You know you're being groomed as the star of your own sitcom when:
A) You lose 30 pounds in two weeks in a frantic attempt to look sexier.
B) The network matches you up with writers who are perfectly nice guys but don't understand you creatively.
C) You find yourself on a big promotional campaign at Disney World, standing under a giant mural of yourself, blitzed on diet pills, wondering what has become of your life.
Margaret Cho would answer D, "all of the above." All of the above and then some. Three years removed from ABC's short-lived "All-American Girl," which made her the first Asian American sitcom lead in TV history and in the process turned her into a referendum on ethnically correct humor, Cho speaks of the experience like a person still 12-stepping her way back to psychic health.
"I'm proud of surviving it," she says on a recent morning at Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake. "I think it's great that I'm still here and I don't have, like, an acting workshop or something."
Fittingly, as Cho sips coffee and talks about her career in the cafe's back room, members of a Narcotics Anonymous group slowly straggle in for a meeting. Cho's not among them, but she is recently sober after years on various drugs and alcohol ("Sometimes I would have to hang onto the microphone to keep the room from spinning," she says of performing under the influence).
Now 30, Cho has returned to stand-up comedy full time, where she pulls in five figures an appearance on the college circuit and has considerable headline power in major markets. In the meantime, around L.A., she's doing what she wants, including a stage show called "The People Tree," a series of sketches and characters that Cho will perform with fellow comic Karen Kilgariff every Monday night in February at Theater at the Improv in West Hollywood.
Characters Reflect Her Pop Sensibilities
The characters in the show reflect the caustic, pop culture-infused sensibilities of Cho and Kilgariff, who are regulars on the alternative comedy scene and together bring out a creative vindictiveness in each other. You could see their chemistry in a recent edition of "Pulp Comics" on Comedy Central. The two were also in discussions with Lifetime about developing their own show, though no deal came of their efforts.
Characters in the Improv show include "the overweight girl named Shannon who's unhappy and acts really fat" and the woman "from Ohio who believes she's god of her kiln," Cho says.
For Cho, too, the show is another step in what could be called a "be good to me" phase of her career.
While many comics with failed sitcoms spend years banging at the development gates in hopes of a second chance, Cho says she's back where she belongs--on a stage, "taking out my beating heart and showing it to the audience."
As it happens, Cho is in the ideal profession for someone in a confessional mood. A comedian who used to trade predictably on her Korean American roots, Cho now braves rougher waters, unafraid to discuss her addictions or even an abortion. The old Cho still creeps back into her act ("I'm gonna be the next Spice Girl. I'm gonna be MSG Spice") but the material is more mature now, less pandering to what she thinks people want.
Here, for instance, is Cho on what prompted her to stop drinking: "My boyfriend and I were on a binge. In the morning we woke up and the bed was wet, but the stain was in the middle so we couldn't figure out who wet the bed. And so we realized at that point that . . . instead of arguing about who wet the bed we should probably go get help."
A newfound maturity was inevitable when you consider that Cho, a San Francisco native, began doing stand-up when she was 15. She first performed in a club called the Rose & Thistle, which was above her parents' bookstore. Ten years later she landed "All-American Girl," in which she played an assimilated twentysomething Korean woman battling the ethnic pull of her extended family. She was only 25, and, not surprisingly, fellow comedians lashed out, feeling Cho had earned the shot mostly because she was Korean.
In fact, the comedians were half-right, because Cho's ethnicity gave the network something to market.
"It was one of the things we were all patting ourselves on the back about," says Kim Fleary, who in 1995 was part of the executive team shepherding "All-American Girl" at ABC.
But Fleary, now a partner at the H. Beale Co., the television production company founded by the late Brandon Tartikoff, concedes that Cho inevitably became something of a symbol, and "that's a tremendous amount of pressure to put any performer under."
Cho would agree, chalking up the debacle to her own naivete and lack of self-esteem. Yes, she says, producers encouraged her to lose weight lest the show lack sex appeal, which fueled a dependence on diet pills. Yes, the network saw the show as a family comedy, with a self-conscious Korean twist, a kind of "Saved by the Gong," before making a last-ditch attempt to refashion the series in a more sophisticated light.
But producers are producers and networks are networks, Cho says, and it's left to the artist to bear a good deal of the creative responsibility. That goes for the obsessive weight loss, too.
"I just didn't have the self-esteem in me to endure all of that. I kind of thought I was a comedian, so I wouldn't have to be subjected to that sort of rigorous, like, social magnifying glass. . . . It was very trying."
Intense Scrutiny Surrounded Sitcom
Indeed, it may be difficult to recall how intensely the spotlight shone on Cho when, after all, she was only trying to launch a sitcom.
"I have cringed at the many cultural and ethnic inaccuracies on 'All-American Girl,' " a viewer wrote in a letter to The Times when the show was in its infancy. " . . . Yet I have loyally watched every episode because it is important that I support a fellow sister, who as a pioneer is paving the way for other Asian Americans."
Not surprisingly, Cho would scarcely want to pick up that mantle again. As part of her career de-accessorizing, she recently jettisoned her big-time management, the former Gallin-Morey (it was telling her she could be an Asian Kelly Preston, Cho says). In the process, Cho says, she's become a kind of guru for other young comics--someone who's been through sitcom hell and lived to tell the tale.
"All the [comics] who go to festivals and get deals eventually come around to calling me and saying, 'What should I do? What does this mean?' And it's like, I have made virtually every mistake in the book, so I can tell them what to look for and what the outcome might be. My advice is always: Trust yourself. Whatever happens, you're right."
* Margaret Cho and Karen Kilgariff in "The People Tree," tonight and Feb. 8, 15 and 22 at 8 p.m., Theater at the Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave. $15. (310) 479-0323.