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Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere Over the Rainbow


Margaret Cho forces a little reality into her fantasy life on The Cho Show.

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 cafes, 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 expose 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."

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."

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?"

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