In a night of wit and candor, standup comic Margaret Cho was joined by fellow comedians Ali Wong, Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall as part of Cal Performances’ student-curated show Front Row.
Cho, known for her fierce, boundary-defying humor, opened the show talking about the #MeToo movement. “It’s just great because men are scared,” she said to a packed auditorium of Berkeley students. “Are you getting a lot of late-night texts saying, ‘Are we cool?’ Don’t answer them,” she advised. “Let them hang there.”
Cho went on to say that she was raped by her uncle when she was 5 to 12 years old, telling the crowd, “Somebody is out there, somebody who has also survived rape, who can’t even deal. Who is in so much pain over what happened, I want them to hear me and if they can hear me, maybe they’ll feel a little bit better about what happened to them. You’ve got to talk about it and share it.”
After Cho’s opening, each comedian came on stage and performed a comedy set, then joined Cho in conversation. The discussion bounced from lighthearted to deeply personal, exploring the challenges of making it in Hollywood as a comic of color and the courage it takes to buck expectations and be true to themselves in the limelight.
Aparna Nancherla, an up-and-coming comedian who has appeared on Inside Amy Schumer and written for Late Night with Seth Meyers, touched on her experience with depression and said she got into standup on a whim in college during the initial euphoria from anti-depressants.
She finds writing her own material is the most rewarding, and having more outlets to express her unique, weird humor. “People who look like me or are maybe coming from a different place, it’s like, it’s fine that I’m a woman of color, I still see things in a weird way compared to what people might think and that’s cool that there doesn’t have to be this one box.”
“People always sort of expect women of color to be about race all the time,” said Cho, “whereas we should have the diversity to just be ourselves to be weird and creepy and edgy.”
Standup comic Hari Kondabolu, known for his riffs on race, identity and inequality, touched on the absurdity of the way race is constructed in the U.S.
“Race is made up, right?” he said to the crowd. “It’s made-up nonsense. Think about it: I’m black, I’m Asian; I’m a color, I’m a landmass. Like, ‘white people’ is not a real thing. There was a time when the Germans weren’t white, Italians weren’t white, the Irish weren’t white. There used to be signs that said, ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.’ No dogs! Do you know what that means? Cats are white people.”
When Ali Wong, known best for her Netflix standup special Baby Cobra, walked on stage, the crowd went wild. “They love you. They’re so excited,” Cho told her.
Wong described how she used to sleep in a shirt every night with Cho’s face on it, and how warm Cho was when they first met a couple years ago.
“It’s taught me a lesson about when a new person comes along,” said Wong, “I have to make sure, even if I feel threatened, I have to make sure to be nice and warm because Margaret taught me to be nice and warm!”
“I had not seen another Asian American woman come along and do comedy for so many years,” said Cho. “It was so important for me because it was like, ‘Now I don’t have to be the only one.’ So, it was incredibly fulfilling.”
For the last half hour of the show, the comics took questions from the audience that students tweeted before the show got started.
One student asked: “How do you feel people of color are represented on TV these days? What would you change?”
Wong answered that having a diverse group of writers and showrunners who can develop multidimensional characters is how people of color begin to be represented in meaningful ways.
“It’s all from behind the camera, right?” said Wong. “It’s not a coincidence that with Fresh Off the Boat, the showrunner is a person of color. Or Blackish. Or Insecure. People keep on focusing on the casting and everything, but it doesn’t matter if you see an Indian American person if they’re playing a shitty character or a terrible stereotype… the lifeblood of film and TV is in the writing.”
“Hollywood is lazy,” adds Kondabolu. “They repeat the same things over and over again. Every time I hear, ‘Last year was a great year for South Asians,’ it’s like, for South Asian men for the most part. Think about our identities and how many layers there are… that’s a billion different stories that are not exactly the same.
“So I want to see the South Asian trans person have their show. There are so many stories that can’t be told by anyone else authentically. I’ve thought about the solution for a while… I think what we have to do is white people aren’t allowed to write, create or act in anything for 50 years. Which is fair. Just give us 50 years — we’ll control your image. Then we’ll call it even.”
Cal Performances’ Front Row, in its third year, is a program curated by students for students at UC Berkeley. The students start by inviting an artist who inspires them, and then, with that artist, build an evening of entertainment. It’s part of Cal Performances’ Berkeley RADICAL initiative, designed to engage the campus community in new and outside-the-box cultural events. Learn more about Front Row on Berkeley News.