Margaret Cho, on her own terms

Times Television Critic

We have come to the time when starring in a reality show no longer means you have exhausted all the other options -- that you, the star, might represent a reasonably well-functioning, otherwise successful human being rather than the sort of train wreck that the form initially seemed to favor and from whose cluelessness viewers drew their dark enjoyment.

In other words, you do not have to be Anna Nicole Smith, or Whitney and Bobby to want to get into this game.

Korean American comedian Margaret Cho, whose new good-natured reality entourage sitcom “The Cho Show” debuts tonight at 11 p.m. on VH1, is by any visible standards doing quite well.

She has a big house in the hills, parents who love if not necessarily understand her, fans who adore her near to the point of speechlessness, colleagues who owe their careers to her example, and a career of her own that can keep her as busy as she wants to be.


She’s been given awards by NOW, the ACLU, GLAAD and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. And her helpers -- “assistant” Selene Luna, makeup guy John Stapleton, hair guy John Blaine and wardrobe guy Charlie Altuna -- are also her friends, and they seem to be there happily, because they love her and not, as is often the case in reality TV, fearfully, because they need her.

Although Cho’s career and personal life took a downturn in the mid-1990s, after a dispiriting foray into network sitcomedy left her with kidney failure -- she starved herself to get thin for the pilot -- and an identity crisis (was she too Asian, or not Asian enough?), Cho bounced back at decade’s end with the one-woman show “I’m the One That I Want.” It’s been tours, concert films and kudos ever since.

She further remade herself in the Hollywood underground where performance art, comedy, bodyworks and the new burlesque all bump up against one another -- the witty Luna, a 3-foot, 10-inch Tijuana-born burlesque dancer and comedian, comes from that scene -- and if the not-thin, extravagantly tattooed Cho has body issues now, she faces them head on. We see her tonight half-naked, clad mainly in body paint and rhinestones. (The show is rated TV-14.)

Still, comedy subsists on pain, and the show, whose tenor is largely happy and light, goes for fuel to still-painful memories of darker times.

“I totally forget,” she says, tearing up. “Like, I’m so, like, fabulous now, I’m so glamorous now. But I really didn’t feel like that when I was a kid at all -- it was really hard.”

On the premiere episode, Cho is to receive an award -- KoreAm Journal’s “Entertainment Achievement Award” and not, as she insists, “Korean of the Year” -- which brings up questions of acceptance by her community.

She’s “angry” about the years she felt rejected by them, she tells her “spiritual advisor.” (This overplays somewhat the hostility of a group that is, after all, throwing her a party, but it ends in love.)

In next week’s episode, she and Luna, deploring mainstream notions of attractiveness, stage a beauty pageant of their own. They get spray-on tans and instruction in ventriloquism for the talent competition -- a Shari Lewis parody with Luna as Lamb Chop.


“The Cho Show” also benefits no end from the presence of Cho’s parents, who are billed as Mr. Cho and Mrs. Cho and seem incapable of artifice. (She keeps them near, she says, because “old people are a really good source of prescription medicine.”)

To be sure, this is the sort of engineered reality in which things mostly happen because someone is there to film them, and not the other way around. But that it is only a partial, edited view of its star -- she has, for one thing, a husband, artist-provocateur Al Ridenour, who is neither seen nor heard -- doesn’t mean that real thoughts and feelings don’t come through. It’s best when they do.