Photo of Margaret Cho and Ari Gorman by Gerard Livernois
Photo of Margaret Cho and Ari Gorman
by Gerard Livernois

By Denise Sullivan

DECEMBER 8, 2014—“If you have, give. If you need, take.”

That’s comedian and San Francisco native Margaret Cho’s simple, seasonal message to the people of her hometown, and so far the directive is working: Staging impromptu street performances, Cho is devoting two months to raising awareness and much-needed funds and supplies for homeless people here, in memory of her philanthropic comic inspiration, Robin Williams.

“With Comic Relief he raised $70 million for homelessness causes,” Cho says of the series of televised charity shows and events hosted for more than 20 years by Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal.

Calling from San Antonio where she was performing her stand-up act over the weekend, Cho explained, “He had written into his contracts that a certain percentage of homeless workers had to be employed on the set. He was very conscious of homeless people and he turned in perhaps the greatest performance of a homeless person ever in The Fisher King.” The loss of Williams this year she says, was more than the death of a dangerously depressed fellow comedian and street theater vet. “We lost a passionate activist.”

It was comedian Michael Pritchard who first suggested to Cho, “Don’t grieve Robin, be Robin,” which created a hook and hashtag for her pop up performances and online #BeRobin campaign benefiting primarily homeless young people and Larkin Street Youth Center with further proceeds to be split between men and women’s shelters all over town. “It’s such a simple thing,” says Cho. “It’s my version of Comic Relief.”

On the morning of November 15, Cho announced on her Facebook page she would be busking for dollars to help the homeless. She announced her locations on Twitter.

The first event went down on November 17 at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the neighborhood where she was first introduced to post-hippies, drag queens and punk rock as a child of the 1970s. With appearances at Market and Castro, Ellis and Polk and Powell and Market, she’s raised more than $15,000 toward her $20,000 goal, helped along by physical donations and support from comedian Rosie O’Donnell who sponsored the November 26 Larkin Street Youth event featuring singer-songwriter, Bob Mould.

“It started with just me and Gerri Lawlor (BATSImprov) and it’s grown into a very successful Go Fund Me campaign,” says Cho.

Joined by local musicians like Mia Simmins, Ari Gorman, Roger Rocha and Andy Moraga, Cho has special guests slated for tomorrow’s rain or shine event at noon, under the marquee of the historic Victoria Theater on 16th near Capp Street. The theater is situated in the seat of a hard-pressed stretch that is undergoing major stress with the pending development at 16th Street BART plaza that could displace residents of SROs as well as neighborhood workers and offices.

Cho acknowledges the needs of the city’s homeless and near-homeless differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, though the basic need for shelter remains the same.

“We’ve collected food, warm socks, hats, gloves, things like sanitary pads and tampons for girls and women—the last thing anyone wants to spend money on but it’s very important that we deal with and talk about that— along with underwear and shoes.” Rain ponchos were donated during last week’s downpour, though one has to wonder why a city like San Francisco, with its present wealth to burn, cannot further assist its citizens more consistently and routinely, whether they are chronically or more recently homeless.

The latest displacement crisis has most dramatically impacted low-income workers and communities of color, resulting in a kind of systemic removal of longtime working class San Franciscans. Many are decades-long residents, people with HIV/AIDS, second, third and fourth generation natives. And then there are the artists.

The city’s own street performers have it harder now than they ever have; it’s a far cry from the days when performers the likes of magician Harry Anderson, Grimes “the Human Jukebox” Poznikov, mimes Shields and Yarnell and Williams himself lined the streets from Ghirardelli Square to the Cannery, down the piers and toward North Beach. Street music scenes went on to flourish in the Haight, the Mission and downtown.

Though performers have historically risked citations for busting noise ordinances or “blocking the sidewalk,” they have largely been tolerated, but the permitting process for street performers remains arcane. Amplification seems to be the main complaint, though in more recent years, the world famous, recently deceased Bushman was chased off his spot for trying to make a living on the street. Longtime street players like Carlos Guitarlos andThe Space Lady couldn’t get much respect on the streets here in the 1990s, though after leaving San Francisco, they came to national attention and began to regularly play indoors.

Cho left San Francisco electively in the 1980s, to pursue show business in LA. After a break in television, she forged a career telling tales of Hollywood’s racist, sexist and sizeist biases: The ground she broke was likened to Richard Pryor’s impact on the stand-up form.

Cho’s memories of attending school and growing up in San Francisco, the daughter of Korean immigrants who owned the Paperback Traffic bookstore in Polk Gulch, informs everything about her work, infused as it is with a personally political edge that was born in the Harvey Milk-era of tolerance. The city was packed with working creatives, contributing to an environment that not only supported them, but where they could support themselves, in some cases by street performing. She jokes when she was 14, inspired by Williams’ own street performances, she announced to her family she planned to make her living as a comedian: Her mother replied, “Maybe it’s better if you just die.”

