Photograph by Austin Young Chameleon: Margaret Cho's wide range is appealing to her wide range of fans.
The Cho Must Go On
Comic Margaret Cho is older, wiser and funnier than ever
By David Sason
With socialites and their mothers literally boasting their own reality shows these days, it's about time a truly talented subject like Margaret Cho had one. For nearly two decades, the Korean-American comedian has spoken for outsiders everywhere. To disenfranchised gays and fellow first-generation Americans with identity crises to any entertainer taking on the industry machine to any woman who's ever felt unattractive, Cho has offered a bold and fearless comedic voice. With VH1's new Cho Show, the audacious comic, who brings her uproarious Beautiful Tour to the Wells Fargo Center Sept. 13, returns to television older, wiser, funnier and a little more jaded.
In the season premiere, we see the San Francisco native processing mixed emotions at being named Korean of the Year by a Korean-American organization—presumably the same folks who protested her ABC sitcom All American Girl 14 years ago. While revolutionary in many ways, the short-lived show weathered accusations of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Cho is still smarting from the backlash.
"They really hated me," Cho says laughingly via phone from Nashville, where she is on tour. "One Korean-American reporter at the LA Times spent many pages in the newspaper complaining about how I was the worst thing to happen to the Korean community since the Koreas were separated!" When I suggest the possibility that her detractors have merely evolved, Cho rebuts with her characteristically biting wit. "They mostly died," she deadpans. "So the people who are younger are really into me."
And they are really into her. Following the Korean of the Year award ceremony, we see a young girl crying her eyes out while expressing her admiration to Cho, reminding us that she is still one of few well-known Asian-American entertainers, period—even in the 21st century. At a hometown show at the Warfield Theatre earlier this year, Cho offered a glimpse into her peculiar form of recognition. "Someone asked me, 'What was it like to make Charlie's Angels?'" she remembered. "I said, 'No, no. I'm the one from Grey's Anatomy. '"
Cho feels that indirect slighting is just as detrimental as major racial faux pas. "The biggest thing we're facing isn't exactly overt racism or stereotypes; it's really about invisibility and noninclusion," she says. "I think it's getting a little bit better, but there really are not enough representations."
The film industry, a business like any other, continues to compound the problem by being Caucasian- and Euro-centric. This year's case in point is the controversial movie 21, based on the true story of MIT students who counted cards and took some Vegas casinos for a fortune. Countering any progress from the recent Harold and Kumar films, 21's real-life Asian-American characters became white for the movie; ironically, British actor Jim Sturgess required a voice coach to sound convincingly American in the lead. Ben Ma, whose memoir was the basis of the screenplay, became Ben Campbell. While the move could be seen as a tragic necessity for commercial success, Cho agrees with the protesters this time around.
"That was really upsetting, and it sickens me that our stories are taken from us and given to white people," says Cho, whose own sitcom's Asian characters were replaced by Caucasian characters in midseason. "It's like if you took a story about segregation in Mississippi or one of those stories with slavery and you just made it with white people. They wasted one of our stories."
In additional to ethnic restrictions, Cho is further handicapped by her normal, full figure—which sticks out like a sore thumb next to Hollywood's throngs of waifs. While her struggles with weight have provided great material for her standup comedy, Cho celebrates her curves in The Sensuous Woman, a monthly variety show combining burlesque, comedy and belly dancing. "It's a big part of my life and how I keep myself sane and happy," Cho says of the show, currently on hiatus. On The Cho Show, she even dons an outfit consisting solely of body paint.
And Cho is certainly done with fad diets. "I kind of eat a lot of French fries. A lot. I mean, I'm eating some right now," she says, chewing loudly. "And a lot of fried food and cheese. And sugar. And alcohol. And a lot of candy is my diet secret."
Thankfully, with her reality show, Cho can just be herself, whether on a particular day she feels "too Asian" or "not Asian enough," as the All American Girl producers notoriously told her. In addition to all the fellow comedians who appear on the show, a major thrill for fans is seeing her real-life parents, whose heavy Korean accents and acclimation anecdotes have inspired some of Cho's most riotous standup material over the years. At the Warfield show, Cho told of her father's curious reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre (caused by a fellow Korean). "Wow, 32 people," she mimicked slowly in an exaggerated accent, "I mean, one or two is OK, but . . ."
Although her parents appear to enjoy all of her shenanigans on the show and seem comfortable in front of the cameras, this is no accident. "They were kind of scared of it and were worried I was going to ask them to do something they didn't want to do," Cho remembers. "They're not allowed to watch it, because I don't want them to get super self-conscious."
Although the show's coverage is a far cry from 24-hour surveillance (for instance, Cho's husband, Al Ridenour, doesn't appear on the show), some vulnerable moments slip out. Most poignant is when her parents treat her friend and personal assistant, Selene Luna (who is 3-foot-10), like a surrogate grandchild. Humorous, sure, until they buy a baby's outfit for Luna's daughter, bringing the 39-year-old Cho to tears over the diminishing prospect of having children of her own.
"They'd been thinking that for a long time," Cho says without a hint of embarrassment. "It's the stuff we talk about, and it just seemed like the right thing, so I'm happy that that is out there."
While virtually everyone has to deal with pressure from their parents, Cho's material mainly caters to ethnic minorities and the LGBT community, whom Cho has supported through many causes, most recently the ongoing fight for marriage rights. "I think that's true," Cho says. "Some of the [Beautiful Tour's] subjects are mostly for gays and lesbians and mostly for people of color, but it's also for everybody."
Indeed. Her current show not only pleases her gay audience ("I love gay bars until it gets to be dick o'clock!") and her fellow Asian-Americans, her materials takes on politicians, entertainment figures and technology, namely the ubiquitous online hookup-aide MySpace. "Who hasn't fucked their top 10?" she says of the online promiscuity catalyst. "I actually fucked Tom!"
Amazingly enough, her wide-reaching, perfectly paced shows—from 2000's breakthrough I'm the One That I Want through her current production—stem from improvisation. "I just kind of do it and try to figure out what's funny, and it takes a long time," Cho says. "I do a lot of writing onstage. It's a lot of improv-ing, but by the time I go to do the show, it's all set." With so many bases to cover in a single comedy show, she surely must seek advice for material she's working on, right? "No, no," she says with a laugh. "It's only me."
While Cho is used to fighting for respect on the home front, she, like many, feels hopeful that a new ally may soon be in the White House. "It's huge. It just makes America a real democratic republic," she says of presidential hopeful Barack Obama, for whom she's been a campaign surrogate. "It really actually reinforces this whole idea that we are free."
Things seem to be working out fine for Cho now, which is a far cry from that time, not so long ago, when even her parents didn't believe in her. "They were not supportive at all, but they finally learned to be," Cho says. "They finally realized that I wasn't quitting." Good for us that she didn't. America could always use a good laugh.
Margaret Cho appears at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, Sept. 13. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $15–$65. 707.546.3600.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.