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MINIMIZING THE SEOUL OF HIS ACT : Henry Cho Just Wants to Be Known as a True Southerner--and for His Humor

April 15, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Rodney Dangerfield has his tie-tugging "I don't get no respect" image. Judy Tenuta has her accordion-toting "petite flower" persona. And comedian Henry Cho has his own gimmick: himself.

"Howdy. How ya'll doin'?" the cowboy boot-clad Cho says in his heavy Southern drawl. "I know what may be goin' through your mind right now. Just let it soak in a second or two because there's something wrong with this picture, ain't there? I'm full-blooded Korean, but I was born in Knoxville, Tenn., so I do talk this way."

It wasn't easy growing up in Tennessee, Cho drawls.

"I was the only Asian guy in like four states. Ya'll remember playing Army when you were a kid? Yeah, I pretty much hated that game. All my buddies would go, 'OK, it's the neighborhood against-- you. ' "

Cho--who's headlining at the Irvine Improv through Sunday--has what he has acknowledged is "one of the best hooks in the business."

"A lot of people say, 'You've got a great character.' Well, it's not a character, it's me," he said by phone last week from Knoxville, where he was visiting relatives and hanging out with friends.

Though he's become a familiar face in comedy clubs around the country and through appearances on "An Evening at the Improv," "Comic Strip Live" and "The Tonight Show" over the past few years, Cho finds he still needs to make a few Asian references at the top of his act to explain his east Tennessee accent.

If he doesn't, he said, people in the audience who are familiar with him will be laughing at his jokes while "people that haven't seen me before are just staring at me."

"Trust me, if I could, I'd just move on (and not do it)."

A likable, upbeat personality on stage, Cho is known for his story-telling ability as he affectionately pokes fun at his family and friends, his college days, sports and assorted other subjects.

"A lot of comedians just do jokes; my act's a really strong reflection on my life," he said. "I tell stories about growing up, about my experiences with my buddies; I've been blessed with very funny friends my whole life. I tell stories about things we used to do and still do. And I talk about relationships, my personal ups and downs."

Shopping with his girlfriend isn't high on Cho's list of fun things to do.

"I hate to go shopping with my girlfriend," he says in his act. "She always says, 'Henry, let's go to the mall.' I go, 'Honey! If I want to be around clothes that have never been worn, I'll sit in your closet for an hour."'

Cho made his stand-up debut in 1986 when he entered the statewide search for Showtime's Funniest Person in America contest at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Knoxville. At the time, he was an advertising major at the University of Tennessee. (It was, he said, his fifth change of majors in six years of on-and-off attendance at the university.)

Cho was a hit from the start. He said he went on stage on a Monday night and after his turn at the mike the owner of the comedy club chain offered him a job as emcee at the club starting Wednesday.

"I never did an open mike night or anything," said Cho, who placed second in the statewide search.

From the start, Cho's MO has been to tell humorous stories rather than just jokes.

"That was the thing about it," he said. "When I told my buddies I was going to try this stand-up comedy they said, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'I don't know, tell a story about my dad.' They said, yeah, tell that story about when you did this or when you did that, and that's what I did. So it's kind of been the way I did it from day one."

Cho said he wasn't the funniest guy in his group of friends, although he's always "been a smart aleck and always been very witty. That just comes with personality more than being a comedian."

He also has a healthy dose of self-confidence.

"My buddies will tell you I'm a very confident person. I always have been. It's like landing an airplane. I've never done it, but I think I can do it."

Cho said the reason he got into stand-up comedy was to become an actor and, given Hollywood's penchant for nabbing stand-up comics for TV and the movies.

"It was the most positive avenue I saw to pursue an acting career."

He moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and has racked up a starring role in "Nerds III" and appearances on "Designing Women" and other shows.

"I'm so different," he said. "There are no other 'Southern' Asians running around."

Cho is currently preparing to make his third appearance on "The Tonight Show" in a few weeks. This time around, he plans to keep his opening Asian references to a minimum.

"The first time you do any big show like that they want you to introduce yourself to the audience, so the first time I did probably four or five jokes on my background," he said. "The second time I did maybe two. This time I'm doing one: 'My name's Henry Cho. I'm full-blooded Korean. I was born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn. So I'm really South Korean.'

"It's very quick, just boom-boom. It gets to the laugh and explains who I am."

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