This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hollywood has had a grim track record when it comes to portrayals of Asians onscreen (Anita Ekberg as a Chinese woman in Blood Alley and Mickey Rooney‘s Japanese caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s among the ignominious examples). Unfortunately, the first network sitcom to showcase a family of Asian-Americans did little to rectify that.
In 1994, two decades before sending up North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Golden Globes, stand-up comedian Margaret Cho starred in ABC’s All-American Girl, loosely based on her own experience growing up in a Korean-American family in San Francisco. “Cho is surely a welcome addition to situational comedy, an original who stands out from run-of-the-mill characters on the tube,” wrote THR at the time. “Yet at the moment her series does little to showcase her talent.” The show lasted one season.
“Sometimes we were told we were too Asian; sometimes we weren’t Asian enough, which I never really got, and that I was too overweight to play the part of myself,” says Cho, now 46. “I ended up hospitalized with kidney failure from not eating.” BD Wong, who played Cho’s brother, says the problem was “they took the raw uncut diamond that was the 24-year-old Margaret and just sanded her down. Ellen and Roseanne got to be themselves, and those shows were wildly successful. The show’s failure had nothing to do with Margaret’s Asian-American-ness but in the refusal to present her Asian-American-ness authentically.”
Twenty years on, the Asian-American experience is back as sitcom fodder with ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, which premieres Feb. 4, and it might be having similar problems. Chef Eddie Huang, on whose memoir the series is based, wrote that the network tried to turn the show “into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America.” But, he later told NPR, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word ‘chink,’ yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made.”