It is midafternoon, and Margaret Cho, a 25-year-old Korean American stand-up comedian, is sitting on a couch in a quiet cafe on Beverly Boulevard, contemplating the scrutiny that her new ABC comedy series is bound to get when it makes its debut Sept. 14.
The half-hour show is, rather pointedly, entitled "All-American Girl," and, depending on how it is received, could be a significant breakthrough for minorities on network television. Asian Americans have not been entirely invisible as regulars on TV series--one of the most popular was the late Jack Soo, who played a detective on "Barney Miller"--but they have most certainly been in short supply.
Now comes Cho's series, which not only is built almost entirely around Asian Americans but also deals--in a sitcom way, of course--with the social and cultural gap between more traditional elders and their offspring. The principal offspring in this case, naturally, is Cho, a San Franciscan who says that much of the show is based on her relationship with her more tradition-oriented family--material that she has employed as a comedian.
Is she sick and tired of repeatedly being asked about her upcoming TV image as a role model for Asian Americans?
"No, not at all," she says. "I think that's my whole purpose now."
Despite the wide variety of the Asian American population, an attempted breakthrough in any minority area is nonetheless a step worth watching as prime-time network television tries to come to grips in a popular way with the nation's evolving multicultural society.
"I think it's a great position to be in," Cho says of her series, "because I don't have to necessarily follow anyone's lead. I can kind of break ground and create my own niche in this industry. And because of my ethnicity and my gender and my youth, I think it's easier for me in a lot of ways, because in this business, one of the great things is that if you stand out, it's a real advantage. And I do that by virtue of who I am."
Referring to the stand-up comedy she's been doing since she was 18, Cho says audience reaction has been "positive, in that I have a different perspective to offer, a different story to tell. Nowadays there are so many stand-up comedians and stand-up comedy is so readily accessible on TV, on cable, in clubs, it's almost like there's too much of it around. Oftentimes, you hear the same things over and over.
"And since I talk about my life as a young Asian woman, I offer something different to this already overcrowded market. So I became in demand, actually very quickly. I got work right away in San Francisco, nightclubs around the area, just because club owners wanted to put people on and see different things."
The Sept. 14 debut of "All-American Girl" at 9:30 p.m. will get a potent lead-in from the final Wednesday appearance of "Home Improvement," which then switches to Tuesdays. After its launch, the Cho series will move to its regular 8:30 p.m. slot, where it will precede "Roseanne," newly moved to Wednesdays. ABC is counting heavily on "All-American Girl" to help maintain the new Wednesday comedy block, which also includes "Ellen" and "Thunder Alley."
But "All-American Girl" will have to go head-to-head with two high-profile competing network series, Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" and NBC's new hourlong drama "The Cosby Mysteries," starring Bill Cosby.
At the moment, however, Cho is relishing her opportunity and her apparent advance clout at ABC; in the pilot episode of "All-American Girl," she even has a personal billboard credit stating that the material is derived from her stand-up routine.
She admits, however, that while she was building her reputation on the stand-up circuit--and in film and television appearances--she and her father did not always see eye-to-eye on what was funny. Elaborating on past acknowledgment of their differences, she notes that he also writes comedy material:
"He wrote a joke book. It's kind of like 101 jokes for speakers. It's a toastmaster-style book. He does a lot of different work. And he writes columns for a couple of different papers in Korea. There's a lot of political satire, social satire. He's a humorist, but I don't necessarily find it funny. Comedy is so relative to culture, and his culture is so different from mine that we don't really understand each other. His jokes are based on the way that Koreans are and tradition and myth and social structure--things that I just don't understand at all because I don't live there and never have.
"And I guess he doesn't really understand what I do because what I do is very modern, very pop America. He just doesn't understand that. He doesn't understand MTV or rock music or the latest fashions. He just doesn't get things like that."
H ave things changed as her work has succeeded?
"Yes. Actually, in a lot of his columns he's writing about me and the show, and about how I came to be how I am and his relationship with me. So he's really excited about everything that's happening and really glad for me. He's always been supportive, but we just don't really understand each other's work."
Cho also elaborates on remarks she has made about the rough time she has given those who now claim to be friends after being "mean to me" in school:
"It's because I am so immature and so vindictive that I won't let go of any petty slights. That's my fault. I was such a terrible misfit in school--shy and awkward and never good at making friends. None of my childhood friends were ever really friends. They were really mean to me, and I just think it's so ironic that they all come to my shows now and act like we're such great friends. And I have no ability to let go of my anger enough to embrace them. I'm just very cold and mean and it's so stupid, but I can't help it."
Does she feel less vindictive now with major success?
"No. I still have that in me. I can't let it go. But, you know, I try. At least I acknowledge it. That's the first step."
A s for "All-American Girl," be ing produced at Disney Stu dios, Cho says it is about "two basic things: It's about me having these two families that I don't exactly relate to--my family at home, my biological family, who are very traditional, kind of strict and a very Asian, very Korean family. And they don't understand me because I'm just too wild and too Americanized.
"And then there's my family of friends who understand me but find me a little bit conservative.
"So I'm in between these kind of two extreme cultures. It's something I think a lot of Asian Americans go through because many live at home in a more controlled environment and then they go out or watch TV and they're exposed to this whole other world. (The series) is exploring the feelings associated with assimilation and becoming an American."
In addition, says Cho, the series "has parallels to shows that are about the generation gap, like 'Happy Days,' which I was very fond of."
And maybe a touch of "That Girl" too?
"Just a little bit--yes."
Given the subject of her series, are there Asian American writers on the staff?
"Yes. Two are Asian American women."
In private life, Cho, who is single, is also stepping out on her own since the series has started to take shape. After sharing a house in the Hollywood Hills with four show business colleagues--three women and a man--she recently moved out and into a home of her own. It's also in the Hollywood Hills, and she says: "It's a big jump. It's a bungalow, a hideaway, the house I always wanted. I've never lived by myself before."
Of living with her previous roommates, she says: "They were all, like, stand-up comedians and musicians and actors, and we were all working all over the country all the time. It was very rare for all of us to be home at the same time. So it was very easy to live. It was like a youth hostel or a bed-and-breakfast. But then I started really working on the series, and I needed something quieter and more secluded because you get a little overwhelmed."
Her parents, too, are a bit overwhelmed, says Cho: "They saw the pilot and were absolutely speechless. I guess it's a combination of intense pride and joy and also maybe astonishment that this show is about my relationship with them."
Like Roseanne, Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres and Margaret Cho are comedians with sitcoms based on their stand-up personas. Like Roseanne, their shows air on ABC. When to watch:
Cho's series premieres Sept. 14 at 9:30 p.m. and moves to its regular Wednesday slot Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.
DeGeneres' retitled series, moving to Wednesdays, starts Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m.
"Grace Under Fire"
Butler's series, moving to Tuesdays, returns Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m.