Margaret Cho: All-American slut

The stand-up comedian's one-woman movie proves that Cho business is not all show business.

By Michael Sragow

Published June 8, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

After her one lightning Sapphic fling, when she was working as the comic on a lesbian cruise to Alaska, Margaret Cho wondered whether she was gay or straight. She decided that she was just a slut. "Where's my parade?" she asks in her new film, "I'm the One That I Want."

To judge from her one-woman show, filmed during two performances at San Francisco's Warfield Theater in November 1999, her parade wouldn't be too different from San Francisco's annual gay pride procession. She made her name at queer clubs and has a huge following of gay fans. In the prelude to the film, several say they live for three things: ass, Judy Garland and Margaret Cho.

Cho, a native of the Haight in San Francisco who grew up partly on gay Polk Street (where her parents ran a bookstore), will be the celebrity grand marshal of the Pride Parade on June 25, two days after her performance film screens at the S.F. International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. (It premiered at the Honolulu Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and will play regular theatrical engagements in major cities throughout the summer.)

Although this show has been reviewed as if it were the equal of unified performance pieces from stand-ups as different as Sandra Bernhard and Julia Sweeney, you can find at least a third of it on Cho's 1996 CD, "Drunk With Power," which documents her comedy club act. But in "I'm the One That I Want," Cho, 31, goes into detail about her brief stint as the first Asian-American sitcom star on ABC's 1994-95 series "All-American Girl," views her subsequent slide into alcoholism as a near-suicidal descent and frames it as a tale about a young woman growing up in an entertainment pressure cooker. As "Variety" reviewer Charles Isherwood wrote, "Cho's sitcom saga is full of grotesque ironies that could only happen in Hollywood, where the building of half-hour comedies takes place in an environment of humorlessness and desperation more likely to be associated with bloody war campaigns."

If Cho's performance veers uneasily from raucous nightclub grandstanding to ruefulness and pathos, her show is fascinating for the way it captures a comic talent in transition, struggling to broaden and deepen while remaining frank, particular and gaudy. She is now working on her autobiography (scheduled for publication in 2001 from Ballantine). When I called her at her Los Angeles home, I let her know how naive I had been about her gay-bar roots and camp following.

For non-Cho initiates -- for those of us who know you from random TV appearances and from "All-American Girl" -- the fag-hag/slut stuff is startling.

Which is so fabulous! When I started I did a lot of gay clubs and gay bars -- this was when I was real young, 17, 18, 19. And I got quite a following from that. It was where my friends went. I was friends with a lot of gay guys; they said, "You should go here and here and here," and I just went and did it. When I started doing television, the Midnight Sun, a bar in the Castro that has video stuff, started playing my appearances. A lot of guys began to ask, "Oh, who's that?" They liked me, and would come and see me when I played at Josie's Juice Joint in the Castro, a big place for me coming up as a stand-up. I learned a lot there and had a great time. I've always been a fag hag, ever since I was a young girl. It was a natural, easy thing for me. My life, my love -- it's who I am.

Most of the time, you present your mother as a conventional middle-class person concerned by the thought you might be gay. But at the end you talk about her working in a bookshop that had a gay porn section. Were your parents sending you mixed signals?

It was just a different world; my parents were showing me a different way of life. There were a lot of things going on psychologically for me when I was 12 years old. I had developed really early. So I had a real distrust of men, because the men I knew were lecherous. They were always asking personal questions. They were very touchy, at a time when I was very uncomfortable with my body. So I was a young woman who was afraid of men. But suddenly I realized what homosexuality was and understood it, and was surrounded by gay men. I felt utterly safe, utterly protected, and grew to understand how to love men. Homosexuality brought me to a place where I could love men and connect with them. So I've always had that. It's about being safe and protected, being loved, and, on another level, about being a minority and finding a community within another minority -- that was a part of it as well.

You're saying it helped you relate better to straight men?

And to people in general. I felt really lucky to have been able to grow up that way, in that environment, and that naturally evolved into my life. I was always working in gay bars and always had gay men friends -- in the entertainment industry, that's just par for the course. That's great. I always had a great time.

And, just so I understand your upbringing: Your parents accepted and liked this?

