Sitcom Survivor

Margaret Cho

 Margaret Cho suffers from the opposite of stage fright. In real life, she's a mess. "I have incredible difficulties doing the smallest things," the 30-year-old comedian says from New York. "I can't shop for groceries. I can't run errands. I just shut down." But when Cho has a mike in her hand and an audience to hang on her every word, she can handle her most personal of problems with no-holds-barred sarcasm and an NC-17 sense of humor.

In fact, Cho's new one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want, chronicles the most troubled time of her life — when she starred in the first and only Asian-American sitcom. ABC's All American Girl, or as Cho calls it, "Saved by the Gong," was billed as a kind of Asian Cosby Show. Though it was short-lived, the show propelled Cho into fame — and four years of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

"It was a harrowing experience, having my identity taken away and manipulated and put out into public," Cho says. "I had no control over how I was portrayed."

Margaret Cho tells how awful it was to be the All American Girl.
Lori Dorn
Margaret Cho tells how awful it was to be the All American Girl.

And then there was the subtle racism both on screen and behind the scenes. Cho was told her face was too "full" and that the television show would be canceled if she didn't slim down. Frantic, she shed 30 pounds in two weeks and was hospitalized for kidney failure. "Korean faces are round," she says in hindsight. "They're going to be round no matter what you weigh."

But what does Margaret Cho know about being Korean-American? Nothing, according to the All American Girl producers who hired another young Korean woman as the show's Asian expert. The staff "would ask her if we should wear shoes in the house? Do we use forks or chopsticks? Is this a good place for an abacus?" Cho remembers. "They actually put an abacus in the show."

Granted Cho is not your typical "good little Asian girl." Raised in San Francisco in a community of aging hippies, drag queens and Chinese immigrants, she started doing standup when she was 16, performing in a comedy club above her parents' bookstore. She was expelled from high school, then dropped out of an arts school and hit the college circuit with her act.

After moving to Los Angeles, she won the 1994 American Comedy Award for best female comedian and gained a reputation as an up-and-comer with a lethal tongue. Then came the sitcom debacle, her "journey to hell and back."

Despite the topic, don't expect I'm the One That I Want to be a sob-fest. Reviewers who saw the show's New York debut last month say it's funny as hell. Houston will be the show's first date outside New York, but Cho's not worried. She loves Houston, especially the legion of gay and lesbian fans who know her from the Margaret Cho Live in Houston CD that benefited the Montrose Clinic. Cho even jokes in the new show about her "fag hag" status: "When I was little, I always said I wanted to be surrounded by lots of gorgeous guys. And now I am, and I should have been more specific."

After I'm the One That I Want, Cho's planning an autobiography and, like any good fag hag, diva-dom. "I aspire to be one of the great divas, like Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland, even," Cho says. "That's really my dream." Divas don't have to shop for groceries.

Margaret Cho performs Saturday, July 24 at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas Avenue, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 at the Aerial Box Office, (713)230-1600, or through Ticketmaster, (713)629-3700. VIP tickets ($50, $65), which include a party after the show with Cho, are available at the Montrose Clinic, (713)830-3000.

 
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