Skip to main content

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Best known for her in-your-face personality and raunchy sense of humour, Margaret Cho is also a musician, a fashion designer and an actress on the fan favourite TV show Drop Dead Diva, which just returned for its fifth season. Here, the Notorious C.H.O. shares some of her secrets for success

Comfort is overrated

When I'm on stage doing stand-up, my primary goal is to entertain, but if I also make the audience a little uncomfortable that's okay. I think you want a certain level of intensity with all kinds of performance and all kinds of art. When I see comedy, film or music, I'm looking for something that challenges me. I guess when people use the word "uncomfortable," that's just putting a negative spin on what I would call growth.

If you're funny, don't go into comedy

It's a misconception that being a comedian is about being funny. Most of the comedians I know are actually not actually very funny. Naturally funny people don't get into comedy – they are carefree and have a silly attitude toward life where as comedians are very calculated. I write a joke, I perform it and I go back to it and add stuff, take stuff out, try to figure out if there is a better way I could be presenting the information. When I am giving advice to aspiring comics, I will stress how important it is to try a joke several times even if it isn't working. Sometimes it's not the joke that's the problem, but the way it's being communicated.

Not all advice is good advice

Taking criticism is an important part of the business that I'm in, but within that, it's important to keep in mind that just because someone is giving you feedback doesn't mean it's valuable. When I was making my TV show All American Girl several years ago I would have one producer telling me I was too Asian and another saying I wasn't Asian enough. I realized that they didn't even necessarily understand what they were saying and that it was totally meaningless. Sometimes people are being paid to give an opinion, so they do that because it's their job and because they need to validate their existence. Learning how and when to follow your gut is something that takes time and practice and experience. Outside forces are inevitable. The challenge is figuring out what is good advice and what is just someone talking.

Fame is not a goal

I try to write a joke or a song or something creative every day. It's not to put out or do anything with other than to be creative. I have a friend who I have a "song a day" challenge with. We send each other a new song every day through iPhone memos. It's really fun and it gets me going. I try to define my success by how much I enjoy something. People get into the entertainment business because they want to be famous, which is just not what it should be about. Fame is not a goal. Loving yourself, loving what you do, those are the things that people should aim for.

Listen to your Seinfeld

Early on in my career, I won a contest and got to open for Jerry Seinfeld. He told me that I should drop out of school and become a comedian full time. That was very validating for me as a young comedian. I had actually already dropped out at the time – I was already doing what he was saying I should do, but I didn't have the heart to tell him.