They wanted to expose me to different people. At the bookstore the people were mostly gay men, and they were all smart and well read. My father encouraged me to talk to them about books. He felt that gay men knew the best of the best -- they had the best taste and would be the perfect educators for me. We couldn't afford charm school or finishing school for me, so hanging out with gay men was the affordable solution.

We get a different idea of your parents in the show. Have you explored this side of them in other stand-up bits?

It's interesting, I haven't. But I do plan to explore that in the book I'm writing. That will be in there. My parents were pretty open-minded.

Aside from more gay subject matter, is there a difference between the comedy that goes over in a gay club and what goes over in other clubs?

I don't know. For me, when I'm in front of a gay audience, it's more like I'm in front of family, and I can talk about things with more specificity, more detail. I feel I can get really down. It's my ideal place to perform: The gay audience is my tribe, where I want to do it and where I do it best. I perform for lots of different people, and I really get joy out of any audience. But the gay audience -- I'm down with them.

Your comedy is radically uninhibited. Did it take long for you to reach this point?

I don't think so. I have the ability to be really intimate with an audience in a way I don't know I have in my personal life. That lends itself to difficulties with relationships, but it's always good for a laugh. I'm always open about what happens to me; I don't feel inhibited or uninhibited, just that it's no big deal.

Your background must have seemed pretty racy to a mainstream network like ABC seven years ago. Did you get the job at "All-American Girl" on the basis of more laundered TV appearances?

Yeah. I also think that my reputation around clubs was pretty good. And I think the network had this project brewing for many years: They were searching to find a girl to head this all-Asian cast. It was a brainchild of the network; they wanted to put it together with a studio. But they had nobody to attach to the idea until they saw me and decided it was a perfect match.

Which your movie indicates wasn't the case. Before long, you were getting criticized from both outside and inside the Asian-American community. You joke about the Asian-American advisor who advised you to eat with chopsticks and then put them in your hair! Did the personal side of this disaster -- the need to diet constantly to keep off 30 pounds and stay conventionally telegenic -- keep you from obsessing on the politics?

The dieting was such a big thing that I was not paying attention to what I was working on. So the show wasn't as good as it should have been -- although I didn't have any control or say over the writing, so I don't know how it would have turned out anyway. The Asian-American backlash was especially hard for me to handle because then I felt completely on my own. I was battling the network and all this press stuff that didn't have anything to do with anything except hurting me and being really cruel and inordinately narrow-minded about who I was supposed to be. And then the Asian-American community was so conflicted about what to say and what not to say about me. I thought the whole thing was a nightmare.

It was the era when it seemed as if every stand-up was getting a sitcom. But you were young and inexperienced compared to the others.

And it wasn't like any other stand-up comic's show because it was such a political situation. There was me -- and I was young and a woman -- and a Korean-American woman. All the weight, all the hopes of race, were put on the show. It was really scary for me, not knowing how to maneuver, not having any control over anything and not knowing how to claim my own power in the situation. It was awful. I had lived in L.A. less than a year. I felt very alone.

You tell a story about Quentin Tarantino, your boyfriend at the time, watching the show and calling you up and saying, "They're taking away your voice!" Without knowing more about the relationship between you and Quentin, his statement sparks a complicated reaction: On one hand he's telling you the truth; on the other we wonder whether he sees what you're going through. You're hard on yourself because you say you couldn't absorb his criticism, since you were so obsessed with being "a size 4."

There were many factors involved; it was just a horrible time. He said that, but I just didn't understand -- I was so deep inside what they wanted me to be that I never thought of asking myself what I wanted to be. I never thought that I had a voice or that it was important. This movie ["I'm the One That I Want"] is all about learning what things are vital. The most important thing is your voice. That's what it's all about.

Don't I recall Quentin appearing on the show, as your boyfriend?

Yeah. He did, and he was great! He was very supportive of me, very good to me. He was on the series and was a great friend.

You do say in "I'm the One That I Want" that after "All-American Girl" was canceled you wrote a movie script that you were proud of. What was it about?

It was about finding one's identity; it was a comedy about finding sexual identity also. It was like a collection of stand-up bits, but focused into a script format like a movie about my life. And it was really good. I don't know if I'd go back and make that film today. I'm a different person.

