'There Are No Limits'

In the nearly two decades since Margaret Cho started doing stand-up in local comedy clubs at 16, the candid and sometimes caustic 35-year-old comedian has morphed into a multi-faceted performer. She's turned her popular one-woman shows into nationwide concert tours, feature films, and even a best-selling book ("I'm the One That I Want," Ballantyne Book, 2001).

Now she is using her celebrity to push for a variety of causes. Her latest concert tour, "Revolution," which premieres on the Sundance Channel in June, is her most political yet--a sort of call to arms for audience members to advocate for the causes they believe in. Top among Cho's: gay marriage rights. Throughout her comedic career, Cho has been an outspoken supporter of gays and lesbians (who in turn have been faithful fans of hers). But she's doing more than talking now. Last month, she started a Web site (loveisloveislove.com), urging visitors to participate in one of several gay rights rallies publicized on the site and to sign a petition asking lawmakers to vote down a proposed federal amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and woman. She's also participating in this week's Freedom to Marry Benefit rock concert in New York, presiding over a wedding and commitment ceremony in West Hollywood to kick off National Gay Pride Month in June and even launching a line of gay marriage gowns. Cho also uses her own website (margaretcho.com), which includes near-daily blog entries, as a platform to air her views on a number of other issues--from the war in Iraq to the recent FCC "indecency" rulings to capital punishment (she opposes all of them). NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett spoke to Cho about her emerging role as activist. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your recent "Revolution" concert tour seems to be your most political yet. Was that intentional?

Margaret Cho: Yes, I've become a more political person. All of the country has...and the show was really speaking about how the government is our government. We are the people. We actually have control over what we are doing. That was the basic intent of the film...To me, "Revolution" is an incredibly patriotic show, a celebration of what being an American is. My own transformation is really about becoming more of an American, and realizing I have a right and a responsibility to my country to use everything I have in hand to help us along. I have been a lifetime activist in the way that I work. To be political is not necessarily a departure, it's just being more grown up. There are so many things that I want to address, this being an election year. Now the "Revolution" tour has ended and I am writing a new show that's even more political.

Really? Any particular targets?

It's not really aimed at the current administration, but where we are as a country... To get in a huge brawl over Janet Jackson's breast? What's obscene to me is that they would want to censor a photographs of the [fallen] soldiers coming home. They are heroes. And this censorship also shows a denial to admit the number of people who died. It's an incredible loss for so many people and they are so young and we only get a vague idea of the numbers [from daily reports], but just look at the number of names from when the war started. It's overwhelming. Not to mention the number of Iraqi deaths.

You've also been very outspoken in advocating for gay marriage rights.

This alliance with the gay community began when I started as a comedian...and going up to bat for gay marriage is just an extension of that. It's obvious that this [ban on gay marriage] is something that is really kind of a ridiculous notion. All of us are created equal, and if we don't all have the same rights then we can't really call ourselves Americans.

Tell me about the new website (loveisloveislove.com) you launched promoting marriage rights.

That's just the simple truth of it. Love is love is love...When people say they are protecting marriage, I am not sure what we'd be protecting marriage from. It's this odd living-by-Bible-mandates. If we did that for everything, it would be an unpleasant society. We'd all be painting our doors with lamb's blood. It goes to a weird definition of Americans being all Christians. I am a Christian myself, but my God loves and respects everyone and would want everyone to have the same rights. Love is a right not a privilege.

You've started a website, officiated at a gay wedding and are participating in a "Freedom to Marry" benefit concert this week. Anything else?

I'm also a fashion designer. I did the very first same-sex wedding dress. It's perfect for your special day. It symbolizes purity and love and devotion. It's a very simple, very classic gown and appropriate for City Hall.

I didn't realize there was a dress code.

It's one of those things where you have to get married on the fly without all the frills and lace. And here's something that you can pick up that gets it all together.

Have you designed suits for the grooms?

Coming soon.

You also post a petition on that website asking lawmakers to oppose the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. How many have signed the petition through your site?

