margaret cho

Margaret Cho stages stand-up with songs that aren’t a joke
for Oklahoma Gazette

It must bear some semblance to torture, when your profession and passion require being raunchy, opinionated, provocative and in all other ways outspoken, and something tries to stifle your voice. It is just like Margaret Cho, however, to roll with the punches.

Chances are you’ve heard of Cho, who, early in her comedy career, garnered support from such television stalwarts as Bob Hope and Arsenio Hall. She’s an award-winning artist with successful standup tours, essay collections, movies, television and all other manner of performance under her belt, and her trademark is her comedic, though often gritty, bent on the happenings of her life. Cho is a walking taboo, famous for speaking openly about everything from race to body image to sexuality.

A first-generation American with two Korean parents, Cho’s devil-may-care forthrightness is especially alarming, given her cultural background, though being raised in San Francisco during the ‘70s may have something to do with that. Regardless, her parents’ initial resistance to her line of work was merely the first of many hurdles over which Cho has leapt in her 25-year career.

“They hated it,” Cho said in a September 1 e-mail interview, “but then they saw my success, and it was so overwhelming, they were forced to change their minds. I know that they are way into what I do now, but they really hated it and practically disowned me.”

While Cho is probably most recognizable from her starring role in the 1994 ABC sitcom “The All-American Girl,” Cho’s 2000 standup show, “I’m the One That I Want,” shared in gruesome detail the effects of network pressure on Cho as the first Asian primetime sitcom star, from being warned against being “too ethnic” to having to lose weight in order to play herself.

Cho’s activism is deeply-rooted in her comedy. A staunch advocate of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, she speaks frequently about her own hetero- and homosexual relationships and has been in a less-than-traditional marriage to (male) artist Al Ridenour since 2003. The bottom line, according to Cho, is to be who you are.

“It’s true. I want to have sex with everyone all the time,” Cho said. “That’s my choice, and it’s also how I was born. Why is it a problem?”

More recently, Cho’s exploits included a stint on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ tour, a celebration in support of GLBT rights; and the Lifetime network’s “Drop Dead Diva,” chronicling the life of a model reincarnated in the body of an overweight woman – a seemingly peculiar choice, considering Cho’s previous series experience.

“I fell in love with the show’s creator, Josh Berman,” Cho said. “I loved the script and felt so moved by the story I had to be involved in it; there was no question. Given my history, I am very careful about what I accept in terms of television, but I love this show.”

For the moment, Cho’s focus is shifting to music, and she has an album in production slated for release in the near future. And if you’re skeptical, this comedy record is no joke –tentatively titled “Guitarded,” the album includes collaborations with such artists as Andrew Bird, Jon Brion and Patty Griffin.

“My project was comedy plus serious music, so I put together the most serious musicians I know,” Cho said. “It’s going to be an amazing record. I am such a fan of all of these people, and they did such a beautiful job with the music. The lyrics are funny, too. I’ve spent the last year learning guitar and banjo and am now able to play decently. I’m not trying to change, I’m still a comic. I’m just trying something different.”

Before embarking on her current nationwide tour, which focuses on her music, however, the unthinkable happened: Cho’s voice was silenced, literally, when nodes on her vocal chords resulted in doctor’s orders not to speak or sing. At all.

“I lost my voice and had to do the first part of the tour with no voice at all,” Cho said. “Some of the things I had to do were so surprisingly good that I’m keeping them. It’s a work in progress depending on the status of my voice, but it’s great that I can do a great show without opening my mouth at all. I think that’s very impressive.”

Cho has been recruiting the text-to-voice function on her computer, as well as bringing along friends and celebrity guests to be her voice for each performance. According to her blog, Cho’s improvised shows are going well. Good news, though, as Cho’s voice is currently on the mend, though Cho insists there’s little missing from the performance.

“My voice is doing better, but I’m still doing the shows silently,” Cho said. “My initial reaction to the diagnosis was, ‘Um, no, this is not happening.’ It was a Monday, and I had to do a show in Los Angeles that Thursday. Jon Brion suggested I still do the show and said he’d sing my songs and read my material. We went ahead and did the show, and it was tremendous. I found I could work around being silent, and it’s helped me be even more creative in the development of the show.”

