Back in One Piece
In 1994, 26-year-old comedian Margaret Cho received a phone call from the president of Walt Disney Studios. He was calling to inform her that her situation comedy pilot, All-American Girl, was picked up by ABC for the upcoming 1994-95 television season. Having her own sitcom was an important milestone not only in her career, but also in her personal life. For the first time, Margaret Cho who had felt invisible throughout her life felt truly accepted.
Cho’s sitcom also marked an important turning point in U.S. television history: All-American Girl was the first TV series to focus on an Asian-American family. The premise of the show was essentially a sanitized version of Cho’s stand-up act, which centered on her experiences growing up in San Francisco as the American-born daughter of Korean parents. In the series, Cho played Margaret Kim, a hip 21-year-old Korean-American who was constantly at odds with her traditional mother, who wanted her to find a nice Korean husband. But Margaret was only interested in having a good time, American style. The series didn’t even last one full season, and when ABC pulled the plug because of low-ratings, Cho felt like a failure, descending into a depression exacerbated by her excessive use of diet pills, alcohol, drugs, and sex.
Fortunately, a happy, sober, and very funny Margaret Cho is back in I’m The One That I Want, a filmed version of her hilarious hit concert tour shot at the Warfield Theatre in her hometown of San Francisco. As Cho says in the film, her one-woman show was in part inspired by a warning she received from her former boyfriend, director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), while working on her series. In one episode, her character performed stand-up comedy and like Cho, she used her family as material for her act. Her family became very upset and in the end, she vowed never to do it again. Cho recalls that Tarantino couldn’t believe how far removed her character was from the Margaret he knew, and he pleaded with her: “Don’t let them take away your voice!” As Cho admits in the film, at the time she simply didn’t get it. But now, five years later, she returns with an entertaining and poignant stand-up routine that for us as much as for her is a therapeutic exercise in reclaiming one’s own voice and identity.
Other comedians have ventured into this territory before, most notably Sandra Bernhard in Without You I’m Nothing and the more recent Sandra Bernhard: I’m Still Here, Damn It. Nothing, in particular, celebrates the instability of identity as Bernhard blurs the line between her childhood memories and fantasies, then channels them through her various alter egos, which include a black lounge singer, a teenage volleyball player named Babe, a San Francisco secretary, and a straight man abandoned by a gay friend in a gay disco. Cho appears to be on a similar mission of self-discovery, but while Bernhard deconstructs her identity, Cho puts herself back together.
I’m The One That I Want begins with Cho’s observations on a variety of topics, including Karl Lagerfeld, the Ku Klux Klan (“Is there, like, a KKK-Mart they go to?”), and gay vs. straight porn. This last leads to her homage to gay men. A self-proclaimed “fag hag,” Cho acknowledges the support she has received in her personal and professional life from gay men. She goes as far as to label herself as heterophobic (“If it weren’t for gay men, I wouldn’t talk to men straight men are scary”). And although she hurls a few criticisms towards her gay male audience (they don’t hesitate leaving you all alone in a gay bar if they get lucky), she clearly feels most comfortable, onstage and off, with gay men.
Her feelings of comfort and acceptance around gay men provide a contrast to her experiences working on All-American Girl. She gives an emotional account of her humiliation by the show’s producers and network executives, who told her she was too fat, and forced her to lose thirty pounds in two weeks, ultimately jeopardizing her health. And if that wasn’t enough, they also told her she was “not Asian enough” and hired an Asian consultant to make her character, based on herself, more culturally authentic.
In the film’s most heart-wrenching moment, Cho describes how she lost all sense of her own identity in being so transformed into a commodity for public consumption. Stripped of her self-esteem, she relied heavily on alcohol and drugs to kill the pain. It’s unclear in the film how Cho was able to get sober after hitting bottom, yet this does not detract from the power of her self-affirmation as a woman, a Korean-American, and a comedian.
Cho’s organization of her material is a testament to her skill as a writer and performer. She has that rare ability to not lose her focus as she goes off on a slight tangent to elaborate on one of life’s little absurd moments. For instance, she recalls being hospitalized with two collapsed kidneys, and a woman entering her room and announcing she was going to clean out Cho’s vagina. When discussing such sensitive matters (vagina-washing or the best way to give head), Cho is manic and in-your-face, reminiscent of comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And her infamous imitations of her critical, advice-dispensing mother are very funny, particularly her routine about her mother reading a gay male porno magazine.
Director/cinematographer Lionel Coleman does a terrific job of capturing Cho’s adept performance. Thankfully, he avoids those distracting reaction shots of the audience inserted into most concert films and instead lets her do all the work. He films her in long takes and medium long shots, thereby successfully showing her dynamic delivery her entire figure as well as her suggestive facial expressions: Cho uses both in lieu of words to express her shock and disbelief at the disparaging comments thrown her way. Most importantly, the various shots display how comfortable she is now with her own body, after we’ve heard her describe the physical and mental damage she endured when the network forced her to “get thin” for her television show. I’m The One That I Want reveals much about Margaret Cho’s personal journey, but ultimately, it’s also about a culture that would inhibit rather than celebrate a person’s individuality. Yet thankfully for Cho, and for us, she triumphs!