IMAGES COURTESY KENPHILLIPSGROUP.COM
‘There’s a wider definition of beautiful’
Sassy. Abrasive. Outspoken.
Those words are routinely associated with Margaret Cho's onstage routine.
But add another controversial word to describe Cho offstage: nice. The woman is nice, and not one bit of vulgarity escapes her lips -- but then, there's no microphone in front of her.
With guest Liam Sullivan
On stage: 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m. Sunday
Place: Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $27, $37 and $47
Call: 528-0506 or visit hawaiitheatre.com
It was a laid-back, positive Cho who picked up the phone in her Los Angeles home on Valentine's Day. Her plans for a rare day off were to have a simple dinner with her husband, Al Ridenour, and get to bed early, so she could wake early the next day to prepare for a function in Virginia.
"It's a very quiet day," Cho said, with contentment.
Cho has let the perfect opportunity for an opening regarding her personal life slip by. This is a woman who has talked openly about sexual identity issues, destructive relationships, alcohol dependency and uncertainties about body image as part of her stage act -- and sometimes as a result of her act.
The inspiration behind Cho's current show, "Beautiful," is personal, coming out of an interview with a radio personality who blithely asked her to imagine what life would be like if she were beautiful -- by his definition, thinner, taller and blond; Cho has talked openly in the past about feeling pressure to drop weight.
"I nearly fell off my stool," said Cho. "But I didn't even react. It was just so sexist." Instead she rallied, making it part of her show, and one of the issues closest to her heart has become the focus of her tour: self-acceptance.
"Who I am, or what people see in me," said Cho, "I can't control it. ... but there's a wider definition of beautiful."
Where has this confidence come from? The simple act of getting older. At 39, Cho said she's grown up, and is far less given to reacting or acting out in situations she can't control. "I think I've just matured a lot. I think I'm pretty much the same offstage and onstage, but a lot of people think I'm different offstage."
No sign of the woman who, despite her tough words, has often come across as vulnerable in interviews. "I've done everything I wanted to do, so at this age, I just don't care."
Cho got her start in comedy at age 16, performing in clubs in her native San Francisco, then winning an amateur contest that gave her an opening spot for Jerry Seinfeld. After she had performed on college campuses and late-night talk shows, the TV show "All-American Girl" was built as a vehicle around her, and she became one of the few Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment. The vehicle was pitched as colorblind casting by ABC executives, and paradoxically as "ethnic humor" by critics.
"All-American Girl" quietly crashed and burned a few months later, before it found its footing. "I didn't realize what a big deal it was. We were really criticized a lot," said Cho, whose struggle to lose weight began then, in attempts to please executives.
"You can't really do what you want because you're trying to please everyone. It was a weird scene. It was mainstream, but a lot of people didn't get what we were trying to do ... I think it was just way ahead of its time. You haven't seen very many Asian Americans since then. I would love to see another show starring an Asian American."
After the show ended, Cho fell into a pattern of destructive behavior, all chronicled in the book and show "I'm the One That I Want." The award-winning show detailed Cho's darkest days and subsequent dive into drugs, alcohol and bad relationships, ironically winning her the most praise of her career.
Cho has never worried whether she's been the best representative of one of the smallest groups in mainstream media. "I think it's because I'm so used to criticism and what I've had to experience in the entertainment business. I've dealt with a lot of racism, sexism and homophobia."
Cho said her attitude also is born of her home life: Named Moran Cho, the Korean American grew up in the 1970s in one of the more progressive parts of San Francisco, the Haight. Her parents raised her with the expectation that Cho would fulfill a more conventional, strait-laced female role.
"You're told be quiet, be demure. Don't be bold. You're constantly criticized and watched. You're told to be good."
Humor came through her dad, who owned a bookstore with her mother: "He's got a lot more sly humor. ... I think I'm a lot more nice, self-deprecating. ... (but) my parents don't really understand my off-color jokes -- very beyond their comfort level. They act like just they don't get it."
For speaking up about her personal experiences, Cho has received awards from the National Organization for Women, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union. Her audience has become more mainstream in recent years, and she is happy to be talking to a larger audience.
"The experiences I have had, I will always talk about -- hatred toward gays, race, family -- and I make my point through humor. ... I address stereotypes and I use the ones that exist and blow them up. I acknowledge they exist. ... I think I've become a lot more mature politically in my world view. And it's nice to have a voice and a platform.
"Oh, yeah -- and my show is just as raunchy as ever."
IMAGES COURTESY KENPHILLIPSGROUP.COM
Wacky girls are his forté
Opening for the "Beautiful" tour is comedian Liam Sullivan, a fitting pick as he's been a fan of Cho's since 1994's "All-American Girl."
Sullivan, too, has TV experience in his past. The Norfolk, Mass., native was on the cast of VH1's "I Hate My 30s," and has appeared on shows such as "Alias" and the "Gilmore Girls." But he might be better known for writing, directing and performing in self-produced short videos in which he plays multiple female roles. Videos can be downloaded from his Web site, LiamShow.com.
Sullivan says Cho helped shape his career in comedy: "She blogged about me originally. We started working together after that." Cho guested in some of Sullivan's short films, such as a music video parody, "Shoes," that spawned a hit song for one of Sullivan's most recognizable characters, blond-but-not-so-bubbly Kelly.
Though it's sourpuss Kelly who gets nearly all the attention -- she has her own ringtone and a Web site called Betchslap.com -- it's the role of Mother Grandma that Sullivan finds amusing.
"My grandmother might recognize herself in the role as far as being supportive," said Sullivan. "But there's a side to my grandmother character that separates her from all grandmothers. All my characters are wacky."