A good lesson in overcoming not just adversity, but continually thwarting the people – or medical diagnoses – that try to keep her down, Cho is living her lifelong dream and plans to continue doing just that, regardless of what life or politics throws her way.

“I just wanted to do comedy, and I didn’t care where it would lead, because it was exactly what I wanted to do,” Cho said. “I knew I was a comic inside, and that I would do this my entire life. I didn’t have goals other than to do comedy every night. That’s what I did, and it all turned out okay.”

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phantom planet

Making Sweet Metaphors
for Boyd Street Magazine

Alex Greenwald loves a good metaphor. And a bad one. Indeed, Phantom Planet’s new album, Raise the Dead, is conceptual, an exploration of the metaphorical cult of band fandom. Single “Leader” portrays a cult experience (“He explained so easily/We are all the missing pieces/Maybe you’ll fit right in, too”), with Greenwald first joining and then recruiting to the Phantom Planet family.

Creepy, yes, but in reality Raise the Dead finds Greenwald (guitar/vox), Darren Robinson (guitar), Sam Farrar (bass) and Jeff Conrad (drums) settling into a medium, melding their early surf-pop with the garage rock of Phantom Planet’s eponymous third record — an album that, at its release, left diehards and neophytes alike scratching their heads. Despite the shift, Greenwald speculates about the loyalty of the Phantom Planet…ahem…cult.

“Changing stylistically is wearing our experiences and influences from the time it takes to [make] a record. If the style of the record is like your fashion, you’re still the same person underneath your clothes. We’ve made really close friends that stick with us, even though now we might be dressed like…derobed…um…circus clowns.”

Robinson offered a simpler explanation. “We’re very personable. We always go out and mingle with fans.”

This forging of relationships is of greater importance lately, as the band finds itself in a number of unlikely pairings, supporting Panic at the Disco, The Rocket Summer and Paramore this year alone. Greenwald has — you guessed it — a couple of metaphors to explain.

“Headlining shows are like dessert. I could almost rot my teeth on how sweet it is,” Greenwald said, “but I do like playing for new people. It’s like going on a first date: cold sweats, nervousness and, if it works, extreme elation.”

That elation is a long time coming, as Phantom Planet rounds out its 14 th year. Overcoming an unfavorable Hollywood stigma — Greenwald is a former Gap model and actor (see: Donnie Darko) and actor Jason Schwartzman is the original drummer — and leaving Epic Records in favor of the much-smaller Fueled By Ramen, Phantom Planet has abandoned anonymity for success. Greenwald analogized (of course) the band’s turbulent climb out of the L.A. pop scene.

“By no means did I grow up wealthy, but I wasn’t poor. When I couldn’t afford a toy, like a Jabba the Hutt, my mom made it. It’s the same thing as Jabba, you know. (At this point, the rest of Phantom Planet looked quizzically at each other, snickering.) Wait, guys, this analogy is going to work. I played with it and [eventually] loved it even more. You kind of hate where you come from, but you still love it. We started early, so everything felt like the way it was supposed to be. It was hard work but not crazy. I was 15 when we signed to Geffen. We kind of disliked the experience of being on a major label, but that was what was supposed to happen, and now we’re adults, and we want to move forward.”

Phantom Planet has few regrets, even concerning the elephant in the room. “California” from 2002’s The Guest found smash success as the theme to Fox’s The O.C. and led countless drunks to shout the request at every performance.

“I had the fear before that I’d regret the choice to put ‘California’ on the show,” Greenwald said. “The potential negative is people might judge you before hearing other songs, but if anything, it’s done the opposite and given our band the opportunity to reach a lot of people. From Radiohead to NOFX, there’s always someone in the audience yelling. At least it’s not, ‘You guys suck!’ That’s something.”

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let’s go outback tonight

Let’s Go Outback Tonight
Written after a particularly traumatic restaurant outing.