Thirty years later, with average apartment rents here topping $3,000 a month, her mother’s voice was prophesy. “The divide is so huge, it’s almost insurmountable,” says Cho. “All the tech stuff, the shift away from the quirky alternative place as oasis, the capital of the politically progressive…It’s a different city.” Street performers are not as persistently present or beloved, except for in sponsored locales like the un-ironic Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water Stage at Pier 39.

Lucky for Cho, “The Mayor’s office has been very much on our side—it’s not been an issue,” she says of the impromptu, amplified performances. “In an atmosphere of frustration and anger at the state of things, we are keeping our message simple: If you have give and if you need, take.”

But her innocent philanthropic project benefitting homeless youth also signals a last gasp for the oddball arts that once defined San Francisco culture. “There is a weird energy and excitement in street performing,” says Cho. “But someone walking down the street, focused on themselves and their social media, might not hear or see that—or the homeless. We are trying to remind people: That is someone’s kid out there.”

Margaret Cho and friends will be performing again beginning tomorrow and and at the following locations this month:

December 9 , 12 PM, Victoria Theater, 16th and Capp Streets

December 19, 3-6 PM indoor-outdoor party at the Condor, Broadway and Columbus

December 20 4 PM Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore and Geary

December 23, time TBA, final marathon at the Eagle, 12th and Harrison


  • Mariachi

    I’m confused, where’s Sam to somehow shit all over this?

  • Sam

    Cho’s net worth is $153 million. She could just write a check.

    • Sam

      Sorry, I misquoted. It’s $185 million.

      • Mariachi

        “The ‘People’ section is a humorous parody of Gossip magazines, all stories are obviously not true.”

      • Sam doesn’t actually read what he uses as “evidence”

        Sam, If this is any indication how you get your information and then form your opinions, it certainly explains a whole lot. Seriously, a WHOLE LOT.

  • Mariachi

    …as expected. Whew!

    • 🙂

    • Sam

      I’m flattered that you so look forward to my contributions but there really is no need to thank me every time

  • So how much is Twitter worth, Sam? Why aren’t you asking THEM to just “write a check” to help the homeless of SF? You could also start asking AirBnB to start paying their taxes. Or you can continue to sit on your butt and shill for the corporations that pay you to act like an asshole. Your call…

    • Greg

      They’re not run by Asians, which is the only reason he’s singling out Margaret Cho. Sam’s well-known anti-Asian bias comes through again.

      • Sam

        Says Greg, the Asian-hating progressive who of course also hates cops. Just imagine how he feels about Asian cops?

        Dave, my point was that Cho could cut a check without even noticing it that would donate far far more than the pennies she is collection here. This is a cheap publicity stunt.

        And throwing money at the homeless merely encourages more of them to come to SF. It’s a bottomless pit.

        • “…my point was–” — the usual load of bullshit based on a complete mistake you refuse to admit to making. We have some lovely parting gifts for you, moron…

          • Sam

            Please keep the discussion here civil, as Tim has requested.

          • Greg

            Parting gifts is correct. I have it on good authority that the Reign of Sam here shall soon come to an end. Check out some of the back threads. Good changes are happening already, and more will come soon.

          • Sam

            Sorry, Greg, but you are wrong. Tim is a lot more upset about the abuse being dished out here by those losing debates than he is about constructive criticism.

            Tim has always been a supporter of free speech and he has given me no reason to believe that that passionate value has been forsaken due to the whinery of those who cannot tolerate criticism.

  • RDN
    • Sam

      No way, she makes that in a year.

      There will be a bunch of off-the-books tax shelters as well.

      • Greg

        “Margaret Cho is an American comedian, actress, fashion designer, and singer who has a net worth of $3 million dollars. ”

        Perhaps you’re unclear on what the definition of “net worth” is.

        • Sam

          Whatever your source is, it’s wrong. She is worth far more than that. Hell, I’m worth more than that.

          • Greg

            Yeah, right.

            You want everyone to believe you’re “successful,” which you define as having money. Honestly, I would seriously doubt that based on your psychological profile. Here’s what Wikipedia says about internet trolls:
            “The 2013 study found that trolls often have a high expectation of what it means to be successful, which is higher than they are able to attain, and this results in them resenting others…”

            The study, which I also quoted in a previous thread, describes you to a T, in this characteristic and others. It also describes other known trolls like “matlock” on the sfbg comment pages, and the dead troll Arthur Evans -anti-social loners who idolized wealth but failed to achieve it themselves, and consequently their writing was also permeated with undertones of self-loathing and general misanthropy.

            Sure, anything is possible. You could be a real estate millionaire like you describe and you have nothing better to do than make 20 or 30 posts a day on other people’s blogs. But it’s much more likely that you’re living in your mother’s basement, chronically underemployed because you’re not exactly a “people person”, and supplementing your income with “per post” payments as contract labor for some cheap PR firm.