But if you found your voice back then, why didn't that script give you the creative and emotional breakthrough that this show and movie have?

Because I kept looking for self-esteem on the outside -- I could only feel good if I got this movie made. That's where I was putting my self-esteem and self-worth. Which is why it was so devastating to me, which is why my whole experience and career had been so devastating, because I spent so much time looking outward for something I could only find within. I couldn't appreciate my own achievement. I had to feel that the script would get me something. And trying to find validation in the world is a really painful thing.

I had to make a complete turnaround and change everything about my perspective. I returned to what I'd loved to do: stand-up. I realized I had all this great material that would fit into a show about the part of my life that had just ended. I wanted to put all the bad parts together and make a show. It really worked for me. It was a simple process of evaluation and reflection.

Was sobriety part of this?

Part of it. Mostly maturity and sanity and just the knowledge that we cannot look outside ourselves for self-esteem, self-love, self-reliance. All those originate internally; we don't go out to get them.

Anyone from any racial or ethnic group who attempts to do no-holds-barred comedy runs the risk of rousing controversy at first; then, often, there is a kind of acceptance. It's like, "Oh, my God, she's depicting us this way." But then comes the recognition that "some of us really are like this." Has that happened for you with Asian-Americans?

Yes, I think it has. It's been wonderful. I've found that over time there's an acceptance and a deep respect -- if you can take what happens to you when you're beginning.

In your experience, it seems, the American melds in with the Asian so inextricably that it's hard to separate them out. You resist any definition of what an Asian-American should be.

It's so racist to try to define that. It's such a narrow view of who we're supposed to be. Saying there has to be an accurate representation supposes that there can be an accurate representation, and that we just can't speak for the personal. We are all so particular. It's not like we're in a nature documentary representing some subspecies. Human life has so many variations, there's no "accurate" way to live. There are so many philosophical questions brought up when we talk about why the series had to be "authentically" Asian, and who was complaining about the series not being authentically Asian. Many people can't accept that we can be human first instead of a race first.

You mention at the start of the movie that your San Francisco engagement marked the first time your parents saw this piece. What was their reaction?

They loved it; they were really happy.

Even when you talked about how you realized, after sleeping with a lesbian, that you were just, in your word, "slutty"?

That's just fun. I don't know what I am. I don't really care. Sex is really such a nonimportant thing to me -- it's pretty irrelevant at this point in my life, though it's played bigger roles in the past. Talking about being a slut is really about being outrageous and fun. There's truth but there's no real emotional weight to it.

So gays and lesbians love you, Asian-Americans love you. What about straight women?

A lot have told me that for them the show is really cathartic -- especially when I talk about weight issues. Those are big hot-button issues for women, and to talk about that honestly is important, because I think there's a lot shame surrounding it. So I get a lot of positive feedback about that. For me, that's rewarding.

And the fashion community? Do they get off on you imagining what would happen if Karl Lagerfeld murdered Elsa Klensch?

Well, I don't really know! Andre Leon Talley of Vogue loves the show and thinks it's fabulous. He spent many evenings sitting in my dressing room loving me. So I guess I have a lot fans there, too.

If you did do a sitcom again and a producer said you had to lose weight or change your look, you would say ...

I would never let that happen.

It's a great line when you say you were replaced by Drew Carey (whom you love) because he was so skinny.

It's insane how we have such different standards for men and women in our television culture and in films. It's crazy. But nobody would ever say anything like that to me again. And that's just about maturity and growth and knowing who you are and letting other people know.

Some people might come to the show expecting a showbiz saga; it isn't a blow-by-blow of your terrible experience on TV. Did it take much pruning and shaping to get it beyond that?

I don't think so. I think it's because I'm so different from what we expect from somebody talking about show business. I'm not Larry Sanders, I'm not Garry Shandling, I don't have that sensibility at all. I'm like a total outsider. I'm a fan of "The Larry Sanders Show" -- I think it's great. But my show isn't like that.

One group you say you didn't get much support from was other stand-up comics.

I don't think any of us do! We're very alone. But that's OK. I'm very good friends with quite a few stand-ups. But it's a lonely business. It's competitive and we're all crazy. Every last one.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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