Somewhere Over the Rainbow

By Dennis Hensley

Originally published on Advocate.com July 29 2008 11:00 PM ET

About 10 miles
north of downtown Los Angeles lies a hillside community
called Montrose that’s so charmingly retro
it’s often used to represent Main Street, USA,
in movies like Pleasantville. It’s not the
kind of place where residents typically discuss their
recent anal bleaching over chicken wraps, but then
Margaret Cho isn’t your typical resident. “The
bleaching was surprisingly easy and
refreshing,” says the veteran stand-up comic
over lunch at one of her favorite neighborhood cafés,
the Black Cow. “The woman at the bleaching
place showed me before and after pictures. It was
hilarious because the way she was holding her hands on the
ass, it was like she had entered it in the county
fair.”

This is just one
of the many adventures you’ll see on Cho’s new
VH1 pseudo-reality venture, The Cho Show. In
other episodes she sidles up to San Francisco mayor Gavin
Newsom as he names April 30 Margaret Cho Day, speaks
at the high school that expelled her for bad grades
20-some years ago, and takes a needle to her G-spot in
an attempt to boost her sexual sensitivity. “The
G-shot is a separate episode from the anal
bleaching,” she stresses. “I like to keep the
vagina and the anus separate. Don’t mix ’em.
You’ll get a hangover.”

For her legions
of fans, this is the kind of anal-warts-and-all dish
they’ve come to expect from Cho since she burst onto
the stand-up scene in the early ’90s. After the
cancellation of her much-hyped but short-lived sitcom
All-American Girl in 1995, Cho broke out
with a self-financed concert film,I’m the One That I Want. The next few years
brought three more hit tours-turned-films -- Notorious
C.H.O
., CHO Revolution, and Margaret Cho:
Assassin -- and Cho evolved from a road comic
and film actress (Face/Off, It’s My Party)
into her own unique brand of performance artist,
political activist, and sexual provocateur.

She sees The
Cho Show
as the next step in her evolution.
“It’s the closest I’ve been able to
come on television to what I do as a comic,”
says Cho, who’s working a
Brokeback-meets-burlesque ensemble today (cotton
cowboy shirt over Martini brand bell-bottoms that are denim
from the knee up and sheer from the knee down).
“It’s like a sitcom but with real people
playing the parts.” Fans hoping for a down and dirty
exposé of her real life should adjust their
expectations, though. Yes, much of the action takes
place in her home, but Cho actually moved into a house 10
miles away during shooting so she could avoid the production
fracas when she wasn’t on-camera. And the
show’s story lines were crafted by Cho and a
small team of writer-producers well before the cameras
rolled. “The show is me in the context of being
around all the people that make me want to tell
jokes,” she says. “It’s sort of like
this constant riffing that I do with the people in my
life.”

Although everyone
on the show is playing his or her real-life persona,
their relationship to Cho has been scripted to provide a
platform for her comedy. For example, Selene Luna, a
3-foot 10-inch scene-stealer and longtime friend, acts
as the comic’s assistant on the series. Stylists
John Stapleton, Charlie Altuna, and John Blaine form
Cho’s “Glam Squad.” Although the
three men have a warm rapport with the comic, they just met
her during casting for The Cho Show.

The only real
exception to the faux-reality setup is Cho’s
Korean-born parents, who play themselves on the show.
Longtime Cho fans will be particularly excited to meet
her mother, Young Hie, whom Cho has been imitating in
her act since the beginning of her career. “I did
wonder if people were going to think that I was doing
her wrong,” Cho says, “but I think
it’s pretty accurate.”

Cho’s
parents, who make their living importing and exporting books
and have a bookstore in Seoul, took time off to appear
on the show. “I really had to yell at
them,” Cho says. “I built my whole career
without their help, so I said, ‘The one time I
need help with something, you better help.’
They were worried that the cast was just going to make fun
of them, but then they saw that they had an important
part to play and that we loved them, and they started
to warm up.”

One person
viewers won’t see on The Cho Show is Cho’s
husband of five years, Al Ridenour, a visual artist
who also designs her website. If you’re
surprised to learn that Cho’s a married woman,
you’re not alone. “People are always
surprised about that, but that’s just the way it
is,” she says simply. “That part of my
life is really happy and perfect, and I worried that
putting my real relationship under that kind of scrutiny
would just fuck it up. He’s shy and he doesn’t
want to be on-camera, and I understand that.”

