Margaret Cho on the Groundbreaking DIY Impact of I’m the One That I Want

Cho in I’m the One That I Want. Photo: Cho Taussig Productions

On October 9, 2021, it will have been 20 years since the feature film of Margaret Cho’s seminal Off Broadway one-woman show, I’m the One That I Want, was released on home video. I remember that weekend well, because my family rushed to our town’s only Blockbuster to get first dibs. As we walked in, rows of DVDs with the iconic yellow cover and Margaret, ebullient in pink, beamed out at us from the “adult” section.

Cho self-financed and -produced the special, which she shot at the historic Warfield Theater in San Francisco in the winter of 1999. When it toured movie theaters in 2000 and 2001, I’m the One That I Want earned both the most rapturous reviews of Cho’s career and renewed criticism for her famously outré, bawdy material. Cho was coming out of a tough period: In the previous five years, she had weathered career catastrophe, alcoholism, kidney failure, and even suicidal tendencies after ABC canceled her groundbreaking sitcom, All-American Girl, in 1995. But back onstage again, she was imperturbable and in triumphant form, her body fully recovered and her many voices sharply honed.

The special’s international success cemented Cho as a lifelong comic’s comic. Distributed as an independent film, it broke box-office records for the most money grossed per film print in distribution history in a year that also included such indie hits as Alexander Payne’s Election and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It also, as has been widely noted, opened the door for stand-ups of non-straight-white-male backgrounds — queer, Asian, women — to succeed in mainstream comedy. Her impact on the culture was compared to everyone from Richard Pryor to Julia Sweeney to Jerry Seinfeld, but only because she had no true predecessor.

Just days short of the 20th anniversary of I’m the One That I Want, Cho was back at her longtime home in Los Angeles on a brief pause from her latest tour, Fresh Off the Bloat, which she said was delayed during the pandemic but will soon culminate in a new special. While reflecting on the legacy of I’m the One That I Want, she was relaxed on a furry pillow-laden couch with her cream-color Chihuahua Lucia at her side. These are edited excerpts from our Zoom conversation.

How well do you remember shooting the special? What were the Warfield and San Francisco like in 1999?
It was really exciting. I had always loved Richard Pryor’s concert films because they were shot on film, and it was important to me that there were not the constraints that you would have doing a comedy special on television. You didn’t have to worry about censoring anything. Also, time constraints limited you to 52 minutes or whatever if you were doing an hour on TV. I wanted to do a 90-minute, proper film version of this show, which I had been doing Off Broadway.

I ate a lot of sushi beforehand. I brought my dog; he was very excited to be there. My parents came, which was unusual — they loved it and were very excited. For me, the Warfield was a very important venue. I’d seen so many concerts there, mostly music shows throughout my teenage years.

I love San Francisco because it’s such a classic comedy city. We metabolize culture through comedy. You don’t know how to think about something until you’ve seen a stand-up comedian talk about it. I think that’s still true today, even more so with comedy on television, but it was especially true in San Francisco. San Francisco was always very political, even with local politics. When I was starting in comedy was the era of AIDS, so [we were] doing a lot of fundraising for AIDS and working for people with AIDS and HIV through my comedy. So to be there performing my first big special was a really big deal, and I had a great experience filming.

Talk about choosing Lionel Coleman as the director, and what your process was with him in terms of setting up the stage design and what you chose to wear. That pink costume became so iconic …
Yes! That pink outfit was made by my friend Rima. There was something kind of monastic about it; it had a very interesting composition: a pants-skirt and old Buffalo ’90s platform shoes. Lionel was chosen through the process of working with Lorene Machado, who was one of the producers. She was the booker for the Bob Hope comedy specials. [Hope] used to do these Young Comedians specials throughout the ’80s and ’90s, which were so crazy. I was in one of the latest ones in the ’90s, so I met her through there, and I still have a relationship with her today. She was integral in forming this group of people who put the film together.

With her and Lionel, we bought a bunch of short ends. In the era of indie film, what you would do is buy pieces of film stock that hadn’t been used up completely. Usually, when they reload the camera, they would have a couple of minutes on each end of a reel that you could use. Film stock was very expensive at that time. We have the ability now to shoot and reshoot and reshoot because we have digital, but before, you had to physically have celluloid.

“Cherry Bomb”: How did you get that song into the special? Did you have to talk to Joan Jett?
I begged and pleaded [Laughs]. [Joan] had come to my shows, and I had done a lot of shows with her. For some reason, I was able to forge this great relationship with her and the Blackhearts, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, all of these really important women in rock. There were a lot of negotiations with Joan, but we got it, and that was very meaningful. I’m so grateful for my long, long friendship with Joan.

