Like many stand-up comedians in the 1990s — from Tim Allen to Ellen DeGeneres — Margaret Cho went from cracking jokes onstage to cracking jokes on her own primetime network sitcom, All-American Girl, which aired from 1994 to 1995 on ABC. But it took losing that sitcom for Cho to rediscover her comic voice. The Korean American comic dropped her first comedy album, Drunk With Power, in 1996, one year after the series was unceremoniously canceled followings its first and only season. That record was the prelude in a resurgent stage career that included such acclaimed one-woman shows as I'm the One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O, which re-introduced her as an out bisexual woman and an instant gay icon.
A quarter-century after Drunk With Power's release, Cho tells Yahoo Entertainment that her rocky experience in network television taught her a valuable lesson she's since applied to the rest of her career. "If I were able to do All-American Girl now, it would be with a voice that matched my voice as a stand-up comedian, which was impossible to do on a television show that was on at 8 p.m." (Watch our video interview above.)
Back in the early '90s, Cho's experiences as an Asian American woman distinguished her voice from a stand-up comedy landscape that was dominated by white performers. And as the first network sitcom of its era to feature an Asian American family, All-American Girl was similarly groundbreaking. (Twenty years earlier, Pat Morita played the patriarch of a Japanese. American family in Mr. T. and Tina, a Welcome Back, Kotter spin-off that only lasted five episodes.) ABC awarded the high-profile series a high-profile time slot: Wednesday nights ahead of Roseanne and Ellen.
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Behind the scenes, though, Cho frequently found herself at odds with the network and the show's producers. Over the years, the comic has revealed that she was criticized for her weight, and alternately told that she was either "too Asian" or "not Asian enough." The series was also accused of propagating Asian American stereotypes, leading to a mid-season creative overhaul that deemphasized Cho's extended family, which included Jodi Long and Clyde Kusatsu as her onscreen mom and dad, and Tony-winner BD Wong as her older brother.
The series finale, which aired March 15, 1995, was a backdoor pilot for a new version of the series that would feature Cho's character, Margaret Kim, moving out of her parents' home and living with three single guys — all of whom were white. After All-American Girl's cancellation, it would be another 20 years before ABC aired another sitcom starring an Asian American family, Fresh off the Boat, which ran from 2015 to 2020.
"I wish we could have done so much more," Cho says of her pioneering series, which was later released on DVD, but isn't currently available to stream. "We were so limited by this idea of having to be an autobiographical narrative that was 'authentic.' And I was caught up in that, too: like, 'How can we actually be authentic,' as if we couldn't be trusted to tell our own story. That was the wrong attitude, but I am proud of my achievements as far as I could go. It was really important."
All-American Girl's list of achievements includes landing some A-list guest stars: Ming-Na Wen, Oprah Winfrey and Jack Black all appeared on the series. But perhaps its biggest get was director Quentin Tarantino, who was fresh off the success of Pulp Fiction and one of Hollywood most in-demand talents. Cho was dating the filmmaker at the time, and remembers him asking to be on the show. "He really wanted to be in it, and I was so excited. I had never seen that level of people bending over backwards to do whatever he wanted."
Tarantino's episode, "Pulp Sitcom," aired on Feb. 22, 1995 — one month before he won his first Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction. And as the title suggests, "Pulp Sitcom" was a send-up of his box office hit, featuring recreations of signature scenes and visual tricks. "It was really fun to do," Cho says, adding that Tarantino didn't make any substantial script contributions. "It was really the writers of the show, and my focus was on trying to get him there. He was really into the idea of being on a sitcom. It was a fun experience to have him there, and we really laughed."
All-American Girl: The Complete Series is available on Amazon.
— Video produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo
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