GLENDALE, Calif. — Standup comedian Margaret Cho was never the polite, little Asian girl who covered her mouth when she laughed and made straight As. In fact, she was always the opposite.
A rebel whose comedy could shift from caricatures of her Korean parents to raunchy sex tales, Cho has always pushed the envelope.
“I like standup comedy because it’s very unpredictable, it’s very natural,” she says seated at the dining table in her publicist’s home here.
“I don’t really know where it comes from or how I do it. I just kind of GO when I do it. It’s a world I’m very familiar with. I’ve been in comedy for 25 years so that world is very comforting and easy for me to maneuver in, and also I’ve gotten to an age where I feel like I’m everybody’s mom — all the standup comics’ mom.”
Cho was 8 years old when she observed her father watching “Live at the Sunset Strip” with Richard Pryor. “He was laughing at it and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could make him laugh in the same way, and I’m going to do what this man’s doing. I want to impress my father, be like my father in that I want to understand what these jokes are about. I want to tell these jokes. I want somebody to laugh, somebody like my dad to laugh.’ So that was majorly important.”
She waited only seven years to try it. In the meantime, she was ejected from school because she constantly skipped class and scored terrible grades. “I was really angry at my parents because they didn’t treat me the same way they treated my brother,” says Cho, who’s wearing red crinkle-cotton culottes with a navy sweater, studded with white stars.
“They treated him with lavish gifts and constant adulation and they didn’t really pay attention to me. They had me when they were really struggling and didn’t have much money. When my brother was born, they came into a lot of money so they spent a lot of money on him. In Korean culture, girls and boys are treated differently. Boys are treasured and adored and girls are, like, ‘Oh, sorry you have a girl.’ That kind of attitude.”
The only way she could even the score was to do badly at school, she says. “That was the only weapon I had, that was the only way to freak them out. It was hard to do because I didn’t really want to fail, but I knew that was the thing that would really get to them ... I ended up going to an arts high school after that.”
She didn’t like that either and dropped out to devote herself to comedy. When she first started it was pure bliss, she says.
“I never really thought about quitting in the beginning. I would get much more frustrated later on. I didn’t become really frustrated with show business until I actually got to be somewhat successful.”
In 1994 she starred on the ABC sitcom “All-American Girl,” an experience that proved disheartening both for her and the network.
“I got very frustrated and disillusioned with Hollywood and the way things worked. That was the time I became more self-destructive and had some trouble with drugs and alcohol, things like that that happen in your 20s when you’re using substances in the wrong way. So that’s when I had most of my trouble.”
The network constantly hassled Cho about her weight. “I was very anorexic when I was doing ‘All-American Girl,’ which was frustrating because I never really got that thin,” she laughs.
“But I was very destructive in the way I was treating my body — my diet and exercise — because I was being pressured by the network to lose weight. Critics would review the show, but they wouldn’t talk about the show, they’d criticize my weight. That was the main thing that was a problem. I was so frustrated and freaked out about that I got super anorexic. The bulimia and anorexia partially made me focus on eating disorders and talk about body image in my work a lot. So in my standup comedy there’s a lot of commenting on the way we talk about women’s bodies and weight.”
That’s one of the things that attracted her to her latest endeavor, Lifetime’s new series “Drop Dead Diva,” premiering Sunday. Cho plays the office manager for a chubby attorney who becomes the unknowing vessel for a gorgeous — but dead — blonde.
“Because it’s so much about weight and about how women are valued by the way they look and how certain values are placed on certain body types,” she says, “it’s a really positive portrayal of the way we view our bodies and the ways it’s addressed.”
Cho, 40, has been with performance artist Al Ridenour since 1999. They’ve been married for six years. “We’ve been together for a long time in terms of Hollywood years. We’ve been through a lot of stuff. What’s good about it is I travel so much it keeps the time at home together really special, because he stays at home ... He takes care of me because I don’t know how to do anything. I can’t cook; I can’t do any of that stuff so he helps me out a lot.”
She would like to have children, but says she and Ridenour have tried unsuccessfully. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t adopt. It’s not that meaningful for me to physically have them. I think it’s fine to adopt them. Older children or those with special needs to me that seems like an appealing thing. I really love children of all ages.”
Noah Wyle (“ER”) will be battling aliens instead of microbes when he takes over the lead role in the new untitled show that Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat are planning for TNT. He’ll play the leader of a band of tattered heroes who are among the few left after the aliens have obliterated most of the folks on Earth. Rodat, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for “Saving Private Ryan,” is writing the script based on an idea conjured up by him and Spielberg.
The complete 12th season of the perennial “The Simpsons” will be on DVD in stores soon. Fans can pre-order as early as July 22. The show, which exhibits no signs of aging, continues to be hilarious and timely, even though the episodes are made far in advance because of the time-consuming animation. Creator Matt Groening explains how they go about it. The script comes first, he says.
“Everybody gets together a few times a year. We rent a hotel room so we won’t get interrupted by phone calls, and we sit around and everybody throws around ideas and notions and whims and story ideas. From those we decide which are worth developing. And whoever is inspired, runs with it and comes back with an outline.”
A whole new generation has the chance to catch a wonderful movie that was mostly overlooked when it first came out in 1962. “Lonely Are the Brave,” the tale of a loner cowboy faced with changing times, now is available on DVD. The film was scripted by one-time blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and directed by David Miller. It stars Kirk Douglas at the very height of his career in one of his best performances, and it remains his favorite movie and a favorite of his son, Michael Douglas. A young Gena Rowlands costars. It served as an inspiration for Spielberg, who is one of the interviewees on the “Special Features” section of the disc. Both Douglases discuss the movie, as does Rowlands.