I didn't know about comedienne-actress Margaret Cho's struggles with depression and drug and alcohol addiction, nor about her near-death from kidney failure brought on by extreme dieting. In fact, I didn't know anything about her at all except that she had been the star of a short-lived television sitcom I had never watched but which had gotten a lot of attention because it was the first TV series to feature an Asian-American in the lead role.
Having now seen I'm The One That I Want, the film version of Cho's one-woman show that originated off-Broadway, I now know all of these things about her. And much more, some of which I wish I didn't know. The best and funniest parts of her routine concern her baptism of fire at ABC, home of her ill-fated weekly series All-American Girl. The portrait she paints of the corporate television mentality is hilarious and frightening. Executives first worried that Cho was too Asian, then, later, that she wasn't Asian enough (they eventually hired an "Asian consultant" for the program ). Judged too fat for prime-time television--at least as the star of her own sitcom--she was ordered to lose weight. She became addicted to diet pills and shed pounds so rapidly that her kidneys malfunctioned and she was hospitalized. A friend, horrified by what she was enduring, observed incredulously, "The network asked you to lose weight to play yourself on your own TV show?"
At the time of her health crisis, of course, Cho didn't recognize the wisdom of her friend's comment nor the irony of her own situation; she was just thrilled to be down to a size 4. As with so many performers, her identity depended upon other people's acceptance of her. Which meant that when her show was canceled, she fell apart. Turning to drugs and alcohol, she became just another Hollywood casualty.
Fortunately, the story doesn't end there, and I'm The One That I Want stands as a sort of self-affirmation, a declaration along the lines of: "My name is Margaret and I am the person I want to be, not what anyone else wants me to be." At times she seems mighty pleased with herself, smiling at her own jokes and way-too-obviously waiting for applause and laughter, but when several thousand adoring fans are showering you with love and approval, it's probably difficult to resist such temptations.
Cho's brand of humor is unapologetically rude, crude, and raunchy. Think Eddie Murphy, not Julia Sweeney. She also drags her mother through the ringer, which might not be so bad were it not for the unappetizing facial expressions that accompany these particular jokes. Truth be told, Cho has a most unbecoming way of contorting her face that leaves her looking like Jabba the Hut or, perhaps more kindly, the Queen of Hearts in Alice Through the Looking Glass. At these moments she stands very erect and pulls her head into her neck, producing several double chins, squints her eyes--or, conversely, opens them abnormally wide--and sucks in her cheeks, which gives her fish lips. She stands there and looks around the room, making sure everyone in the auditorium gets a good look. It must be some sort of signature mannerism, because the crowd just eats it up.
I'm The One That I Want was filmed at the Warfield Theater in Cho's hometown of San Francisco, rather than in New York during the show's Off Broadway run--a nice touch given the autobiographical nature of the proceedings. Devotees of the comedienne presumably will think they have died and gone to heaven, while Cho virgins may laugh aloud a half-dozen times but probably won't become converts. Where is Tom Lehrer when you need him?
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