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When 33-year-old Margaret Cho was a teenager and a novice comedienne, she found herself turning Chinese. Not really, but it was the wishful thinking - or the lack thereof - of a promoter who plunked Cho's vivid Korean face on a poster, artificially supplemented with jutting buck teeth, a bowl of rice, and the long braided queue of a Chinese rail worker. The blatant caption? "Margaret Cho: Proof That The Chinese Are No Laughing Matter."
"I was so mortified. It was so incredibly racist. And uninformed." But to construe this flashback lightly - albeit one filled with equal parts dread and relief - is a mistake. After her sold-out worldwide tour with "Notorious C.H.O." last winter, Cho (sans phony braid and overbite) may be rightfully proud for her success, but she has far from forgotten.
In close quarters, there is an earnestness to Margaret Cho that belies her brazen act. Flip it over and voilą! The enigmatic woman often called America's funniest female comic is getting ready to launch a crusade.
No, the self-labeled 'fag hag' will not be storming Bloomingdale's in the attempt to secure gay men's right to bridal registry, a sideline joke in the "Notorious" routine.
Instead, the focus of Cho's next show will be on ethnic and racial ignorance. "There is all this subtlety in racism that happens with Asian-Americans." Complaints about the so-called model minority do not prick the surface of what Cho feels are a long list of insidious woes; simply put, "Asian-Americans have been pandered to by society."
If you look at Cho's career, she was bound to reclaim her roots.
Cho was only sixteen starting out. Her parents, Korean immigrants, ran a bookstore in San Francisco. Cho grew up listening to comedy acts in a club upstairs.
"I always knew what I wanted to do. When I started, I had felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. As a performer, on stage was the only place I felt safe."
Cho went on to snag Jerry Seinfeld's coveted opening slot. Soon, she became the most popular performer on the college circuit. Bob Hope interviewed her; Arsenio Hall had her on. Then ABC gave her the lead to her very own sitcom.
By now, the story of the belly flop that constituted "All-American Girl" is a familiar one, starting with ABC's insistence that the robust Cho lose weight and follow the advice of a coach who would tell her how to become "more Asian."
Once again fidgeting in her skin - especially when being told there should be less of it - Cho quit, and the show was cancelled. But success is a creature of mystery. The experience became prime material, and the resulting show and book, both entitled I'm the One That I Want, secured Cho's dual status as both mercurial comeback kid and one seriously funny entertainer.
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Jean Tang (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon and Time Out New York. She is currently working on a book about the history of food.
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