Margaret Cho on All-American Girl
With Brooke Elliott on Drop Dead Diva
As Kim Jong-il on 30 Rock
The Interviews: Margaret Cho
From stand-up stage to TV screen, the comedian-actress blazes her own trail.
When comedian-actress Margaret Cho stepped into her ABC sitcom in 1994, she hoped to join fellow standups who were finding wide television fame. But her show, All-American Girl, carried some heavy burdens. it was part of a Wednesday-night lineup of woman-led shows (Grace Under Fire, Ellen and Roseanne), and it was the first primetime sitcom to focus on an Asian-American family. So when the series was canceled after one season, Cho used the bad news as fuel for her stand-up career. "I had nothing to lose," she says. "It pushed me to tour and to be better."
From then on, Cho blazed her own trail. She turned her off-Broadway one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want, into a feature film that she financed and produced herself. It also led to a comedy album, which earned Cho one of her five Grammy nominations for recordings based on her comedy tours.
Her acting career continued in 2009 with a starring role in Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva, which aired for six seasons. Cho has been featured in Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Singer, and she was Emmy-nominated for guest actress in a comedy series in 2012 for her portrayal of dictator Kim Jong-il on 30 Rock. This spring she recurs as a guest star in season two of HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, and she'll be seen this summer in the Hulu comedy feature Fire Island alongside Bowen Yang.
Cho is active in the gay rights movement, as well as feminist, antiracist and anti-bullying campaigns. For her work, she has been honored by the National Organization for Women, the ACLU of Southern California and L.A. Pride.
Cho was interviewed in June 2021 by Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The interview was a coproduction with the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: What was your name at birth?
A: Cho Moran, which is Korean. We say our last names first. My dad wanted me named after the [moran] flower that blooms even in the deepest winter. It's quite a poetic name.
Q: When did you start going by Margaret?
A: Around eleven or twelve. It was a name that my dad likes — he loved an old Irish song about a Maggie.
Q: What was it like growing up in the '70s and '80s in San Francisco?
A: My parents owned a bookstore called Paperback Traffic on Polk Street, which was a very big gay neighborhood in the '70s. Half of the store was gay content. I went to my first gay pride [parade] in '77 or '78. It's incredible how I've been a witness to so much of what's happened with the queer community since I was a child.
Q: Were you interested in TV?
A: Very interested. My parents were keen on renting pirated videos of Korean television at the Korean supermarkets. But I also loved Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, All in the Family, The Jeffersons. Good Times is probably my favorite.
Q: What drew you to comedy?
A: I just really loved comedy. I remember when Robin Williams came to shop at my dad's store. It was such a big deal, because he was a famous comedian and was starting to become famous as an actor. Also, in the '70s Saturday Night Live would have stand-up comedians on who would do their comedy in a portion of the show, not just in the monologue. I remember seeing Joan Rivers and being so in awe of her. I just knew, "This is what I want to do."
Q: A lot of comedians we've talked to have discussed using humor as a shield. Did you have that experience early on?
A: For me, comedy is a shield and sword. But it's also about being in front of an audience. Anything negative that would happen to me happened in secrecy — any kind of violence, abuse or bullying. So when you had an audience, nothing bad could happen to you, because you have many witnesses. To me, that's a very important element of comedy. It's less about a fear of being in front of people, which a lot of people have. It's actually the only place that's safe.
Q: You opened for Jerry Seinfeld in 1988....
A: Yes, I lied my way into a competition to find the funniest college student in America. I wasn't even in college! I won the West Coast division and opened for Jerry Seinfeld and Mario Joyner. I talked to Jerry after the show, and he was very complimentary about my pursuing a career in comedy; he thought I had a different point of view.
Q: What kind of doors did that open for you?
A: MTV, which was doing a lot for comedy in the '80s and '90s. I did a lot of their shows — as did Janeane Garofalo, Judd Apatow, Colin Quinn, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, all of these people in L.A.
Q: Then you started to book guest spots on TV shows: Golden Palace, Red Shoe Diaries. Is that the direction you wanted? More acting?
A: I always wanted to be an actor. But there were no parts for Asian Americans. It was a challenge.
Q: Let's talk about All-American Girl. How did that come about?
A: It was really about the times. If you were a successful comedian [in the '90s], you would get a development deal to do a sitcom because there had been such great success with Seinfeld and Roseanne, Tim Allen's [Home Improvement], Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire.... I was swept up in that frenzy of, "Let's buy up comedic talents to create sitcoms from their comedy."
My comedy was sought-after because it was different. My story was something that could emerge as a show about an Asian-American family with this young woman. But the network didn't know where to put me. They infantilized my experience, and I'm a very raunchy comedian. At the same time, my HBO special came out, which was incredibly blue. A sitcom with kids and old people, airing in the eight o'clock hour on ABC — it was really hard for them to figure it out. And it was about Asian-Americans.
Q: Did you feel the weight of history at the time?
A: I did feel the intensity of being part of the first Asian-American family on television. Now I look back on it and I see the context. We premiered not long after the  L.A. riots — the last time Koreans had seen themselves on television was [in news footage] on their rooftops with rifles [defending their businesses from looters]. They're very controlling about their image because they were visible in this very negative light.
Also, Koreans are patriarchal and conservative socially. So it was very tough to push this narrative of a Korean-American young woman, who didn't speak Korean, was foul-mouthed, was likely/definitely queer, was not in college.... That was perceived as being controversial. But a lot of their kids saw me and were excited, like, "We don't have to be doctors and engineers and lawyers. We don't have to be pushed into these safe, conservative lives. We can be artists. We can be searching."
