- Imagining Beyond the Here and Now in Margaret Cho's I'm the One that I Want
In her memoir, stand-up comedienne Margaret Cho writes that her parents had to deal with immigration difficulties in San Francisco of the 1960s, portraying them in that era of their lives as “not being hippies, LBJ, men on the moon, and having their first child while being totally unprepared for reality.”1 Cho’s description of her parents’ situation suggests the near absence of Asian Americans, as active participants in the public culture, in the popular imagination of the 1960s and 1970s; while Asian American labor and capital were incorporated into the national economy, Asians in America were still specters to the eye of dominant culture.2 The invisibility of Asian Americans is also clearly presented in Cho’s account of media culture: “When I was growing up, I never saw Asian people on television. Oh, except on M*A*S*H sometimes. Like every once in awhile on M*A*S*H you’d see an Asian person in the background unloading a truck.”3 A few decades after that TV series first debuted, Cho has introduced a wide range of audiences, through her comedy show, to a rebellious image of Asian Americans. Her stand-up persona—a self-proclaimed “fag hag, shit starter, girl comic, trash talker”—presents a very different image of Asian Americans than that which prevailed during the Cold War era.4
In this essay, I examine how Cho manipulates, rather than being pulled by, the shifting, often contradictory representations of Asian Americans in popular theater culture. Cho’s return to the stage after several years of struggle articulates that the term American that demands assimilation of ethnic individuals in exchange for the promise of equality is distinct from a self-fashioning of that term.5 As an example, I discuss Cho’s first national tour show I’m the One That I Want, which she performed in forty cities across North America in 1999 and 2000, and her memoir of the same title. A substantial part of her material focuses on how she overcame obstacles and prejudices in her personal and professional life. According [End Page 423] to Cho’s life story as conveyed through the show, she had stopped working on the road in order to take a role in her ABC television sitcom All-American Girl (1994–95), one of the first television programs to depict an Asian American family, but her acting career in television was soon interrupted as she faced racism and sexism in the entertainment industry. Despite the cancellation of her sitcom after a six-month run, Cho finally returned to the stage with I’m the One That I Want. In contrast to her failed TV show, her stage show has attracted a multitude of fans. She explained this phenomenon in one interview by saying “Americans love a comeback, they love an underdog.”6
Cho is one of the first Asian American stand-up comedians to become popular both in mainstream culture and on the fringes. She is also well known for her imitations of her middle-aged Asian immigrant mother and her gay male friends. This performance choice reflects the sentiment of the time in which her show was produced. Details such as an Asian immigrant mother whose primary interests are not confined to familial obligations or an Asian American woman reciting the radical queer culture would have had no place in the cultural economy of the Cold War period. More specifically, the production of this show coincides with the time when representations of those who had largely been excluded from the public sphere, especially ethnic individuals and queers of color, started gaining currency in American popular culture.
The aura of democratization evoked by the visibility of ethnicized people, however, contradicts anxieties about immigration and transnational influence on the American political system as exemplified by the case of the Wen Ho Lee spy scandal in 1999.7 In this contradictory context, Cho’s stand-up offers insight into the contingency of the inside and outside of identities since she emerges as a figure that is...