Her Brilliant Korea
AS THE CLOSING CREDITS OF THE first episode of the sitcom All-American Girl scrolled across the TV screen, Margaret Cho, watching excitedly with friends at a fellow cast member's house, did what any kid would do: She phoned home. So, were Mom and Dad, back in San Francisco, bursting with pride about her star turn as a hip Asian-American Generation Xer who lives at home with her old-world folks? Well, sure, recalls Cho, but mostly they were...parental. "They gave me acting tips like, 'Don't move your head so much,' " she says. "And they were like, 'Why do you have to dress like that? Can't you just be more nice and clean?' "
It's easy to see where Cho, 25, got her All-American training; comedy, as the saying should go, begins at home. On the ABC sitcom, Cho plays college student Margaret Kim, who, along with her elder brother (played by B.D. Wong), tries to juggle a life divided between mall America and her tradition-bound Korean parents. And if critics aren't wild about the show, they do love Cho.
Having her own network show is a coup for this seven-year veteran of the stand-up-comic circuit (sample Cho-ism: "Growing up, I always thought that Kung Fu, with David Carradine, should have been called That Guy's Not Chinese!"). But Cho, seated in her sparsely furnished living room, her navel ring peeking out from underneath her black crop top, clearly has even higher aspirations for All-American Girl, the first network series with a primarily Asian-American cast. "The whole point of the show is to take away the foreignness that Asian-Americans have, to demystify us," she says. "What I want in 25 years is for people to see Girl in syndication and be like, 'Remember when they didn't have Asians on TV all the time?' "
The show was custom-designed around Cho, making her the latest in a line of comics (including Roseanne, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Brett Butler and Ellen DeGeneres) to have their stand-up persona turned into a sitcom. In a process that she calls "Margaret-izing the scripts," Cho claims she can "pretty much at any time stop everything and tell them what I want and what I don't want. I can change lines of dialogue. I have a lot of freedom." Does that mean All-American's producers may soon have another power-happy Roseanne on their hands? Executive producer Gary Jacobs isn't worried. "Margaret's not a wallflower. But she is a team player," he says.
Cho grew up the Duran Duran-crazed, not-so-dutiful daughter of intellectual parents. Her father, Seung-Hoon Cho, 55, and mother, Young-Hie, 54, came to America in 1964 as college students. Cho says her parents were conservative, but adds, "Of course, by Korean standards, they're Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman." The couple owned a bookstore in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where little Margaret and her younger brother Hahn Earl hung out with artists and bohemians. "They couldn't really afford charm school for me," says Cho, "so this was the next best thing."
After graduating from San Francisco's performing arts high school, Cho entered what she calls her "slacker period—drinking coffee, going to rock shows, wearing Birkenstocks and hanging out on Haight Street." But in 1991 she moved to Los Angeles and soon began appearing regularly in comedy clubs and on TV building routines that focused as much on growing up in the '70s and '80s as on being Asian-American. Last year she caught Disney's eye, and with ABC committed to at least 13 episodes of All-American Girl, she recently rented a two-bedroom bungalow directly below the Hollywood sign. She won't talk about a report that she's dating singer Chris Isaak, except to say that she's seeing someone "in the same line of work, and it's really nice." Otherwise, she's decorating—in a style inspired by the 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange: "I want to make the house like a retro-futuristic bachelorette pad."
Cho is hoping that her parents will visit again soon so they can all sit down together and watch her show. Comedy, after all, kinda runs in the family. Some years back, her father published a book of jokes in Korean. "Well, not really jokes," says Cho. "They're more like little Aesop's fables. Very in humor in Korean. I don't get it at all."
CYNTHIA WANG in New York City and KURT PITZER in Hollywood