Perhaps the weirdest interview I ever had was with comedian Margaret Cho. She asked me to lie on her hotel bed during our interview and wear a gel mask while a documentarian circled around us with a camera. It felt uncomfortable, but it also felt like manufactured quirk. Weirder, though, was how she came off in person.
I had pitched the story, in part, because I genuinely admired Cho, whose first concert film, "I'm the One That I Want," is part Hollywood excoriation, part personal odyssey. I imagined her to be funny and warm; instead she was awkward and aloof. "I can't really communicate with people unless it's through e-mail," she told me at one point. "It's gotten worse and worse." She didn't like going out, complained in her stage show about hating children ("I ovulate sand") and generally seemed cold and/or insanely shy.
Odd, because Cho pitches herself as a kind of self-esteem guru, whose stand-up routines invariably end with a rallying cry to embrace your inner revolutionary. Weirdos of the world, unite!
In the five years since I interviewed her, Cho has fallen off the radar a bit. She blogged for a while. She had a burlesque show. While media and critics fell all over themselves praising Sarah Silverman, who trafficked in the same taboo topics of race and sex that were Cho's calling card, Cho seemed to disappear into the Hollywood home she once told me was gothically outfitted with a real coffin. But she has reemerged with a new show on VH1 (no doubt bolstered by Silverman's success). She has an assistant who is a little person, and has seemingly repositioned herself as a tattooed roller-derby pinup. So there you go.
"The Cho Show" premiered Thursday night at 11 p.m. EDT. Broadsheet's Judy Berman and I have, on several occasions, talked about our conflicted feelings about Cho and her reality show, whose trailers made it seem like a whole lot more manufactured quirk than a gel mask and a hotel bed. Last night, during the premiere, Judy and I IM'ed our impressions for a conversation I have greatly condensed here. -- Sarah Hepola
Sarah Hepola: Before we begin, what are the good things you want to say about Margaret Cho?
Judy Berman: That's important, because obviously there is some little fat girl in Missouri or some little gay boy in North Dakota who's going to stumble upon this show and have the kind of epiphany we're no longer capable of. But we wish she would be better.
S.H.: Oh God, as I prepare to watch, there is a show on VH1 called: "Glam God With Vivica A. Fox." I feel like this show answers my question: We need you to be excellent, Margaret Cho! The show can be viewed here. A brief summary of the episode: Cho introduces us to her Korean parents, her assistant, Selene Luna and her "glam squad" ("Every dog has his day and every diva needs her gay"), and we learn that she has received a "Korean of the Year" award, despite being at odds with the community. Her parents razz her for being childless and prove generally adorable. Despite her own conflicted feelings, Cho accepts the Korean of the Year award and makes some funnies. End scene. S.H.: I can't believe how much this story presupposes that we already love Margaret Cho. Five minutes in, people are saying she paved the way.
J.B.: Right! That's what I was thinking. There is no context for this show.
S.H.: It hardly sets up who she is really.
J.B.: The parents are as naturally funny and likable as ever, and I totally blame the producers for this baby stunt.
S.H.: She's pretending to be sad about not having kids and this is the woman who joked about ovulating sand. I wish I had heard her entire shtick with the Korean crowd; it sounded kinda funny.
J.B.: The worst was the fan at the Korean awards ceremony who was so heartfelt and distraught, and Margaret kind of gives her this stiff hug without emoting at all.
S.H.: Here is one idea that was interesting, that she is unique to the Korean community.
J.B.: That's certainly true. But why has the community suddenly changed its mind about her? It all just seems like manufactured conflict. And for someone who's supposed to have done so much for gay acceptance, I'm confused as to why she's essentializing her gays to kind of a "Queer Eye" extent and it looks like a lot of her sidekicks are gaying it up for the camera.
S.H.: The shtick about wearing this outrageous skin leotard to the Korean awards is so fake. Ugh. So what were the good parts to you?
J.B.: When she made the tattoo joke, and her mom was like, "That's true."
S.H.: Mom = adorable. I feel weirdly silent after that show. I was utterly underwhelmed. What's the narrative arc? What's at stake? Why do I care? These are just dispatches from a wacky woman.
J.B.: Well, if you actually believed that she was torturing herself over her Korean identity, there would have been some sort of drama. But an 11 p.m. slot on cable isn't exactly a vote of confidence.
S.H.: But I would like to believe that slot is earned with lots of saucy sex talk.
J.B.: If you're going to do something over the top, why not do it right away?
S.H.: All right, do you have a final line that you'd like to leave us with? Something you learned?
J.B.: Hmm. What has made Margaret Cho so compelling over the years has been her ability to draw such intense love and such intense hatred and, really, since I both love and hate her, I would have settled for feeling either. But at the end of the episode, I just felt bored and apathetic, which is perhaps the most negative outcome possible.