The Margaret Cho you see at Wiseguys this weekend will not be the same Margaret Cho who went through a celebrated career tailspin some years ago. Back in 1994, Cho saw her ABC sitcom All-American Girl cancelled after a dramatic, network-mandated 30-pound weight loss in two weeks to prepare for her TV sitcom role. There followed a descent into alcohol and pills before finally accepting her own body image and unique comedic voice. It was physical and emotional hell, which she escaped with the help of her one-woman show and monologue (and later, best-selling book and concert film), I’m the One That I Want, in which she chronicled her career trajectory.
“It was definitely a pivotal moment,” Cho reflects. “Now, I can honestly say I’m very proud and happy with what I’ve done, I don’t really think about it [the cancellation] anymore, but more than ever I realize it’s important to have difficult times. I make a point of purposely taking mental timeouts to keep things in perspective.”
The success of her live stand-up movie Notorious C.H.O marks Cho’s return to straight-up comedy.
Cho attributes her ultimate success to hard work, which she believes might have had something to do with her parents and their concerns with her choice of vocation. After all, why couldn’t their Margaret be an accountant?
“At one time, they didn’t understand my decision to pursue a career in comedy, or that there was a possibility for success for Koreans in this business. They used to discourage my choice. I guess they were just looking out for me,” Cho says. “They didn’t see me perform for quite a while. But they’ve made a habit of coming out a lot lately to see me perform. They’re finally convinced I can make something of all this.”
Stand-up comedy has consumed most of Cho’s life, since her early teen years when she began performing on the comedy-club circuit in her native Bay Area. “I’ve always loved comedy. For me, there could never be another career choice. It’s very exciting to be onstage in front of an energetic crowd, doing what you love, connecting with your audience,” explains Cho. “It’s been a cumulative work, the whole process of making it in stand-up. There’s never been just one thing I’d consider my big break.”
There was one big break: an opening stint for Jerry Seinfeld. Along the way she has also acquired a cult status in the gay community.
“I grew up with it in San Francisco. It was always around me. I naturally seek out gay men in my life. I’m proud to use my clout onstage towards my role as an activist. Growing up as a child in the Bay Area during the ’70s, things were very politicized. I was lucky to live in such a unique place with so much happening. “
With professional influences that included Richard Pryor, Roseanne and Sandra Bernhard, Cho’s stand-up style is more edgy and revealing than her narrative, monologue style of the past. As for her self-styled “Notorious” title:
“It’s really a joke, that whole thing. I’m so NOT notorious,” Cho politely explains. “My stand-up style doesn’t differ from how I really think. But it allows me to have much more bravado; kind of an exaggerated version of myself to explore onstage. It’s a wonderful, great opportunity to vocalize my politics, my life—really communicate. I’m really a shy person. I know a lot of people, but I actually have a very small, intimate circle of friends. Doing stand-up is like my vacation from the quietness of my daily life.
“I’m very happy with what I can accomplish onstage. You’ll get the benefit from my experience. I perform almost every night of the year throughout the country. So I promise it will be very different than the norm. Most important, very funny. It’s very sexual, but of a higher class. After all, sex is a big part of life. But my style’s not blue per se. It’s very gray. Sometimes black. But blue? Never.”