All-American Girl, a sitcom airing between 1994-'95, was the first TV show to place an Asian-American family front and center. Not only that—its star was comedian Margaret Cho, upon whose stand-up routines some material was based. However, as Cho famously relayed in her 1999 DVD/concert, I'm The One That I Want, All-American Girl's production was a soul-sucking nightmare that led to her drug addiction, an eating disorder, and a hospitalization. The show never lived up to its potentially revolutionary promise and was cancelled after 19 episodes. Still, the show was the first of its kind, and its release on DVD via Shout! Factory—which includes commentary tracks and a new interview by Cho and co-star Amy Hill—is well worth a visitation.
Cho portrayed Margaret Kim, punky black sheep daughter of a San Francisco Korean-American family. In every episode Margaret would clash with her conservative mother ( Jodi Long ) , wacky grandmother ( Hill ) , and 'perfect son' brother, Stuart ( B.D. Wong ) . The show also featured appearances by Quentin Tarantino, Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, and David Cross.
Tony-winner Wong, seen regularly on Law & Order: SVU as police psychiatrist Dr. George Huang, publicly came out in 2000 with the publication of Following Foo ( Harper Collins ) , a memoir about the roller-coaster experience of having a child with his partner, Richie Jackson ( the couple have since split up ) . Wong took a break from shooting an episode of Law & Order to frankly reminisce and reflect upon the good, the bad, the compromised haircuts and the ultimate upside and achievements of All-American Girl.
Lawrence Ferber: Had you seen much of Margaret's stand-up when you landed the role of Stuart?
B.D. Wong: I had seen a lot. I'm not exactly sure I remember where it was but we're from the same hometown. She was definitely well-known to me at the time.
LF: Although you weren't publicly out at the time, did she know you were gay?
BDW: I don't know.
LF: Was she still the fag hag she is today?
BDW: You'll have to ask her about that. My perception is there has always been a big part of her that's been the fag hag. Always a part of who she is. I guess this time would be no different than any other time, in my experience with her.
LF: In the episode 'Redesigning Women,' Stuart is going to get married to a nice traditional Korean girl—until Margaret corrupts her. Do you remember much about that episode?
BDW: I remember the whole [ show ] was laced with a feeling of we were all having fun doing it. Aside from all the pressures Margaret has described it was just neat to be able to do it.
LF: Were you aware at the time that things were screwed-up on Margaret's end?
BDW: Yeah, things were screwed up from the get-go. There was a screwed-upness about it in one aspect or another throughout the whole thing. It was my first experience with network TV in which it was a corporate sensibility. And that sensibility was antithetical to creativity. Collaboration wasn't very encouraged very much. Whoever created the show had a whole other agenda going on.
LF: In the commentary Margaret recalls that you refused to cut your hair.
BDW: I wouldn't. That was kind of an emblem, an example of how they wanted me to [ do something ] and I didn't want to. I wanted Stuart to look a certain way. And I was just holding my ground because I didn't want a corporation deciding what he should look like and I didn't agree he should look that way. But I finally did [ cut my hair ] because there too [ many ] people [ got ] upset. When I hear Margaret talk about how I didn't cut my hair it's funny to hear her perspective. And when I hear about how she was getting physically sick because of all the stuff going on, back then we would keep making jokes about how thin she was but really something serious was going on. When we look back the whole thing was so intense!'
LF: What's the most intense thing you remember?
BDW: I just remember the strange feeling of how we all wanted it to be so good and right and we never won that struggle. We were always met at the path with some kind of bad idea or script or … . It wasn't even a bad script so much as it wasn't a true harnessing of Margaret's energy. You'll notice that the Margaret we know, who's on fire, that person is not evident at all in the show. She's just an actor playing a 2-1/2 dimensional part. For a TV network and producers to have the opportunity to marshal her energy and totally miss it, not even notice what it is that makes her so great, was so frustrating. Scripts would come and it would be 'Oh, Margaret is being naughty,' or 'won't listen to her mother' or 'got into a jam.' We knew we were on a sitcom but you'd think, what a funny way to go about putting Margaret on TV.
LF: Did you have a place to go for relief?
BDW: Margaret's house. We'd go and order take-out food and sit around and complain or strategize how we could get things to be different. Or just chill out [ and ] watch the show when it aired. She had just bought this really funky 70's modern house on the hill and had a new car. It was really fun.
LF: Was the show met with an angsty response from the Asian-American community?
BDW: There definitely was an angsty response from the community, which was so invested in the dream of an Asian-American family on TV. They couldn't celebrate the mere fact it was on, in the hopes of building up to something greater, because they were so outraged by the lameness of it. People still tell me they love it and miss it, and it was kind of cute and mindless. But it was never Margaret Cho, who made people think about life [ -related ] things.
LF: Do you find it shocking there hasn't been a show about an Asian-American family since?
BDW: No, it doesn't, because that's the reason why there hasn't been one. Because 'All-American Girl' was such a misfire in some ways.
LF: Would you back if they did [ reconceived it ] ?
BDW: Yeah, in a second. Because I know I'm a different person and Margaret is a really different person and would never do the same thing.
LF: What was your favorite episode?
BDW:'It was really exciting doing the pilot. And I only have one real episode [ that focuses on my character ] and that's about how upset I was about a mistake at school, I was ashamed or something, so I have this way of rebelling against my parents. It's what I would call a long-hair episode and has me singing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' at the end.
LF: By the way, I have to ask what you thought about last year's episode of 'L&O: SVU' about the gay man murdering crystal meth barebackers who spread an HIV superstrain.
BDW: I liked it. I think what the show tries to do is use things that are happening in real life and deal with them. That's a wonderful aspect. The way they do it is to create these storylines that have good people and bad people and good things and bad things happen. If you can see the whole thing three-dimensionally I think it's a good thing. I know the people who create the show, so I really support them in their hopes of trying to incorporate different points of view about any given subject or community. I found the episode kind of implausible, but I didn't think it was that politically incorrect given the fact there were real, serious things they were dealing with. The head writer of the show is a physician. He came from being a physician to a writer, and wrote for many years on ER. He's the reason why [ my character ] is on the show. He wanted a medical perspective [ portrayed ] .
LF: Ultimately, what was the best thing 'All-American Girl' accomplished?
BDW: It happened! It put [ Asian-Americans ] on the TV. And sometimes wonderful things come from things that aren't wonderful. The artist Margaret has become as a result of all the pain she experienced doing it is incredible. She's a swan. And that's what I'm grateful to All-American Girl for. All of us on it learned a great deal and I don't fault it or wish it never happened. For all I've said, we were the first and only Asian-American family on TV and there's something to be said for it. So I am very proud of it.