is of North and South Korean descent, and b) it's kind of hard to be unfair to a dictator.
"Yeah, that was so weird, especially considering my background," she says with a laugh. "There's a lot of connection between my family and North Korea, so it's really racist of anyone . . . saying I can't play that character when I am that character."
Does Cho feel All-American Girl, itself largely autobiographical, would stand a better chance in today's climate? "I think it could have supported it, which is why I'm excited about Fresh Off the Boat. I helped creator Eddie Huang in the development process and walked him through talking to the network so that he wouldn't be in the same situation that I was. That show is succeeding, so I think it is working."
8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
at Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St. Tickets: $22 and $30. Information: 215-496-9001, www.heliumcomedy.com