I think that was powerful for a younger generation to finally see Asian Americans on television. But for a lot of conservative Koreans, it was treacherous and scary. I got a lot of negative feedback from the Korean community. It was tough, because I had thought, "I am not necessarily accepted in white mainstream entertainment; I'll definitely be accepted in Asian circles." But that wasn't the case. It was heartbreaking. I didn't understand it at the time. Now I have a really good view of what it was all about.
Q: What kind of network notes were you getting?
A: The notes were that I was too fat, which is weird, because I'd never thought about my weight being a factor in comedy. But this was the '90s. You just couldn't be fat. It was looked at as a real weakness of character — not the character I was playing on television, but my own character. It was the times and how we viewed women. Our heroines were smart but super thin. Our bodies were under intense scrutiny. You didn't have a diverse view of beauty; you had a very divisive idea of what beautiful was.
Q: Were you put on a diet?
A: I went on a diet campaign. It was a terror. Every diet I have ever been on was unsuccessful. But I was so determined to channel my anxiety from being on television. The safety that I had felt as a performer had gone away. The audience became so much larger, and that scrutiny terrified me. I started to get meal delivery — all no-fat, which is so crazy. A trainer would come over every day and we would run up the hill with my dog. It was physically painful, but I felt like I could channel my anxiety into that.
Q: The show was loosely based on your stand-up. Did you have creative input on your character?
A: Not really. I always thought, "They're right. They're the adults." I trusted that they would know. Of course, they didn't know. Nobody knows except the artist, which now I know. But it was hard to put that on a twenty-four-year-old who didn't even know if she belonged in show business.
Q: How did you find out the show was canceled?
A: I was at a restaurant with my then-manager who mentioned, "Oh, you know it's canceled, right?" Like, "Oh, you must know." I was devastated. It made me want to be a really good comedian. I had nothing to lose. It pushed me to tour and to be better. It gave me so much courage.
Q: In your first comedy special after that, I'm the One That I Want, you talk a lot about the show. Was that a form of therapy?
A: Yes, but it was also a great launching pad for comedy. A lot of what happened was really funny, but some of it was really sad. To be able to emerge and be victorious in my own story was very powerful.
Q: What drew you to the role of Teri Lee in Drop Dead Diva?
A: Drop Dead Diva reminded me of Moonlighting, which was a really fun show. It was almost an '80s throwback of a lawyers-in-love, L.A. Law–type show, which to me is the pinnacle of fun TV. I had a blast. The cast was great, and we got to work with amazing guest stars — Joan Rivers, Liza Minnelli, Delta Burke and Patty Duke in one of her very last appearances on television.
Q: Your Emmy-nominated turn on 30 Rock — how did that come about?
A: I was asked to play Kim Jong-il. It was such an honor to be on that show. I was surprised about getting nominated, but I was really excited. My parents came with me to the Emmys and we had the best time. I love that we get to acknowledge each other's achievements. It's a real honor to be nominated.
Q: You also played a non-specific North Korean general on the Golden Globes with Tina Fey.
A: That was really fun. I played a representative of North Korea because North Korea was going to join the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. I just love Tina. I love Amy [Poehler] and Seth Meyers, who was writing on the show. I really respect all they do.
Q: In 2015, ABC launched Fresh Off the Boat. Eddie Huang — whose memoir the show was based on — called you, I believe?
A: Eddie and I are friends. He was looking to get some advice, because nobody had been through what he was going through with Fresh Off the Boat. The only person who would have understood was me. So we talked a lot.
He ended up leaving the show, but I still think the show is great. And it was really important for the show to happen. At the time of All-American Girl, the networks thought that only Asians would watch it. But we don't create television so that only the group that's being shown can see it. We tell stories for everyone.
It took twenty years between All- American Girl and Fresh Off the Boat. That was too long. Our visibility made our invisibility so poignantly real.
Q: On NBC's Dr. Ken, you played the sister of star Ken Jeong. Did he also give you a call? I understand you've known him for many years.
A: Ken and I have known each other for thirty years. He opened for me, doing comedy as a medical student. What a great everyman — acting, hosting, doing stand-up, and of course, [as a judge] on The Masked Singer. When I appeared on that show, I was not prepared for him to be fooled by my poodle costume!
Q: How has the pandemic been for you?
A: Really challenging. I'm grateful to be vaccinated and that my friends are vaccinated. It's incredibly painful to see all the violence against Asian Americans because of the coronavirus. It reminds me of the AIDS pandemic, when there was so much homophobic violence.
Q: On your podcast, The Margaret Cho, you changed the format to address hate crimes against Asian Americans....
A: We called this season "Mortal Minority." I think I'll continue to do it because it's really important to understand the history of Asian Americans in America. We've been here since 1849, yet we're still seen as foreign. So many old ideas about Asians in America are still prevalent — that we are somehow [responsible for] the "China virus," the "Kung flu." Whenever America is in crisis, our American-ness comes into question.
Q: And you point out that hate crimes are often not identified as such....
A: They're not being called hate crimes because of this prevailing idea that Asian Americans are not a race, or that there's no racism against them, which is not true. That's just another byproduct of the invisibility of Asian Americans.
Q: What progress has television made in Asian representation, both on screen and behind the scenes?
A: There has been a lot of progress — I just want to see more. I want to move past identity, to where we're not introducing ourselves anymore. I want to move into a place of just storytelling, which I think is happening.
Q: What is it like to know that there are so many young Asian Americans, young comedians and young women who see you as a pioneer?
A: That's my greatest achievement — influencing so many Asian-American women to go after their dreams and embrace who they are. That's the best thing I've ever done.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2022
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