Margaret Cho: Tenacity Wins Out Over Nepotism and Talent

Margaret Cho, the "Patron Saint of Outsiders" reveals the secret to overcoming barriers. 

What's the Big Idea?

In a 2007 essay for Vanity Fair, serial provocateur Christopher Hitchens argued that humor is filth, women despise filth, and therefore, women - bless their solemn, reliable hearts - are not all that funny. The article did exactly as it was intended to do: it went viral, sparking a wave of assaults on Hitchens’ premise, logic, and character - and culminating in a Youtube rebuttal in which he briefly considers writing a sequel titled “Why Some Women Can’t Even Read.” 

But despite the outrage it provoked at the time, the women-don’t-do-comedy argument is nothing new. Like many William F. Buckley-inspired memes, it has strong roots in the Victorian age, popping up around the same time as the “Angel in the House” and becoming “a staple of club toasts and magazines such as Punch by the late 19th century. (Tellingly, Hitchens’ essay closes with a few lines from Rudyard Kipling, poet laureate of the white male.)

Nor has the argument aged well. In the four years since the publication of "Why Women Aren't Funny," we’ve witnessed the rise of Tina Fey, the Bridesmaids lovefest, and a long-overdue revival of Roseanne Barr. The competition - among male and female comics alike - is well-connected and fiercely talented. A better question, then, may be how does anyone become a successful comic? 

In a recent interview, Big Think asked Margaret Cho for advice on breaking into a competitive field. (Like many comics, Cho's career could have easily consisted of a handful of small-time stand up gigs at the back of a noisy bar. Instead, she's a cultural powerhouse with a TV show and two books to her name.) “What‘s interesting about comedy," says Cho, "is that so few people can actually do it. There is a natural ability that needs to come first. It’s not necessarily something that can be learned.” Standup is the rare art form for which there is no school.

What's the Significance?

But that doesn't stop people from being enthralled by the promise of the exorbitant rewards that success in the field brings. "Wherever there is a lot of opportunity for money and fame, there are many, many, many people out there trying to do the same," she adds. "The competitiveness of the industry, combined with the fact that I am Asian-American - where it is mostly white men in comedy who are performing, and I’m a woman, I’m queer - I was fighting a lot of people’s expectations of what comedy was and who should be delivering the jokes."

So what is an ambitious, original comic to do? Be aggressive and be who you are.

My advice for you, the young (or maybe a not so young) comic trying to break into a very competitive field would be, your greatest quality here is tenacity.  If you really want to do something, you should just go for it and never let go. Tenacity wins out over talent.  Tenacity will win out over any kind of education or any kind of nepotism or any kind… There’s a reason why you feel something, there’s a reason to have a drive to do something.  And if you have a drive to do something then you should do it.   

When you have stopped paying attention to other people’s expectations of you - i.e., "women aren't funny" - that's when you will know you have won.

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