I'm the One That I Want
directed by Lionel Coleman
(Cho Taussig, 2000)

There's one Carnegie Hall performance I would absolutely love to see: Margaret Cho.

A stand-up comedienne who began performing at age 16, the star of her own sitcom who was molded and pressure-cooked by the network to be more thin, "more Asian" and more compliant, a recovering alcoholic and drug user who's been to the proverbial hell and back, Cho jokes with vicious, raunchy wit about it all.

I'm the One That I Want, taped live before her hometown San Francisco audience in 2000, is packed with jokes that, to put it mildly, I cannot quote or paraphrase without lots of &)!%# and ___. So, folks, the details here are pretty thin.

Cho's Korean-American background is a wild mix of traditional and 1970s Bay Area culture. Her parents, bookstore owners, provide the tradition, the ethnicity that informs much of her humor. San Francisco, its drag queens, its gay population and its nightlife, inform the rest.

"When I was a little girl, I always wanted to surround myself with gorgeous guys," Cho says. "And I am -- but I should have been more specific."

She has a special affection for that slice of society, and the gay and lesbian community sends that love right back. There are the sex lessons she's learned from her gay male friends, the mimicking of network TV's idea of what "Asian" means ("That is just so Mulan!" she crows about one sitcom honcho's suggestion) and a wry observation on the infinitesimal number of Asian-American role models in the media ("I didn't play violin. I didn't -- Woody Allen.")

But it's her horrifying experiences as the star of 1994's short-lived All-American Girl that bring home Cho's mix of brutal honesty and bawdiness.

Hired as the first Asian star of a sitcom about Asian Americans, Cho soon learned the network feared her face was "too broad," her body too round, her attitudes not "Asian enough." The Asian community itself differed on where the emphasis between Asian and American should be.

The upshot: she lost 30 pounds in two weeks ("they wouldn't have to letterbox my face anymore"), wrecked her kidneys and lost her show anyway. All-American Girl was replaced by Drew Carey's fledgling sitcom "because he's so skinny," she says, rolling her eyes. And Cho slid into drugs, promiscuity and trying to drink herself to death. She describes her epiphany as "a VH1, Motley Crue Behind the Music moment," and started toward recovery.

Not completely fitting in anywhere, Cho's forged a strong identity, with even the most lewd humor melded with intelligence.

Her imitations of her mother are legendary -- but the routines that seem all exasperation on the surface become, in Cho's hands, a study of a mother-daughter bond that's astonishing in its tenderness and affection.

Here is in-your-face comedy with such boldness -- Richard Pryor comes to mind -- that Carnegie Hall doesn't seem such a stretch, after all.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 1 November 2003

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