Published in the Fall 2004 issue • Features
Loud and Proud
Comic and activist Margaret Cho takes on rowdy Republicans, fat-fearing TV execs and anyone who wants to legislate love
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“The hard part of growing up in an immigrant family is that you have a lot of expectations coming from the older generation trying to suppress the younger generation,” Cho says on the phone from a hotel room in Boston. “It can work to your disadvantage in dealing with the larger role of the dominant culture. It’s hard trying to battle two things when you’re going out there and making strides to do something different.”
Cho began her comedy career at 16. She was soon travelling across the country and became the most sought-after college campus comedian in America. By 1994, she was offered her own television sitcom, a notable accomplishment for a 26-year-old. Titled All-American Girl, the show was based on Cho’s stand-up material and was the first series featuring an Asian-American in the lead role. Though critics lauded the sitcom as a major achievement for minorities as a whole, it would not be an easy ride to fame for Cho.
Despite the fact that Cho was playing herself, the producers of All-American Girl decided her physical appearance was not up to par. They told her to lose weight. Before the show began, they put her on a strict diet and exercise routine. It worked. She lost 30 pounds in two weeks, but the stress on her body caused her kidneys to collapse and put her in the hospital.
Haunted by tabloids, producers and her own fear of rejection, Cho became addicted to diet pills. But her efforts to be the person she thought she should be in order to succeed weren’t enough to keep the show on television. All-American Girl was “too Asian,” Cho was told by her producers, even though they’d hired Asian consultants to make Cho “more Asian” only weeks earlier. After six months on-air, the sitcom was cancelled.
Cho became depressed. She contemplated suicide, but ultimately turned to alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia and promiscuous sex instead. As she describes in her debut film and subsequent U.S. tour, I’m the One I Want, one day, after a night of excessive drinking and drug use, Cho woke up next to her alcoholic boyfriend without any recollection of the evening before. One of them had wet the bed but they didn’t know who. At that point, Cho decided it was enough. Her life had spun out of control and she wanted it back.
“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” comedian Carol Burnett once said, and although the performers’ styles are different, Cho’s success echoes Burnett’s sentiments. Her career has been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, but her past fuels her comedy.
In I’m the One I Want, Cho talks about her show’s cancellation: “I didn’t know who I was, all I knew was that I failed and I failed as someone else. It was painful and I did what’s really hard for Asian people to do,” she says. Her tone is slow and serious. And then the punch line: “I became an alcoholic—and that’s not easy because we can’t drink.”