All-American funny girl

Margaret Cho returns to television with a Kathy Griffin-style reality show. Can she make it work this time?

Published August 14, 2008 10:17AM (EDT)

I don't care what Christopher Hitchens says -- women are funny. In fact, as it turns out, female comedians are more popular than ever (Fey, Poehler, Sedaris and even Anna Faris, the reigning queen of physical comedy). More specifically, though, funny ladies are turning up all over cable TV. Kathy Griffin's addictive reality show, "My Life on the D-List," won an Emmy last year and is up for another in 2008. And women like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler, whose book "Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea" has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 15 weeks, have made inroads into the traditionally male-dominated demographics of Comedy Central and late-night talk.

Enter Margaret Cho. Though her comedy tours sell out enormous venues and her books and films attract a loyal audience, Cho hasn't had much luck with television. ABC quickly canceled her 1994 sitcom, "All-American Girl," but not before a network-sponsored crash diet landed her in the hospital. Despite her shaky relationship with the medium (and perhaps because of Silverman, Handler and Griffin's recent success), the comedian returns to TV next Thursday, Aug. 21, in VH1's "The Cho Show."

If the so-called supertrailer (posted above) is any indication, Cho's program will bear some resemblance to "My Life on the D-List": Though it follows a reality show format, "The Cho Show" is packed with special guests like Dave Navarro, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes and, best of all, Cho's own sweet, supportive, long-suffering parents. Both Griffin and Cho engage in zany stunts calculated to drive ratings, but sex, not celebrities, is Cho's favorite subject. Her misadventures involve a trip to the doctor to learn about the G-spot and a homemade sex tape that somehow incorporates both a bondage swing and a giant bucket of ice cream. With shows like Fuse's simultaneously boring and revolting "Rad Girls" combining hot women and gross-out humor in a package designed to attract a frat-guy audience, it's nice to see Cho do sex and comedy on her own terms.

But it isn't all promising. A cameo by Gary Busey isn't funny so much as overreaching for absurdity. And I'm a bit skeptical of Cho's "assistant," Selene Luna (has a little-person sidekick become de rigueur for female comedians?). And while I am generally a fan of Cho's, I find her comedy has grown ever more self-congratulatory since her second film, 2002's "The Notorious C.H.O."

Though I believe 100 percent in her feminist, outsider manifesto of queer/fat/minority liberation, she's become too proud of herself for her bravery. Where her routines used to let the jokes make their own points, they now include long, dead-serious monologues on self-esteem. It seems that "The Cho Show" will be no different. During the final third of the trailer, the "inspirational" music swells as Cho tearfully confesses, "I'm really glamorous now, but I didn't feel like that as a kid" and fans say, "Margaret, you're a pioneer" and "The world is better because you're in it." I don't expect every reality series to be a Whitney Houston-style character assassination, but shows like "My Life on the D-List" only work because they give us their stars as they actually are -- usually funny, often kind, but sometimes spoiled, narcissistic, and plain old annoying, too. Here's hoping "The Cho Show" turns out to be more than just a weekly dose of pro-Cho propaganda.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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