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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 17, 2000

Photo composite by Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Photos courtesy of Margaret Cho

All-American Cho

Margaret Cho triumphs over
showbiz and growing pains
with her hit concert, 'I'm
the One That I Want'

By Tim Ryan


THE MOMENT MARGARET CHO ANSWERS THE phone in her Hollywood Hills home, you hear strength and vulnerability in a voice that whispers "I'm OK," when asked how she's feeling.

Cho, who performs at the Diamond Head Theatre in five shows Wednesday through Saturday, is more than "OK." Her current one-person show -- "I'm the One That I Want" -- is booked nationwide through June and there is interest in taking the show international; a concert film done at The Warfield in her home town of San Francisco will be submitted to festivals in the spring with an anticipated fall 2000 release; and she's writing a book, due in 2001, about some of the experiences that fill her show.

Cho seems to have bounced back in all-American style from the well-publicized cancellation of her television sitcom five years ago, "All American Girl."

"I took the cancellation personally," Cho says in a tone filled with hurt. "I was devastated. I wanted it to work so badly."

Although there are many other good things happening in Cho's life, the 31-year-old Korean-American almost seems to enjoy talking about her brief network experience as a sort of ongoing catharsis still being worked out.

"After the cancellation, my life took a very bad turn," she said. "I did a lot of self-destructive things. I did things that made my situation worse. I had no self-confidence; the esteem was shot. I was really lost."

"I'm The One That I Want," which she describes as an "emotional journey," takes the audience through Cho's "All-American Girl" experience and its accompanying fame, disillusionment, survival and recovery to the point where Cho says she's "loving myself again."

"The only reason I was able to survive was through my sense of humor," she said. "I have this voice inside me that keeps me laughing when things are very bad."

Cho was born in San Francisco, attending grammar school on Haight Street during the 1970s.

"There were old hippies, ex-druggies, burnouts from the '60s, drag queens, and Chinese people," she said. "It was a really confusing, enlightening, wonderful time."

Her grandfather was a Methodist minister who ran an orphanage in Seoul during the Korean War. Ignoring the traditions of her patriarchal culture, her mother resisted an arranged marriage in Korea and married Margaret's father, who writes joke books in Korean.

"Books like '1001 Jokes for Public Speakers,' real corny stuff," Cho says. "I guess we're in the same line of work. But we don't understand each other that way. I don't know why the things he says are funny."

Cho started performing stand-up at 16 in a comedy club called The Rose & Thistle above a bookstore her parents ran. Soon after, she won a comedy contest where first prize was opening for Jerry Seinfeld. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s and lived in a house with several other young performers. Cho moved out because she wasn't the most famous.

"If the Manson Family had come, I wouldn't have been Sharon Tate; I would have been one of the supporting victims, and who wants that? Janeane Garofalo moved into my old room. Anyway, 'Cho,' written in blood on the wall doesn't look as cool as 'Garofalo.' "

In her early twenties, Cho hit the college circuit, where she quickly became the most booked act in the market and garnered a nomination for Campus Comedian of the Year. She performed more than 300 concerts in two years and subsequently won the American Comedy Award for Female Comedian in 1994. Arsenio Hall introduced her to late night audiences, Bob Hope put her on a prime time special and, seemingly overnight, Margaret Cho became a national celebrity.

Then ABC came knocking on her door for the comedy series. Cho's move was strictly pragmatic.

"I was living the life of a road comic and it was very hard for me," she said.

The television show was her only way out. "I was 23 and wanted to sleep in the same bed every night," Cho said.

Even in the beginning, Cho felt it was a bad fit between her and the network. "The show was never what Margaret Cho is about," she said. "I had no control over the writing and I was wrestling with other dilemmas that had nothing to do with the show, but was about my relationship with the network and what they wanted from their star.

"All I cared about was being funny, but that was way down on the list of other political concerns."

When Cho did complain about the show, she said an executive criticized her about her weight and even hired a trainer and ordered a nutritional analysis to divert her attention from the real issues facing the show.

Another criticism was that Cho wasn't Asian enough.

"The writers and executives were all Caucasians who had ideas of what Asians were like and I didn't fit that mold," Cho said. "They wanted to demystify a culture that wasn't very mysterious to begin with. They treated us like aliens."

"All American Girl" was heralded as a groundbreaking effort and, as the first Korean American to star in her own series, Cho was its real life pioneer.

"I had no idea how the system worked," she said. "I wasn't made to feel secure and I think that's what they wanted."

Cho's hitting the road again for several reasons, not the least of which is she feels secure in the club venue where some nights audiences number in the thousands.

Cho's comedy crosses all ethnic barriers.

"I'm all things to all people: women, Asians, gays, insecure Jewish girls with big butts, Drew Carey."

Cho spends much of her 90-minute performance building a connection with the audience.

"It's not just about jokes and people laughing but making that emotional connection. I'm always aware of what the audience is feeling all the time and adjust my act accordingly."

Cho admits with dismay that she's the kind of person who lays everything out on the table.

"I don't really have this mystery about me which I kind of don't like, because people always know how I feel about certain things," she said.

One emotional journey Cho is not ready to embark on is a monogamous relationship. And she doesn't mind talking about it.

"I'm involved with a couple of people right now, but I don't really have the desire at the moment for a primary partner. I love emotionally connecting with people and I love men to death.

"I feel like I've gotten to a great place in my life. I just want to do it for a long time ... at least until the next Korean-American fag-hag, s**t-starter, girl comic, trash talker, comes up and takes my place."

On stage

Bullet What: Margaret Cho in "I'm The One That I Want"
Bullet When: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and 10:30 p.m. Friday
Bullet Where: Diamond Head Theatre
Bullet Cost:: $35 and $45; available at Hula's, Ticket Plus outlets, the MWR in Kunia and University of Hawai'i Campus Center. Also available online at
Bullet Charge by phone: 526-4400
Bullet Also: Cho will meet fans 9 p.m. tomorrow at Hula's Bar and Lei Stand, Waikiki Grand Hotel, and sign autographs for a $5 donation to benefit the Life Foundation. Call Hula's for details, at 923-0669.

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