Stand-up comedian Margaret Cho and writer Sandra Tsing Loh both have done hard time in Hollywood. Cho’s “I’m the One That I Want” is her autobiography, half of which covers her award-losing TV series in 1994 and her recent comeback. Loh’s “A Year in Van Nuys” (her fourth book) seems to be a memoir in the form of fiction, but her publisher treats it as nonfiction, so one can’t be too sure (critics and readers are sometimes the last to know).
The entertainment industry is a curious place where there is ample opportunity to find fame and make a fortune. But sometimes, for the most ambitious, most talented or simply the most eager, it seems that the people making it big are dumber, luckier and younger than they are. How you come to terms with other people’s success will determine how long you’re equipped to stay in Hollywood and, even at that, if you fail on any level, there’s always a chance to turn that sour lemon of a bad career move into the sweetened lemonade of a good opportunity.
In addition to being women, who have a tougher time than men in the entertainment industry, Cho and Loh are also minorities. The former is one of the few well-known Korean Americans in show business and the latter may be Hollywood’s only German-Chinese American writer. Their ambitions, however, have always been a little different. Cho wanted to be white, while Loh wanted to be a Jew. ("[A]s a fellow outsider to the mainstream, I do recognize something of myself in the Jews. The Jews are my homeboys, the team I root for, my very own Green Bay Packers ... on the vast gridiron ... of life.” Clearly, neither really fits in. Perhaps both are simply too smart in a town that wants merely smart enough.
But it’s not for trying. Unable to finish her new novel, Loh turned to therapy, a CNN appearance led to a women’s Web site column and this segued to a TV script deal. And Cho had the temerity to think that “All-American Girl,” her network show, could be the first ever about an Asian American family. ABC execs bluntly informed the lifelong weight-obsessed Cho that her face was “too full” and she had to slim down ASAP. She did manage to lose weight quickly, but in such a reckless fashion that she made herself sick and had to be hospitalized. It was all downhill from there. The 19-episode run of “All-American Girl” was an unmitigated disaster. The smorgasbord of sex, drugs and liquor that the depressed Cho helped herself to is worthy of one of the more breathy installments of “E! True Hollywood Story.”
What makes Cho’s book (her first) resonate is the razor-sharp honesty she deploys and the straight-ahead style she uses to chronicle her messed-up life. Her humor is in no short supply.
“Whenever I go to Woo Lae Oak, a popular Korean restaurant on Western
Cho also rather touchingly recounts growing up in San Francisco. Since her family had no money or need for glue, she was told to use leftover rice on school cut-and-paste projects. (Sadly, the cruelest tormentors in her childhood were other Korean kids.)
After being told Cho was too fat, her manager, Karen, announced that the network was crazy, that it was time to walk and get another deal. Terrified of the lonely grind of going back on the road as a stand-up, Cho fired her. Near the end of the book, a contrite Cho contacts Karen, who is still enthusiastic about her former client. They proceed to relaunch Cho’s career with “I’m the One That I Want,” a hit one-woman show that winds up becoming filmed as a movie and written as a book. If we’re lucky, at every crisis in our lives there will be a Karen offering sage advice. Unfortunately, these people aren’t always named Karen and can be tricky to spot.
People intent on making it in Hollywood are at times so driven that they forget what’s driving them. But it catches up with them eventually. Cho admits that her biggest mistake was simply wanting what everyone else wanted instead of figuring out what she wanted. It’s like house-sitting instead of finding your own house.
The title “A Year in Van Nuys” is a play on Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” Loh often pines for France and resents being in the Valley. Oddly enough, for a book with Van Nuys in the title, there isn’t much of that city on display. A Fox development exec admits to Loh that she grew up in the Valley and argues it’s to Los Angeles what New Jersey is to New York. This is a good thing: A couple of years ago, The New York Times proclaimed that the Garden State was suddenly hip because of Grammy-winning hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill, the return of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and a little thing HBO likes to call “The Sopranos.” Perhaps Loh is hipper than she realized living in Van Nuys, the place where (as she wryly observes) there are so many “carnecerias, taquerias and pupuserias opening daily, with no effort one could become both bilingual and an expert on pork products.”
Loh, who’s made a name for herself first as a columnist for the now-defunct Buzz magazine and more recently with public radio commentaries, spends much of her book fixated on things she wants but can’t have. Her brand-name references are a little tiresome, but she’s smart enough to make fun of herself for doing it. She also knows the virtue of exaggeration in making a joke, diagraming charts and drawing up lists of dates, locations, temperatures, e-mails and drawings to explain her upwardly immobile predicament. The targets of her nastiest rants include chirpy comedies like “You’ve Got Mail,” the happy swing dancers in that Gap TV ad and people whose only contact with her is e-mailing jokes.
Though Loh is a great talker, you sometimes wonder how good a listener she is. But someone whose writer’s block (“‘Sandra?’ Ruth says, settling next to me in a cloud of Lagerfeld. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’ve been blocked on my novel for three straight years,’ I admit. That’s the thing: When your family is paying three hundred dollars an hour for therapy, you don’t pussyfoot around.”) has been upgraded to a mid-life crisis is not often prone to saying, “But enough about me: What’s going on with you?”
Growing up--which both Cho and Loh write about in their books--is a strange concept to a lot of people who work in TV or movies. In a culture driven by the 25-and-under demographic, discussing the merits of maturity would be as ill-advised as inviting President Bush to join a book club. But growing up can happen even when you’re trying like hell to avoid it. By the end of her story, Loh’s self-absorbed and entitled fever finally breaks, and she writes movingly in her last chapter about how she had to abandon being Young, Fresh or Promising. As for Cho, she’s overcome the standard stand-up trap. She’s written a real and revealing book and hasn’t just slapped a bunch of her monologues together with the inevitable, hyperbolic Larry King blurb (“Boy, that Margaret’s some funny lady ... ") on the jacket.
Ironically, Cho’s and Loh’s outsider status is what makes them unique. Bemoaning non-perfect bodies is something most people understand. Overcoming hard times is something most people want to hear. If they looked like fashion models, had endlessly supportive families and an easy life, what would they have to write about?