Margaret Cho and Robin Tran Are Cosplaying as Comedians
It’s a big month for Margaret Cho. An established name in the comedy world, Cho recently appeared as a lead in Joel Kim Booster’s queer Pride and Prejudice remix Fire Island, and made a cameo on season two of Hacks on HBOMax. Cho has never been one to pull punches—but she’s also proven an ability, time and again, to reinvent herself. When the pandemic forced the the Grammy- and Emmy-nominated comedian to take her longest break from the stage since she began doing stand up as a teenager (more on that below), the 53-year-old San Francisco native went back to the drawing board, interrogating her relationship to performing, reminiscing on her earliest flops and triumphs, and reshaping her material. The fruits of that era of introspection can be seen in Netflix’s latest comedy special, Stand Out. The show, recorded during the Netflix Is A Joke live comedy festival in Los Angeles, features post-pandemic material from standup legends and newcomers alike. To mark the occasion, Cho got on the phone with one of her own favorite comedians, her fellow festival performer Robin Tran. Here, the pair discuss the disastrous performances that sparked their careers, cosplaying confidence, and why the world needs more Asian-American comics (and less of everybody else).
MARGARET CHO: I hope your ears have been burning Robin, because I have been talking about you so much lately. Our month is here, finally— Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month. People keep asking me, “Who is the one to watch?” and I keep saying, “It’s all about Robin Tran!” I’ve been hyping you on the Today Show, Good Morning America, everywhere I’ve been lately.
ROBIN TRAN: Wow, thank you. People have been sending me clips of you doing that. In high school, there was this asian kid who was really funny. I would urge him to do stand up, and he would look at me and say, “Look at our faces, do you really think we can ever be on TV?”’ It was so disheartening, because he was right—there was no proof that people like us could do it. Then I saw you on a Comedy Central special, you were doing a joke about soy milk. I was like, “Not only is there an Asian person on TV, but she’s really funny.” So lately I’ve been thinking about you also.
CHO: We love each other! I haven’t seen you, in the flesh, for a while. But of course, we’ve seen each other on TikTok.
TRAN: And I opened for you in January of 2020.
CHO: Right before everything shut down.
TRAN: I learned so much watching you that weekend. You invited me to open via text message, and I misread it. I thought I was doing one 10 minute set, but it turned out I was doing four half-hour shows. I found out the day before, and I tried so hard to seem completely cool about it. The first show was kind of rough, but when I watched your set, I was like, “This is a whole other level of effortlessness.” There can often be a separation between a comedian and an audience, but not with you. You and your audience are in it together.
CHO: It’s about getting used to it. It happens to me weekly, where I haven’t done standup in a couple of days, and the first show of the weekend feels bumpy every time. By the second show, you get it. That’s why the pandemic changed comedy for me. I completely forgot how to perform.
TRAN: I did my first comedy set after 18 pandemic months, and when I told my first joke and the audience laughed, I was like, “Woah, this is a weird job.” It almost felt like a first date. I’m up here with a microphone and you guys are laughing? We had to feel each other out, because I don’t think they were used to being an audience, either. It was an out of body experience. Margaret, did you have trouble during the pandemic with your comedy?
CHO: Yeah, I’ve never taken that much time off— I usually perform three times a week. When you’re a comic, you put the rest of your life on hold because you can’t really hang with friends, you can’t go see movies, you can’t go on vacation. Suddenly, there was nothing on the books, and I was like, “Woah I’m an actual person.” It’s the weirdest thing.
TRAN: When the pandemic started, I wasn’t a headliner yet, so when they said, “Robin, you’ve got to cancel all your shows,” I was like, “You want me to cancel four shows? I already have nothing on my calendar.” But I actually got better from taking that time off, which I didn’t expect. I spent that time making videos on TikTok and Instagram, and rewatching and deconstructing all the things that made me laugh as a kid. I got really in touch with my sense of humor.
CHO: I think it made my comedy better, too. It was like a reset, because I had to forget all of the things that I knew about comedy and start over. That’s a lot of power.
