Judge Brett Cullum still gets his Cho on from this unfortunately haphazard sitcom.
The network told me I was too fat to play myself.
In 1994 ABC decided to give Margaret Cho her own show, All-American Girl. It wasn't unusual to take a standup comic and tailor a sitcom around their material, but Cho was Korean. Television hadn't aired a show with an Asian family before, and the pressure was tremendous. Consultants were hired, formulas were tried, focus groups were assembled, and the show flailed for nineteen episodes before fading into obscurity. Now Shout! Factory takes us back with the entire collection of the little sitcom that just couldn't.
Facts of the Case
Margaret Cho plays Margaret Kim, a young Korean woman living with her family in San Francisco. Her family is steeped in Korean traditions, but Margaret is not. She's more interested in hanging out with her coworkers at the mall, and in dating artists instead of the nice Korean boys her mother insists on hooking her up with. She's wild. She's a loner. She's a rebel. She's an All-American Girl.
I remember All-American Girl from 1994. Its problem was that it wasn't good or bad. It was just there. It had some funny bits, but mostly the show was holding back. It felt stilted, like a cookie-cutter show. The cookies that came out were peanut butter chocolate chip oatmeal M&M toffee raisin crunch—just too many ingredients to keep up with. It was never clearly defined, and it had no clear direction. Watching the DVD set All-American Girl—The Complete Series, it's hard to believe Margaret Cho ever agreed to do the show. This isn't the Margaret I have come to know and love on the standup comedy circuit, who always rails against popular culture. She seems so bland here.
Margaret Cho delivered a hysterical, searing account of her time on All-American Girl in I'm the One That I Want. The network made some bad decisions about the development of the series. First, they demanded Margaret lose a lot of weight quickly, and her health was negatively affected. Second, they made her tone down her persona, and whitewashed the vulgar bits of her standup act to be more family-friendly. She adopted a Valley Girl persona, and didn't seem comfortable playing a character that was supposed to be a version of herself. They basically stole her voice to make her more appealing to Middle America. There was also a struggle to make her and her family more Asian at some points, and then less Asian at others. All-American Girl, like its star, was having an extreme identity crisis. Over the nineteen episodes in this collection you can see it morph into several different incarnations. By the end of the run Margaret was living with three white guys, and her family was jettisoned. After only one episode of that version, the show was canceled.
Whenever I tell people I am re-watching All-American Girl, I always hear, "Oh! I loved the Grandmother in that show!" Seems everyone was a fan of Amy Hill (Mrs. Kwan in The Cat in the Hat) who played the TV-addicted, Oprah-loving grand matriarch of the Kim clan. She's definitely the standout in the show. Despite being extremely young at the time (and Japanese), her character was a sweet, lovable Korean old lady. But the rest of the cast certainly was stellar as well; they just weren't given much to do outside of standard sitcom roles. Maddie Corman (Maid in Manhattan) and Judy Gold (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) played Margaret's coworkers from the mall. Jodi Long (Miss Match) and Clyde Kusatsu (Shopgirl) were her parents. BD Wong (M. Butterfly) and JB Quon (Poison Ivy) played the brothers.
The guest stars seen in the only season of All-American Girl were pretty impressive: Jack Black (King Kong), Oprah Winfrey, Ming Na (The Joy Luck Club), Tsai Chin (Memoirs of a Geisha), Christine Estabrook (Spider-Man 2), Lance Guest (Jaws: The Revenge), John Terlesky (Chopping Mall), Vicki Lawrence (Mamma's Family), and even Ryan Styles from The Drew Carey Show (which inherited all the sets from this failed sitcom). In a bizarre turn, Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) is the center of an entire episode called "Pulp Sitcom."
The writing is what killed this show. It is timid, and just not dangerous enough to capture who Margaret is or what an Oriental family is like. The Cosby Show was revolutionary because it defied conventions, but All-American Girl was made up of too many typical sitcom situations. It also didn't have a good grasp on its characters, because there were too many crammed into the show. With better writing the show could have been a watershed landmark event, the first Asian family comedy. But they were concentrating too hard on the chopsticks. The show was overly concerned with the race of the characters, and not concerned enough with their personalities and the interesting conflicts within the family.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Shout! Factory always provides great packages for anything they release. All-American Girl—The Complete Series is a wonderful set for fans of both the show and Margaret Cho. All nineteen episodes are presented full frame as they were aired in 1994. The transfers are pretty solid, with good color and detail. There are some moments of grain and edge enhancement, but nothing too distracting. There's a basic stereo mix with the dialogue front and center as it should be. The laugh track seems heavy and overly loud, but I wonder if that wasn't part of the source material.
Where they really deliver are the extras. We get four commentaries: two with Cho flying solo, and two with her joined by Amy Hill. I was half expecting Margaret to joke about the show, but she's thoughtful and intelligently discusses what she likes and hates about the production. She doesn't hold anything back, but she is polite about the problems that plagued the show and complimentary towards her fellow actors. When joined by Hill, the two reflect on the positive impact of the show for the Asian community, and mourn the fact that it was all a missed opportunity to create something special. There is an on-screen discussion with Cho and Hill that is sweet and insightful. Anyone looking for the inside scoop will find it all here. Nothing is glossed over, and it is a wonderful chance to hear how networks develop sitcoms. Very interesting stuff that makes the set a real keeper.
While the show never broke the ground it was aiming for, All-American Girl is entertaining enough to revisit. You'll gasp at the guest stars, and wish they had found the right voice for Cho and what could have been a really interesting series. But alas, it succumbed to the pressures of trying to please everyone all at once. Margaret still has a show in her. Unfortunately, it would have to be on a cable channel where she could finally be her outspoken and often vulgar self. But true fans will be excited to finally see the series again, if only to further understand her rant in I'm the One That I Want. In the end the show became the vehicle to allow Margaret to find out who she really was. An all-American girl who was just too damn racy and provocative to be contained in a sitcom about a Valley girl living with her quaint Korean family. She was just too big for the small screen.
Guilty of being over-baked with too many ingredients, All-American Girl remains a fascinating chronicle of how a tepid sitcom can launch a comic legend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Margaret Cho Commentary on the Pilot and "Pulp Sitcom"
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