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She Takes Failure Standing Up

Margaret Cho's Sitcom Bombed, but She Still Feels Superhuman at the Mike

October 22, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talking with Margaret Cho makes it clear that she is one of her own harshest critics.

When the conversation inevitably swings to the failure of her sitcom, "All-American Girl," Cho takes full blame.

"When a stand-up comedian doesn't make the transition into sitcoms, it's kind of like a silent-movie actor not making it in the talkies," says Cho, 27, who performs Wednesday through Saturday at the Improv in Irvine. "There's such a high success rate that you must be some kind of an idiot not to get it right! I take full responsibility because I just didn't know what I was doing and I should have done better."

One thing she would do differently: Take a more dominant role in the writing of the show, in which she played a hip young Korean American with a traditional Asian family. It's not that she thinks the scripts were poorly written or ill-conceived. But she thinks her character could have been more colorful and memorable.

"I have such a unique voice that it's hard [for other people] to write for," she said during a recent phone call from her home in the Hollywood Hills.

The series--which was on during the 1994-95 season and was the first American TV series to focus on Asian characters--generated its share of excitement and discussion among Asian Americans. Some found it to be funny, if lightweight; others, though heartened by the arrival of Asian Americans on TV, thought some of the characters were awkward and the cultural attitudes unrealistic.

Cho said she disagrees with such criticism but is pleased that the show triggered such debate. She said she didn't feel especially pressured by the pioneering nature of the show and her role, but that's because she always has felt the sociological burden of being an Asian American performer, even as a burgeoning stand-up comic in her native San Francisco.

*

Actually, she added, her ethnicity helped her get her foot in the door to the comedy club circuit, as club owners were eager to find stand-ups with a different look or perspective. Cho was just 16, and still a student at San Francisco's High School for the Performing Arts, when she began performing in public.

"Being different helped me a little bit. But when you're different in the stand-up world, you're looked at suspiciously. You're kind of looked at as a gimmick, and it's like you don't deserve to be there. But I think my material stands on its own. It took me a long time to get respect from other stand-ups. That to me was really important."

Cho said that as she has matured, so has her act. Today, she said, her anecdotes about her Korean-born parents are fueled less by youthful rebellion than by a desire to understand them as people.

She said she appreciates the full control afforded by the stand-up format, and that she feels creatively stimulated by the energy she receives from a live audience. "My personality onstage is very different from my personality offstage. My onstage persona is very powerful and very funny. To me, it's almost superhuman. I can do so much there. But as a person [offstage], I can't do anything."

She also said that she has had a number of opportunities to get back into TV and that she is interested, but isn't clear yet what type of show would be best. So she continues to perform live and act in films.

She and Eric Roberts were in "It's My Party," a film released earlier this year about a gay man dying of AIDS. She recently finished shooting two movies, "Faking the Funk" and "Sweethearts," and seems most excited about a role she just landed in John Woo's upcoming action flick, "Face Off." Cho, a huge fan of Hong Kong action films, will play an FBI agent, opposite John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

"I also just put out my first comedy album [called 'Drunk With Power']. I just want to keep my life interesting, and it is interesting. I'd just like it to stay that way."

* Margaret Cho performs Wednesday through Saturday at the Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. $12-15. (714) 854-5455.

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