TRAN: I was also trying to remember why I loved it in the first place, because you do enough shows, and you start to think, “This sucks.” It became new again, and I was like, “Robin, do your old jokes, but do them weird.” Since I got back onstage, I finally hit the point where there’s no more separation between me and the audience. It happened when I was opening for Anthony Jeselnik, and I was thinking about how my dad used to tell me, “Don’t think.” and I was always like, “What do you mean don’t think? How?” And then it clicked. It was what I saw you doing all those years ago. I tried it, and it ended up being the best set I ever did. Do you remember the worst show you ever did?
CHO: It was one of my earliest performances, it was so terrible. I was doing a show for school children, and I was opening for a trampoline act. It was three people, and one of them played electric guitar while he jumped and flipped. I did my show and I was waiting in the wings while the trampoline people went on. The guy with the guitar fell off mid-flip, and impaled himself on the broken neck of the guitar. He was bleeding, and the curtains closed, and all the kids are screaming. Someone said to me, “Get out there.” I was fifteen. I stumble out and I’m like, “Um, wow. That was not supposed to happen!” In the wing the guy is holding his intestines in with his hand. They ended the show and an ambulance came. He was not fine. I’m not sure what happened to him. It was so traumatic, but it taught me that anything can happen. You could be impaled on the neck of a broken electric guitar, and stand there holding your intestines while kids scream at you.
TRAN: [Gasps] Oh, no. Anything can happen, and you have to embrace that. My pre-show ritual used to be about controlling the set—I’d memorize my lines and cadence out of fear. Now, it’s the opposite. I just say to myself, “Have fun, you don’t know how they’re going to react, you don’t know what they’re going to say. Just embrace the uncertainty.” The spontaneity is what used to horrify me the most, but now it’s my favorite part of the whole thing.
CHO: You have to let it be what it’s going to be. When you can allow that, it’s better.
TRAN: Definitely. When I’m performing now, I pretend I’m in the audience, and I perform for that person. Essentially I’m just making comedy that I want to listen to.
CHO: Do you remember your most formative show?
TRAN: One of my first standup experiences was my high school talent show, and my audition was a disaster. I auditioned for seven of my classmates with all these pre-written jokes, I was so scared. All of my jokes bombed, and after every bomb, I would start crying and apologizing for crying. There was a guy on the drum set, and after every joke, he would go “badum-cha.” I thought there was no way I got into the talent show, but they didn’t have enough acts, so I got a spot. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Did you see my performance?” But a friend told me, ”Play the role of a confident person for the week, and see if it gets you ready to perform.” So I walked around campus, and I would just talk without thinking. If people laughed, I would write it down. When I went up on stage, I had this spontaneous written set, and I won the talent show. There was even a standing ovation. That taught me to get out of my own head and be confident about what I’m saying. And if you’re not confident, play the role of a confident person.
CHO: That’s the best, pretend and then you’re halfway there. It’s like cosplaying as a comedian. I love it.
TRAN: I felt like I was cosplaying as a headliner until the last couple months. I was always wondering if I could do hour-long sets, so my second time headlining, when they were like, “Can you do an hour?” And I said yes, even though I didn’t really know. It was rough, but I did it four more times that weekend. I learned more in two days than I did in the previous 10 years. Now I feel like an actual professional comedian for the first time. In the early days, if you flopped, what would make you get back up there the next day?
CHO: You have to do it again! There’s nothing else you can do when things go badly. The thing is, it goes badly all the time. I am always willing to do terrible things, and it is always fine. If you learn something from a flop, then it’s not so bad. In comedy, usually the audience will go with you if they understand what you’re talking about. Every attempt is rewarded, as long as you make the effort. People come to shows to laugh, and typically they want to understand.
TRAN: A lot of comedians are afraid of offending people. I get a real thrill out of saying things onstage that might make people hate me.
CHO: Yeah, and part of that is identity. Being Asian American, trans, gay, all of it helps us get away with things. You’re given identity points.
TRAN: I love that you said that. I like to play with that dynamic, because I can sense when an audience will let me get away with things because they assume things based on my ethnicity and my gender identity. They see this adorable giant baby with a big fat round face, and then I say something horrible, and they never see it coming. It’s fun to safely manipulate your audience’s emotions.
CHO: [Laughs] I love it. Here’s to more Asian American comics, and less of everybody else!