Looking back and laughing

After a bad TV sitcom experience and a bout with substance abuse, Margaret Cho is back doing what she does best: making people laugh

Conversations

September 19, 1999|By Holly Selby | By Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Once upon a time, comic actress Margaret Cho was the first Asian-American to star in her own television sitcom, ABC's "All-American Girl." That was 1994 and the fairy tale lasted seven short and devastating months.

With TV producers insisting that her face was "too full," some viewers complaining she wasn't Korean enough, and problems with drug and alcohol use, Cho fell into a months-long period of self-abuse and self-recrimination. The show was canceled after just one season, and it took Cho much longer to pull herself together.

Now sober, the 30-year-old has recently completed a successful off-Broadway run and is taking her show, "I'm the One That I Want," on the road. The first stop of her 15-city national tour is scheduled for Thursday at the Warner Theatre in Washington.

Cho, who grew up in San Francisco, had a tumultuous childhood. Her father was deported to Korea just after she was born, and her mother soon followed. Though they returned eventually, Cho was passed from relative to relative for the first seven years of her life. She began performing stand-up routines at age 16.

Much of Cho's humor springs from pain. Of dealing with addiction. Of feeling like an outcast. Of being insecure. But she also spins jokes around fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, her mother and much more. ("I was so glad Ginger Spice left the band because now there is a space for me. I'm going to be the next Spice Girl. I'm going to be MSG Spice.")

We talked to Cho by telephone about sobriety, racism, her new comedy show and a dog named Ralph.

You were the first Asian-American to have her own sitcom. In your new comedy show, you deal with the racial stereotypes that you faced. Do you feel that your show has particular resonance because there are so few minorities on television this season?

Yes, but I think it has always been like this. I certainly didn't time this on purpose. It has to do with racial baggage that we all carry with us. But now there is a call to resist the notion that we live in a one-color world -- the way that TV presents us.

You began doing comedy at age 16 -- in a club that was above your parents' bookstore. When did you know that this was the life for you?

Pretty early. I had such a disruptive home life; it made me a little strange, so kids thought of me as odd. I was too loud, too shy and really accident-prone. I found a lot of strength in comedy. I really found a place there. Of course, in stand-up, the whole process is you don't fit in. You have this gigantic humor muscle that you can go up and flex.

While starring in "All-American Girl," you felt such pressure to lose weight that you dropped 30 pounds in two weeks and suffered kidney failure. Now you've turned a bad experience into a hit comedy routine. Does reliving the experience night after night, making people laugh about it, change it for you?

It's a very Buddhist thing. In Buddhism, you are taught you can feel pain but you don't have to suffer. I have achieved more fame, more creativity, more happiness now -- and none of it would be possible if I had not gone through this.

I don't blame ABC for what happened to me. I had my own racist material inside of me. I felt like I had to follow orders, to keep myself in line. I was just scared. I was insecure, and I felt very boxed-in -- in my skin and how I looked and in my gender.

Your new act deals with the horrors of being pushed to conform to particular standards for television. What advice would you give to someone starting out -- perhaps the next Asian-American to have a sitcom?

Do what you want.

Your imitations of your mother are hilarious. What does she think?

She loves it. She feels like a star. She doesn't understand the jokes. She says, 'Why is that funny?' But she feels like a real celebrity, and that's great.

You're 30 years old. You've done the comedy circuit, had a TV show, had a successful off-Broadway run, and are touring the country. What's next?

I'm in a pretty intense work period. I'm shooting an independent film [of the show] in San Francisco on Nov. 13. I'm writing a book, a memoir, that will take a year or so to finish. Those are the projects I'm really focusing on, and I'm thrilled. Then I don't know what's next. Well, I'm starting to write my next show.

You bring your dog everywhere with you, don't you?

Yes. He's lying on my couch with me right now. He's a German shepherd mix and he's 60 pounds and he is still a puppy in his head.

His name is Ralph -- pronounced Rafe. He is named for another friend and also for Ralph Fiennes because he is so handsome and he looks just like him.

The Cho show

What: "I'm the One That I Want"

When: 8 p.m., Sept. 24

Where: Warner Theatre, 13th Street Northwest, between E and F streets, Washington

Admission: $26 and $30

Call: 410-481-SEAT (tour schedule online at www.margaretcho.net)

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