Saved by the Gong
The sitcom that turned Margaret Cho into a cultural hero.
Click here to see a video slide show of Cho's comedy.
February has been a bonanza for connoisseurs of the mediocre sitcom. Anyone dissatisfied by the canned lessons and paint-by-numbers comedy of today's prime-time lineups can now journey back in time—via DVD reissues of Growing Pains, Charles in Charge, and Gimme a Break—to hear the same crappy jokes spoken by actors with complicated perms and dressed completely in denim. By far the most baffling of the month's resurrections has been All-American Girl, the mid-'90s sitcom starring Margaret Cho. The show was an aesthetic failure on every level: It sandblasted the edges off of Cho's comedy and then stretched it thinly over a dubious premise, stereotyped characters, clichéd plots, and backbreaking jokes. (Even its theme music was bad.) It was canceled after one season. The experience was so toxically bogus that it almost killed its star, both professionally and literally (Cho became a raging everything-aholic). It was, in other words, not an obvious candidate for resurrection as a $40 set.
All-American Girl's mysterious afterlife springs from two contradictory sources. The first is quasi-sociological: It was the first prime-time show ever to star an Asian-American family. (The DVD's ad copy speaks of this as a cultural triumph roughly on par with desegregation.) Second, and more interesting, the show has become famous because Cho built her post-sitcom superfame by trashing it (she called it "Saved by the Gong," among other things). In Cho's personal mythology, All-American Girl became symbolic of the spiritual gang-rape we like to call mainstream American culture. And, thanks to some wormhole deep in the fabric of capitalism, Cho's abuse of the show apparently functioned as a weird kind of masochistic advertising. For the first time ever, people wanted to see it.
This must have put the marketing department in a real pickle: How do you sell a product that is famous only for being awful? Do you dress it up as a noble failure? A dream deferred? A piece of camp? An anthropology experiment? A commercial exploitation of historical oppression? The essence of American racism distilled into 22-minute chunks?
For answers, Click here to see a video slide show of Cho's comedy—both sitcom and stand-up.
Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Video excerpts from All-American Girl: The Complete Series © 2006 Shout Factory, Notorious C.H.O. © 2002 Winstar, and I'm the One That I Want © 2001 Winstar. All rights reserved.