Watching the special again, you’re tapping into all sorts of trauma around being part of the AAPI community, being a woman in comedy, being someone who’s been sexually harassed and abused in many ways. It’s a lot of weight. When you released the special, did that purge from you? Was there catharsis there?
Yeah, for sure, it’s part of it. When you can take what you’re doing in therapy and reemerge through art and creativity and commerce — to be able to monetize your pain — is the best. I am very happy about it. It is also the classic tale of artists taking what moves them in life and creating something of worth about it. I think it’s just bringing an ancient way of healing into this era of comedy, politics, gender, queerness. After Me Too and #StopAsianHate, it’s got a lot of resonance.

With the Me Too thing, you talk in the special about this producer who offered to produce your film if you would sleep with him. Then I was watching some other clip from The Last Leg where you talk about someone offering you $1,000,000 to
I know! I should have taken it. I wouldn’t get that same price now. [Laughs.] I think it’s so funny. To have that happen is so weird, but that was indie film. That is how somebody like Harvey Weinstein could do what he did. Everybody wanted to be in movies, and he was the gatekeeper for that. That kind of stuff was so acceptable at the time. I make jokes about it, but it really happened!

It’s just funny because it doesn’t get under my skin, but I remember that he was so upset about it and there was no legal recourse he could take. I think it’s just so common. It happened to so many people. That’s why Me Too was such a big movement. We were acknowledging this open secret in film that had been going on since the Lumière brothers. It’s not as if this was new; it’s just that nobody had ever talked about it.

You also named Gail Berman in the special. Have you spoken to her since making the film?
I haven’t, but I feel bad for her, because now I look at it as … She got saddled with the hard stuff because she’s a woman, and she was given the bad stuff to have to do. She was really just part of the system, and it wasn’t her fault. She has gone on to incredible success, and I think she’s retired now. But she was a good friend to me. She’s not a villain. Maybe it comes across like that, but she was a good friend, and I hope it didn’t hurt her feelings. I mean, I’m sure that I did to some extent, but she was somebody that I really needed then.

I read that Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe inspired the way that you produced and distributed it. Is there any truth to that?
There’s a lot. When I was first understanding being gay, I was so gay. In the ’90s, you were not just gay, you were like, “I’M GAY!!”, like angry about it. Part of that is you have denim shorts that you cut — when does it legally become shorts? Is it capri-length? Is it knee-length? Is it above the knee? I’m not sure when it becomes shorts, but these were actually below the knee.

At jorts?
Jorts, a very heavy bike chain on one shoulder, and a messenger bag on the other shoulder. So I’m weighted down and I’m riding my bike in the rain with a mohawk and a CD player playing Ani DiFranco’s records, but I’m on a bike, so they skip. Very frustrating. That made you angrier and angrier.

I just loved that Ani was like, “Well, I’m just going to make my own label. If I want to make records, I don’t have to buy into the whole corporate game. I can just create my music and put it out for my audience.” That’s so amazing, and it also changed so much. Before, getting seen as an artist was so difficult. This was the first artist I knew who created her own space commercially that she could really thrive in. That made sense to me. I couldn’t have a television show on network television, but I could create a show about that experience that I finance myself, get the short ends, and take around the country.

What you would do is four-wall a theater by buying out all of the seats for a screening. Then you sell the tickets and keep all the profits. It was a really great way to distribute, because the film actually got seen so much in that indie, DIY way. People were tired of corporate-sponsored entertainment. We wanted grunge, we wanted indie rock, we wanted DIY. This was the era of zines, creating your own label, small labels making names for themselves.

I would do performances before the show and after so people could watch the film. I was tearing tickets at the door, greeting people as they came in. So every screening of the film would sell out because it was an event. Then I got to take it around everywhere to film festivals, which helped a lot financially. Through that, I got a pretty good record deal for my comedy, and I got more interest in terms of stand-up all over the world. And because of the film, a lot of comedians saw it and realized that they didn’t have to stand around and wait for different entities to notice them and get a deal, then make a show. They could just make a film on their own. That was a very important thing for comedians to see — that we had some agency.

That distribution strategy was fairly revolutionary. The big thing that is always shared about your film is that it broke records per print in its distribution. 1999 was also such a crazy year for independent film — that’s the year of Being John Malkovich, George Lucas self-financing The Phantom Menace, and all these independent productions. Then in 2001, when the film came out on DVD, that was another big change because DVDs were still new at that time. And between ’99 when you shoot it and ’01 when it comes out, 9/11 happens! Can you remember where you were in your life between when you shot it at the end of 1999 and when it finally came out at the end of 2001?
At that time, I was living. I bought a 100-year-old house, which is where I am now. It had no electricity. So butch — I had it all wired. And I just took that time to really tour, grow as an artist, and write the next show. I knew that whatever the film was going to do, I still needed to emerge and figure out who I was going to be as an artist. I was going to be 30 and an adult now, so seeing that and figuring it out was my journey.

