BACK IN 1994, ABC sent letters to Korean Americans advertising its new sitcom, All-American Girl. The series starred stand-up comedian Margaret Cho and was the first TV show to portray a Korean-American family. (M*A*S*H does not count.) I received one of those letters and looked forward to watching Margaret tell it like it is. Finally, a show that would bust stereotypes of the model minority, the math geeks, the violin players, the Moonies. However, All-American turned out to be as disappointing as a blind date. The jokes were flat; characters were types; and the usually irrepressible Cho just didn't seem to have her heart in it. The program—written by a white writer—was swiftly canceled, and Cho sank into a long period of depression and drug abuse.
I'M THE ONE THAT I WANT
directed by Lionel Coleman
written and performed by Margaret Cho
runs July 7-13 at Egyptian
Six years later, the 31-year-old comic has returned to what she does best, stand-up, touring 40 cities with her one-woman show I'm the One That I Want. Salvaging rich, personal material from her ill-fated All-American period, the show is smart, funny, and inspiring, evoking as much pathos as laughter. (Certainly that's the response of her hometown San Francisco audience at the Warfield Theater, where her November 1999 performance was filmed.)
HER FACE IS too full, said the ABC execs who urged Cho to lose weight. Desperate to please them (and advance her career), Cho went on diet pills and shed 30 pounds in two weeks. Her kidneys failed and she ended up in the hospital.
Indeed, her face is full—round, tight, and ready to explode like a water balloon. Cho screams in mock sci-fi horror, "It's the FACE!" Like Chevy Chase and Jim Carrey, Cho exaggerates her facial expressions to cartoonish effect. When she imitates her mother, she closes her eyes, lifts her chin, and her face seems even bigger. Describing the old woman flipping through a gay porn magazine, she wails in broken English, "I not ready for that!"
Yet her upbringing was hardly conservative. Her parents owned a bookstore and employed many gay men—drag queens included—who took the young Margaret under their fairy wings. "I am a fag hag," Cho declares matter-of-factly. "Fag hags are the backbone of the gay community. Without us, you're nothing," she says to a roaring audience. In turn, gays and lesbians are big Cho fans. This June she was the celebrity grand marshal at the gay pride parades in both LA and San Francisco.
Although she gets a lot of mileage from gay jokes—as well as barbs about her relationships with straight Hollywood men like Quentin Tarantino—Cho's comedy is most disarming when it involves her family. While she rehashes familiar cross-cultural gaffes, she doesn't shy away from addressing the harsh racism encountered by her immigrant parents. Her father was deported shortly after she was born and her mother "endured so much racism after she came to this country that she never thought that her children would be accepted." Such poignant observations lift I'm the One out of the usual ribald comedy concert-doc genre into something more genuine. It's what All-American Girl should have been like.
WHILE VISITING SEATTLE recently for I'm the One's SIFF world premiere, Cho put her clownish expressions to rest as she reflected on her career. "I embody so many minorities. I'm Asian American, I'm a woman, I am very diverse sexually—and to be like that and still go forth and find a voice within the dominant culture is really an achievement," she said. If that sounds a bit self-congratulatory, Cho is hardly the prima donna in person. Her warm, relaxed, and spontaneously funny demeanor reflects a personal ease and self-acceptance that— beyond the laughs—stand as I'm the One's real achievement.