It's Cho Time

Article Image

Most of us don't necessarily equate comedienne Margaret Cho with acting, although she has had small but memorable film and television appearances, including It's My Party, Face/Off, the animated Rugrats Movie, and Sex and the City. Her widest claim to fame came in 1994, when she briefly starred in her own series, the ill-fated All-American Girl, which was loosely based on her personal experience growing up as a rebellious daughter in a conservative Korean household. Or rather, as is the case with so many sitcoms, it was based on her standup comedy material.

Indeed, Cho has no pretenses about being a great thespian; she's always considered herself, first and foremost, a standup. Back Stage West recently caught up with her via a long-distance call--she was at Edinburgh Festival Fringe performing her latest show, The Notorious C.H.O. This hip-hop-flavored show, currently on a 35-city North American tour, will play the Universal Amphitheatre this week, followed by dates in Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Portland, and Palm Springs.

Cho explained that the title and theme of her latest live show were inspired by the new wave of feminism present in the hip-hop culture; she specifically mentioned rap artists Eve, Missy Elliot, and Lil' Kim as muses. "They're really strong and very sexually powerful women, and there's a kind of energy there," said the comic. "I wanted to do a show that spoke to that and had the same kind of energy."

Don't, however, expect the comic to break down and freestyle during her standup act. As she noted, The Notorious C.H.O. is not about rap music. "I'm not going to bust out any rhymes--I'm not going to 'drop the science.' I wanted a visual style for the show, for it to look a certain way, and for me to dress a certain way, which is total, like, hootchy-mama wear," said the edgy comedienne, whose act alternates tamer material-impersonating her conservative mother on an answering machine--with sudden bursts of raunchy Sam Kinison-like rage. Unlike most female performers on the comedy circuit, Cho is sexually and emotionally explicit. Like Richard Pryor before her, Cho's comic brilliance comes from transforming her own pain and fear into raw comedy. It's the way she copes with her own day-to-day encounters with racism, sexism, and her struggle for self-acceptance.

Pain Management

Cho has never really felt accepted--not by her peers on the playground, the Asian-American community, even other standups. Raised in San Francisco, where her strict Korean immigrant parents owned a bookstore on Polk Street, Cho was expelled from high school at 15 for having 0.6 GPA (all Fs and an incomplete)."I guess I was lucky," Cho confessed in her best-selling autobiography, I'm the One That I Want. "I disappointed my parents so young that they didn't expect anything from me after that." After flunking, she briefly took extension theatre courses at San Francisco State, but it wasn't until later, at the School of the Arts in San Francisco, that she first began performing. Her comedy career began at the school's short-form improv troupe, Batwing Lubricant. Later, on a dare, the then-16-year-old Cho tried standup for the first time at the Rose and Thistle comedy club.With a mic in her hand and a crowded club to blow away, Cho quickly saw her destiny. She developed a shock-value style onstage by cracking up an audience to the point of tears, then goosing them. "I got high from it," said Cho, who as a novice comic found herself opening for Jerry Seinfeld. "When the crowd is with you... you feel like you are exactly where you should be, and there is nothing better. Comedy is a rare gift from the gods, an awesome invention. It propels you right into the heart of the universe." Ultimately, Cho credits standup with getting her through the rough points in her life. "I've always had standup comedy to look back to, which is what saved my life, I think," she told Back Stage West.

All-American Story

Initially, when Cho did come to L.A. looking for representation in the early 1990s, the first agent she met with advised her to quit because Asians couldn't make it in show business. Later, Cho saw that same agent representing an Asian-American actor on her sitcom. "Stuff like that happens to actors all the time," said Cho. "I became so resilient to where I just didn't care." Still, she never imagined that her routines would end up in front of the camera. When she was a kid, the lack of Asian faces on screen was discouraging. "Oh, except on M*A*S*H* sometimes you'd see an Asian person in the background unloading a truck," Cho said. "My dreams around television or what I could do were limited. I didn't think it was possible. That never occurred to me. It was such a joy to just perform, and that was enough." Still, given the choice of constantly touring colleges and comedy clubs or developing and starring in her own TV sitcom, Cho, at the time just 23, took the Hollywood deal. While it is just about every comedian's hope to land a network series, Cho soon found out there were major strings attached.

Before All-American Girl began taping, the producers pushed Cho to lose 30 pounds in two weeks, which resulted in her kidneys collapsing and a nasty diet-pill addiction. It was so crucial for Cho's self-esteem to be accepted by everyone that she spiraled into the classic E! True Hollywood Story: fame, depression, alcohol and drug addiction, and a near-death experience--all of which are described in excruciating detail in her tell-all autobiography.

Her sitcom aired in 1994, the pilot hammered out from a mere five minutes of Cho's standup routine. It was a brightly packaged, G-rated portrait based on a small part of her own life."I spared [the show's writers] the real story," Cho wrote in her book. "I lived in my parents' basement when I was 20, because my father banned me from the rest of the house.... I was unemployed, trying to kick a sick crystal-meth habit by smoking huge bags of paraquat-laced marijuana and watching Nick at Nite for six hours at a time. Now that's a sitcom."

While it was groundbreaking for a network TV show to revolve around an Asian-American family, the series received heated criticism from the Asian-American community. To many viewers of Asian descent, Cho was not the model Korean-American. "It was so unfair to have to really define the ultimate Asian-American experience," said Cho, looking back. "It's to say that we aren't capable of a vast variety of experiences just because of our race. It's really racist in itself to assume that--it's a politically correct way of being racist." After receiving numerous complaints, ABC hired a consultant to make the show more "authentically Asian." However, before the show could be reworked it was canceled and replaced in its timeslot by Drew Carey's new show--"because he's so skinny," joked Cho.Despite the turmoil she went through during her sitcom stint, she has few regrets about it. "It was so bizarre to be inside of that while it was all happening," Cho explained, suddenly sad. "I was going through so much personal turmoil. I learned so much from it, and to reflect on it is really important. I don't think it would be possible to be where I am if it hadn't been for that."


One thing she learned, she said, is that artists, including actors and comics, must honor their own opinions above everyone else's and not take what people say too personally. She believes that actresses still starving to conform to the media's ideal body image must find their own voice and their own beauty within and trust it and work with it.Cho also admitted that while Asian-American actors are too often cast in the convenience store/drycleaning/manicurist/tourist/exchange student roles, she is realistic about the issue. "That's difficult, because we want to work," Cho said. "A lot of times the only parts that are out there can be stereotypical, but to be able to work and still find brilliance within roles is the challenge." Expect more of the same from Cho: A filmed performance of her previous solo show, I'm the One That I Want, is out on DVD and VHS next month. She also plans to film The Notorious C.H.O., as well as write a new book that will continue where her last autobiography left off. Cho will also provide commentary for the new PBS fall series Life 360. And she hopes to build a bigger international audience, starting with her current feminist-themed tour. "It's just about claiming your own power, claiming sexuality as your own, and the politics of having a woman's body," Cho said, then started to giggle, "It's about being a bad-ass, which is just what I would like to be." BSW

Margaret Cho will perform "The Notorious C.H.O." on Sept. 15 at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City.