          • Sam

            Greg, when you lose your temper and attack another commentator here with ad hominem attacks rather than address their points, then you reveal the paucity of your arguments.

            You are better than that. And on those occasions when my arguments defeat you, have the decency to admit that rather than resort to insults.

  • 4th Gen SFer

    She’s got a mansion in the south and a mansion in LA. So house some of these people and write a check Ms. Cho! I really really HATE celebs that want OUR money for THEIR causes & want publicity for it.

    BTW, Williams was nothing but a cheater who was probably a sex-addict on top of being a drug and alcohol addict. Did anyone SEE that MANSION or rather THOSE mansions that he had?!! Wow!

    And he didn’t leave squat to charity, just to his do-nothing children, both of whom will never work a job in their life.

  • 4th Gen SFer

    Also, $20k was what she wanted to raise? That’s just a TAX-WRITE OFF for her. The gall of celebs who are WEALTHY 1%ers like her to ask money from hard working suckers, and fans of hers…just write the CHECK Margaret!

    Also her past, that she goes on and on and on about is nothing but lies. She went to LOWELL, she was NEVER poor, she was NEVER friends with any black people at Lowell according to people that were her PERSONAL friends (they were Asian, just like her).

    Of course she’s just an entertainer but I wanted to give the 411 on her “act” right here.

  • zagadka

    Anyone complaining about what Margaret Cho is doing should promptly kill themselves and offer their bodies as food to the homeless, although I’m not sure they’ll want to eat anything that nasty. Seriously, though, do kill yourselves. xox

    • Sam

      It saddens me that some people cannot encounter a different opinion about politics without wishing that other person harm..

      The point is that this is a publicity gimmick, because Cho probably spends more on shoes in a year that this gimmick will raise.

      • Scam

        It saddens me that people like Sam have no friends and no meaning in their lives, and spend all day, every day trolling on the internet. So very sad indeed.

    • 4th gen SF’er

      So, it’s wrong of us, the schlubs, the working classes who work really hard for our money, many of us don’t have health insurance that in the middle classes btw, to criticize a wealthy celebrity who has mansions, tax shelters, health insurance, and could write a check TO the homeless for the amount she’s “fundraising”? Oh ok, got it. Instead, we, the schlubs, the poor, the working classes should be giving money when Margaret Cho can just write a check, and it would be taken off her taxes. Gotcha.

      • Sam

        The homeless in SF get over 160 million spent on them every year. The problem isn’t a lack of funds. In fact, the problem is that we spend too much on them, which attracts more of them to come here.

        We cannot solve the problem by throwing even more money at them. We need to cut the spending until some other place is more attractive to them.

  • “It saddens me that some people cannot encounter a different opinion about politics without wishing that other person harm.” Oh, boo-fucking-hoo. And when your “politics” are entirely based on wishing entire classes of people “harm,” we should all be civil and polite and act like that’s just an “opinion” that has no real consequence.. *Rolls eyes* Run along and cash your master’s check now shill – watch out for the guillotines.

    • Sam

      And yet when the right takes “direct action”, like shooting a doctor who performs abortions, you scream with outrage.

      See, that’s the hypocrisy – you want the right to be hostile and abusive but you don’t think those you disagree with are entitled to the same behaviors.

      But yes, it’s only politics, and if you cannot debate the issues without getting petulant and aggressive, then maybe you should find another hobby.

  • Margarita Is

    “the problem is that we spend too much on them, which attracts more of them to come here.:

    “That’s one way of looking at it as The City attempts to reduce a homeless population whose numbers have remained flat for the past 12 years.”

    “The population has ranged from 6,248 to 6,514 since 2005, after dropping from 8,640 in 2002.

    “The problem is that, between the housing market and the type of people in the program, as often as not they don’t move on. As a result, the housing fills up, and the street homeless population has stayed pretty much steady at about 7,000 for the past 10 years.»

  • Margarita Is

    “In fact, the problem is that we spend too much on them, which attracts…”

    “But the city suffers from a shortage of homeless facilities. There were close to 6,500 homeless in San Francisco last year, according to official estimates — although homeless advocates say counting the transient population is a difficult task and that the true number could be much more. Yet there are currently only 1,139 beds available in San Francisco’s crowded homeless shelters.

    “San Francisco has a centralized waitlist for homeless families to have long-term shelter stays of up to six months, during which time they work on securing permanent housing and address other challenges that led to their homelessness.

    “Currently, single homeless people who seek housing may call the city’s shelter reservation system and place their name on a waitlist. Each morning, the San Francisco Human Services Agency conducts a lottery and generates random reservation waitlist numbers for the previous day’s entries. This means that homeless people who have placed their name on the waitlist are given a number that determines when they will be provided a bed. As of June 11, the waitlist was 517 people long.