In June 2001, you appeared in the season-four premiere of Sex and the City. That’s the opposite of an indie film: a behemoth, this phenomenon. Did you feel that that episode had any impact on the sales of the DVDs or VHS?
I don’t know, but I would hope so. That was a part of launching me as an actor, which was great. I really treasure that part of my work. Acting, for me, is incredibly gratifying, and something I did not realize was possible because I never really saw Asian American actors do anything of substance growing up. Michael Patrick King, the creator of Sex and the City, and I did comedy together, so he was somebody who knew my work personally. We’d do these UnCabaret shows, which were part of the whole indie-comedy scene then and still happen today in L.A. And I had done my show of I’m the One That I Want Off Broadway in New York and built my profile there, so it made sense to do Sex and the City.

Do you remember going into Blockbusters or libraries at that time, and what it was like seeing yourself for the first time actually distributed?
Yes. It was really thrilling that people were buying and renting the DVD over and over. It was also useful for people who were younger or people who were living in areas where they didn’t feel like they could be out to get to see my comedy without having to necessarily out themselves. At that time, we still hadn’t had that much exposure to gay culture in the mainstream. It was still very, very outsider. Now we’re approaching more of a sense of feeling like people are accepting of gayness or queerness, but in 2001, it was still a very different time in terms of acceptance. So this was a way for people to feel like they were seen and heard, and to feel a sense of comfort.

You can’t access the DVD or VHS [of I’m the One That I Want] anymore. Any plans to bring them back or put the special out on a streamer?
I would love to. I think it would be meaningful. That, with the film Without You I’m Nothing, Sandra Bernhard’s amazing comedy film from that era. That was something I looked to for a lot of inspiration. I think they should be out on Criterion. Hedwig [and the Angry Inch] has a Criterion edition, and I would hope for my show to have a Criterion edition.

Let’s speak it out into the world.
Well, speak it out into the world! Criterion does a great job of looking at all of this outsider art and realizing, “What’s actually out is actually in, and we see that much later.” They are also much more expansive about what they’re putting out, and they’re paying a lot more attention to Black filmmakers, to queer filmmakers, to queer history.

I’m such a Criterion connoisseur. My cat is named after Henri-Georges Clouzot of The Wages of Fear. They would have a lot to gain by adding me to their catalogue. It would be great to see it back in circulation somehow. Criterion is the ideal place.

Have you watched I’m the One That I Want recently?
I saw it not that long ago, and I was so amazed, like, Oh, I’m actually … really good? I was trying to watch it as somebody who had never seen me before and was being introduced to this person. It was so new to me again, because I feel like I’ve changed so much. But then I haven’t really changed; I think I’ve just learned a lot from what I was as a comedian. I was reinspired to do good work.

You’re filming a new special of Fresh Off the Bloat soon, right?
Yes. That’s been waiting for COVID restrictions to lift. And it also has to re-form, because the entire world has shifted and changed in the last 18 months. So there is a lot to add to it. A lot of that show originally was about the emergence of Asian Americans in film and television, but now Shang-Chi has been the No. 1 film for a month. It’s incredible! This is a really amazing time. That has evolved as well as the rise in Asian American hate crimes and the way that we are perceived in the era of the pandemic.

Twenty years later, are you still the student of cinema you were when you produced I’m the One That I Want?
Absolutely. I love it, especially now with the way that streaming is. That’s actually added to the conversation of how we watch movies and how we get to see new artists. I’m also very invested in new up-and-comers. I just spent two months on this movie Fire Island with Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang and Andrew Ahn, who is awesome. I love him. He’s a genius, and such a calming presence on a set. It’s a big indie, a very exciting comedy, which has a lot of heart, but a lot of important issues in there, too. Speaking from Asian American queerness, there is so much to talk about and look at and assess through comedy. This is the new generation of Asian American comedians and directors, so I’m very invested in that.

Rima was a clothing designer active in the 1990s. According to Cho, she is no longer designing. According to Cho, in the 1990s, a producer offered her $1,000,000 to produce a feature film based on her script in exchange for sex. Cho declined, and the producer later attended the filming of I’m the One That I Want — in which Cho describes the offer — with his lawyer. Berman, a producer of All-American Girl, made disparaging comments about Cho’s appearance and background during production. Margaret Cho: Notorious C.H.O. was shot in 2001 and premiered at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June 2002.
Margaret Cho on the DIY Impact of I’m the One That I Want