I'm not sure exactly, but vast numbers.Our total goal is half a million and I think that we are not far from that goal. It is astonishing how strong a reach this has. It is not about being a Republican or Democrat but about upholding basic rights and the Constitution.

You got married yourself last year [to writer-artist Al Ridenour]. Has that affected your feelings about marriage?

It's more personal. Now that I have that joy, how could I deny that to anyone else? It is so important to make sure it becomes real for everyone.

You signed a letter recently asking the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider the recent ruling that Bono's expletive at an awards show was "profane and indecent." Do you worry that you might be targeted by the FCC next?

I have to speak freely. I am uninteresting if I don't. And the FCC has broadened its definition of indecency so much. I spent so much time trying to honor the legacy of Lenny Bruce that to have that taken away now is not negotiable. It's a debate against what is morality. And you cannot legislate morality. That includes gay marriage and free speech.

You talk pretty frankly about a lot of controversial topics in your shows--from homosexuality to racism to eating disorders. Is anything off limits?

No, and that is why the FCC petition is so important. On a personal level, there are no limits. I can't see that anything that has happened to me wouldn't become some type of expression. I like to express my life; that is how I have survived. I never think about repressing that.

You've also spoken out against capital punishment.

That's a newer issue--the abolishment of the death penalty. It surrounds Damien Echols, one of three teenagers who were accused of killing three little boys in Arkansas [in 1993]... Damien is on death row and the other two are now serving life sentences. I have been communicating almost daily with Damien. I learned about him from "Paradise Lost" ["Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" aired on HBO in 1996]. I couldn't believe these guys were in jail a decade later. He is appealing now; he's appealed several times... And there are so many other cases on death row that didn't have the advantage of forensic technology that we have now.

I understand you're planning to cover both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for an Internet show. With your liberal views, are you worried about how you'll be received at the GOP convention?

I am really like a thug. I can crack any face. I can hotwire a car. I can break into anyone's apartment. I will do whatever it takes to get in. [laughs]

No, I know I am invited. I don't think they'll turn me away. It's an interesting thing. The door is open wherever I go, even if I don't agree with everything a group is saying. There is a kind of honor that comes with being a comedian. People are a little disarmed and welcoming. I have actually been invited several times to the White House.

Are you kidding?

No, several times, by Dick Cheney. He was always sending me things to this party or that one.

Have you ever taken him up on an invitation?

No, I don't even RSVP. If there was a box that said "As If," I would check that.

While we're on the subject of unlikely things you'd do, I read that you're working on a rap song on the state of U.S. medical care. I didn't even know you rapped--much less about healthcare.

Actually, I love hip hop. I am a terrible rapper though, but this is about healthcare. The rap is actually based on a doctor who lives in Baton Rouge and has to deal with very difficult situations where people use the emergency room as primary healthcare. She works the Friday night "gun and knife club," as they call it. She has seen so much death and gun shot wounds and neglect of the elderly. Her name--it's great--is Dr. Life. Honestly. She was just relating her story to me. They [doctors] are so under funded and overworked. I thought, this is a really important issue. And we can't trust the government to amend the situation.

Is the CD out yet?

Not yet, but soon. It's actually going to be animated too and we'll put that out as DVD and video in the near future.

You're also working on a movie called "Bam Bam and Celeste." What's that about?

Right now, we are in pre-production, getting people we would like to be in it. I am starring in it and [gay comedian] Bruce Daniels is the co-star. It is kind of like a gay "Dumb and Dumber." It's also a real critique of these reality shows.

I was wondering when we'd see the backlash to those shows.

Well, here it comes!

You've often said that you're unlike the person you portray onstage. But you actually seem just as outspoken offstage.

I think people are alarmed that I am not that funny offstage. But I can't stand it when people are just on all the time. I am not exactly sure why they are on. I want to turn them off. [laughs] I like to relax and I think people sometimes expect more brash cussing all the time--a yelling, mean type of girl. But I'm not mean.

Except I think I have to be mean now and get off the phone..

Any parting words?

These Web sites [margaretcho and loveisloveislove] are where I live. That's where everything on all the different projects can be found, all the things that need to change--well, what I think need to change. And I think they can change.