I like to tell people the truth—that I was born in South Korea, to a military man and a farmer’s daughter. The exoticism of that intentionally-partial reality tends to cloud certain details: that I have spent most of my life in the U.S., that I wear my shoes in the house, that I don’t speak a lick of Korean, that I am 5’ 8”.

My mom and I visited her side of the family in Songtan and Seoul in the fall of 2006, for the first time in 18 years. For me, the experience was largely exciting, disconcerting in an entirely different way than for my mom, whose relatively-new American way of life had weaned her from all Korean familiarity. That is to say, what was once her everyday way of life had been nudged into history by AMERICA!, so she had to battle with the loss of her history versus the comforts of her new life versus the way her family lives, blah blah.

But this isn’t a story about loss. It is a story about cultural confusion and, more than that, embarrassment.

On the maternal side, I have one uncle who speaks English. I gather he is some sort of international businessman; I have no evidence of this save for a business card that says “Johnny Lee”; it is common for Korean people with difficult-to- pronounce Korean names to adopt typical American names to make life easier for everyone. Uncle “Johnny” (known to me as Samchoon my entire life) really wanted me to feel at home, offering me assorted alcoholic beverages and offering to buy everything I glanced at sidelong. Samchoon decided to take us out for dinner, and in a fairly questionable fit of hospitality, suggested Outback Steakhouse in Seoul.

I’d already No Reservations-ed a few times, ducking into back alley restaurants, sitting on upside-down buckets and eating spicy soups of God-knows- what, and that’s fine, because it’s all part of the experience and a facet I genuinely enjoyed. But it had been about ten days at this point, and even if only for one meal, I was ready to eat with a goddamned fork.

Samchoon triple-parked (something he did with alarming frequency) and ran in, only to find the wait was unbearably long. Naturally, we parked the car and walked two doors down, in the same building, to another Outback, this time only to be seated immediately. The menu was basic, with new names for the same items I imagine are on the menu stateside. I decided on a pasta dish, and my mom ordered something similar.

While stirring my Coke (which came half-full with no ice and was refilled at no point during the meal), I tuned out the Korean conversation happening next to me and people watched. Even at home, I’m a little obsessed with hip-looking, young, Asian couples, and at the booth next to us, one such pair was sharing a huge salad and plate of ribs. Adorable.

The waitress brought our food, and I immediately began inhaling my Queensland shrimp and noodles, or whatever it was called, and my mom did the same. Several minutes and half a plate of pasta later, I looked up from my gluttony long enough to realize that my extended family was dishing out a little of this, a little of that from everyone’s entrées. I glanced, panicking internally, at every other table in the restaurant. Sure enough, those humongous American-Australian portions make sense to Korean people only in the context of sharing. That is to say,

IF YOU ARE GOING TO ORDER A THREE-POUND ENTRÉE, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SHARE IT.

…COW.

I could feel my cheeks burning, and my mom had come to the same realization at roughly the same time I had. Heads bowed in shame, we finished our meals in mutual embarrassment, silently begging for forgiveness from our tiny Korean dining partners.

After the meal, my aunt, mom and I stopped at the restrooms, where I was confronted with my ultimate Asian vacation nightmare: the bidet. The idea of the thing has always given me the heebie jeebies. I am by no means electronically-inept, but this thing has so many buttons. So many. And not a single letter of English to be found. I did what any tourist lacking in confidence would do and held it until I was sure I knew how to flush. I pressed a button that, to me, looked like water going down the drain, and threw myself flat against the stall partition when a surprisingly powerful stream of water shot out of the bowl. Ducking, I inched out of the stall and slammed the door shut, only to see the water pooling on the floor.

Seconds later, I heard my mom yell, “Becky! What’s ‘BEE-DAY?’, followed by a blood-curdling scream and then my mom, shirt soaked through, emerged from her stall. She had to borrow my aunt’s jacket to leave the restaurant.

Let this be a hard lesson for Americans about exploring new cultures. To paraphrase, ‘tis a far better thing to justifiably embarrass yourself in an unfamiliar place than to accidentally bidet your shirt in an Outback.

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