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She’s a Stand-Up Academic for a Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UCLA professor’s words were suitably highbrow: The 120 students in his interracial dynamics class were about to hear a speaker who would explore the complex tensions of social demands and individual ability to react to constraints, race and identity, sexuality and gender, body and image. Furthermore, professor Jeffrey Decker told the class, today’s speaker would examine how the media enable or limit an artist’s self-expression because of these identity strictures.

Today’s speaker, however, was at a loss. “What is he talking about?” blurted out comedian Margaret Cho, 32, as she moved to the front of the room and faced the freshmen last Thursday. “This is really weird for me; I’m really uneducated and I don’t have a high school diploma and there were a lot of big words I didn’t understand.”

Everyone laughed, even if what she was saying wasn’t exactly true.

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Yes, Cho set her mind to flunking out of high school as a way of rebelling, but since her one-woman-show-turned-critically-praised-film, “I’m the One That I Want,” was released last year, she has emerged as a raucous authority on social tensions and race and gender taboos.

So far, the students have covered 400 years of American racial history--reading slave narratives, texts on immigration and famous court cases, as well as books on contemporary Los Angeles such as Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz.”

“Margaret Cho fits into this course because she is a real example, the embodiment of the topics they’re studying,” Decker said.

The students had seen her film the night before, and Cho, who has been a professional comedian since age 16, invited them to ask her about anything--and they did.

A young man with spiky brown hair raised his hand: “Um, in your movie you talk about experimenting with a woman . . . “ he began.

“Experimenting?” she interrupted, cupping her hands in the air. “I can just see me standing there with two beakers.”

He tried again: “OK, you said you had sex with a woman. How did your parents take that?”

“I disappointed my parents so early in life that they didn’t expect anything from me,” she replied.

Her parents, who owned a bookstore in San Francisco, are lovingly lampooned in Cho’s stand-up work. They steered her through the rocky shoals of childhood with one unshakable, but ultimately stultifying, mantra: “Koreans don’t do that.” Whether performing stand-up comedy or talking about sex, the same solid, steady refrain applied to just about everything she wanted to do. Yet how to handle a Korean girl who wants to be Flip Wilson--or maybe even Richard Pryor--when she grows up?

“They did not see any evidence of anyone like me succeeding, and they didn’t want the world to disappoint me,” Cho said. “Asians put a high emphasis on education and conservative careers because of fear; then we, their children, wind up not pursuing our dreams because of our parents’ racial vision.”

Cho has found tremendous freedom by rejecting boundaries and labels. In her work, she dives into the culture of weight-shame afflicting American women, mocks Korean American hyper-conservatism, outs a slimy producer who glommed onto one of her breasts and exhorts gay men to cherish “fag hags” like her. (“We went to the prom with you!”)

For an hour and a half, Cho, clad in a black shirt, jeans with the word “slave” delicately embroidered over one pocket and a ghetto-fabulous gold dollar sign dangling in front of her crotch (it was supposed to hang to the side but had slid to the front), guided the class through the textbook of her life.

“I don’t identify as gay or straight, as lesbian--these labels are a way for the straight world to organize who we are and they don’t serve anybody well.”

Do her parents ask her to marry a Korean man?

“They’d be happy if I was just with a man at all--any man,” Cho said. They are, however, deliriously proud of her achievements.

Is she torn between being Korean American and just American?

“No, I can vacation in both,” Cho said. “I was doing a shoot on the set of ‘Sex and the City'--which I love--and it was a great time. But also there was a Filipino actor there and we could go off and joke about how we don’t really trust white people.”

The heart of her film, “I’m the One That I Want,” centers on Cho’s experience with her ABC sitcom, “All-American Girl.” It was the first American TV comedy to focus on an Asian American family. The short-lived sitcom, which ran during the 1994-95 season, almost shortened her life.

The network required her to lose weight to play herself, and she did--30 pounds in two weeks--and ultimately suffered kidney failure. (“I was starving,” she said.) Then, after the show was canceled in 1995, drugs and alcohol helped sate her. Cho eventually regained sobriety, though alcohol and drugs were never really her worst addictions anyway, she told the students. Food was. Like the network, her family and other Korean Americans were scathing about her size.

As for the abundance of gaunt, famished-looking actresses on the screen, Cho said: “I have a lot of actress friends who don’t eat anything, but the actresses aren’t the problem--it’s the mind-set of the producers. This tyranny of slenderness is another way to keep women in their place. Look at when it came up: In the ‘60s, when women were really making strides.”

In another surrealistic twist, Cho was deemed to be “not Asian enough,” she said, for ABC. The network hired a consultant to help her be “more Korean” on the set.

“They wanted an authentic Korean family, and I was like, what is that? As if there is only one type of Korean family. The white world gets to speak to all ranges of experience. What is the authentic Caucasian experience? ‘Authenticity’ is another way of limiting who we can be, and it’s completely racist.”

It was a sympathetic, if low-key, audience. No one challenged or criticized Cho--but then it is difficult to find areas of Margaret Cho’s life that she has not already challenged and critiqued herself. A print version of “I’m the One That I Want” (Ballantine) is due out April 24, and she’s planning a national book tour. After that, Cho, who lives in Hollywood, will begin a concert tour with new material. She is calling it “The Notorious C.H.O.”

“She is not just dealing with the issues but slaps you in the face while you’re laughing,” said Decker, one of four professors team-teaching the elective course.

After the session, students said they agreed with Cho’s take on immigrant parents pressuring their children, acceptable roles for women and stereotypes.

“In a Hispanic family it’s a big step that I’m at a major university and that I live here on campus,” said Sandra Hernandez, who is Cuban American. “If you go to school, there is an assumption that you’re going to live at home.”

“And a lot of parents are like, ‘Be a doctor or be a lawyer,’ ” added Teresa Chen, who is Taiwanese American. “They do try to steer you toward a certain field.”

Regardless of whether they agreed with everything Cho said, she did sound “authentic,” the students agreed. “The reason she’s so powerful is that she does what good comedians do,” said Stephanie Boarden. “Good comedians tell you the truth.”


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