Margaret Cho -- Rainbow II (Getty) | Advocate.com

Married or not,
Cho has perfected an image of herself as a sexual
maverick who’s up for anything. But one has to wonder
if that’s just a stage character or if she
really walks the walk. “I’ve enjoyed a big,
big variety of different kinds of sex,” she
insists. “I was worried about that when I was
younger, like, ‘Why do I have to be so
slutty?’ And then I realized it’s
fun to be slutty.” As for being slutty
and married, Cho allows that “there are
certainly boundaries that we have,” but she
hesitates to classify her marriage as open.
“It’s something like that, but
it’s all very unclear. We sort of take everything as
it comes. It’s very fluid because it’s
meant to last. We want it to be forever. I
don’t want to philosophize about it. I’m just
very happy.”

Cho confirms that
she’s had long romantic relationships with women,
“but I probably have longer, more intense
relationships with female-to-male transsexuals. My
sexuality is more oriented toward transgendered people,
so I don’t know what that makes me.” She pops
a grape into her mouth, then adds, “And I still
love cock, all cock. Cock doesn’t
necessarily have to be cock to be cock. It can be a
store-bought cock. Oh, and I can only have sex with
people over 40, that’s the other thing. If
they’re younger than that, it’s creepy. I like
a worn, lived-in body.”

Though Cho has no
problem being open about her sexuality these days, that
wasn’t always the case. She recalls being at a comedy
festival in Montreal when she was in her late teens
and discovering that the powers that be in Hollywood
might not want to hear about her sex life. “I was
sitting on [out performer] Lea DeLaria’s lap,”
she says, “and my manager at the
time—this big, powerful manager—came up and
pulled me away and he said, ‘Are you 100%
straight?’ And I was like,
'I…don’t…know.’ And he
goes, ‘You know what? You are. You’re 100%
straight. You’ve never been interested in
women. You haven’t even looked at a woman and thought
of sex ever. You’re not gay at all.
You’re 100% heterosexual.'” Cho got the
message. “I was so terrified that I kind of pushed
all of that queerness into some area where I
couldn’t feel it,” she says. “I just
didn’t want to deal with it.”

Margaret Cho -- Rainbow II (Getty) | Advocate.com

She plops the
uneaten half of her chicken wrap into a to-go container
before announcing that she needs to head home to prepare for
a party for “some big marijuana political
organization” she’ll be attending at the
Playboy Mansion with a longtime friend of hers, gay comic
Scott Silverman. Though Cho has struggled with
substance abuse problems in the past, she sips
champagne and cracks pot jokes on The Cho Show.
“I drink a little bit and do other stuff, but
it’s nowhere near where it used to be,” she
explains. “You grow out of it.” She says
the Playboy Mansion is about as hetero a social scene
as you’re ever likely to find her in. When asked why
her social life is so gay, she answers that gay events
are usually just more fun. “Who wants to go to
a straight nightclub? And do Jell-O shots or
something? That’s gross. Even straight people
don’t want to go.”

VH1’s
press release describes Cho’s show as her
“quest for fame.” Considering the
success of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the
D-list
, that kind of marketing makes sense, though it
doesn’t seem to fit Cho. In person and even on The
Cho Show
there’s something sort of
unharried and Zen about her that makes it hard to discern
what exactly drives her. “My motivations are
really basic,” she says. “I really love
the work. I don’t think I’d know what to do if
I didn’t do this.”

An anecdote she
shares about the wonders of mosquito repellent is oddly
more telling about where Margaret Cho is in her life than
the R-rated musings she so easily offered earlier.
“I recently went to see the True Colors show in
Vancouver,” recalls Cho, who was a regular on last
year’s tour and performed occasionally this
time around. “It was right by a lake and there
were mosquitoes all around, and I had remembered to put on
repellent…and I didn’t get bitten. I thought,
That’s enough for me. Small things are so
wonderfully satisfying…” she adds before
slipping back into her adopted personality,
“like dick. I love dick. I’m
grateful for it every time.” She just can’t
help herself.

In the end
Cho’s appeal isn’t about what we know or feel
about her so much as how she makes us feel about
ourselves. In Cho’s universe we’re all
valid and we’re all beautiful—which happens to
be the name of her upcoming special -- regardless of
age, color, gender, height, size, shape, or
orientation.

“You fight
for those who are oppressed,” says a tearful young
woman as she approaches Cho at a Korean of the Year
award ceremony in one of the most memorable and
spontaneous scenes in The Cho Show. The fan had
written down what she wanted to say so she could get
through it without succumbing to nerves and emotion.
“I totally identity with you and I look up to
you,” she continues, sobbing. “I love
you, Margaret Cho. The world is better with you in
it.”

Rest assured, as
long as there’s a microphone and a crowd, Cho will
continue to be a strong voice in the world. “I would
love to go to another level as a stand-up, to do
stadiums,” she says. “That’s my
goal.” Just don’t expect her to dial
down the queer content. “Talking about gay
culture is so fun and so funny, and it’s where my
life is,” she says. “I don’t know
what I would be talking about without it. What would be
funny to me?”