Bad girl gone good

Margaret Cho chronicles her ups and downs with frank candor

Opens Aug. 11

Comedians are show-biz's proverbial outsiders: the gawky girls (Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Whoopi Goldberg), the Jews (Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen), and black guys (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock) whose comedy takes measure of the culture that excludes them. Margaret Cho has made a comparable outsider-looking-in contribution to stand-up, with her double whammy of pudgy girl awkwardness and a Korean-American heritage.

I'm the One That I Want is Cho's triumphant hometown gig, a live performance film of Cho settling into San Francisco's Warfield theater before a legion of fans whose pumped-up and primed giddiness you can hear from Cho's first appearance on stage. Their laughter rains down at every comic morsel as Cho's routine creates an air of just-between-us conspiratorial insight. In Cho's shtick, everyone is an outsider, at least for a night.

A self-proclaimed slutty "fag hag," crystal meth wasteoid and high school drop-out who at one point lived in her parents' basement, Cho recounts the many ups and downs of her career: blossoming into a sitcom star and crashing down again. As her stage act progresses, Cho begins to mortar her jokes with increasingly revealing, wounded insights into her personal life and the meltdown of alcoholism and promiscuity that followed ABC's cancellation of her short-lived sitcom "All-American Girl."

But Cho works best when she sticks to the jokes. When she veers toward the confessional, a maudlin, self-pitying strain seeps into the act. Such moments of revelation have become a comic convention (Louie Anderson's abusive childhood, Julia Sweeney's cancer): the modern equivalent of the crying clown. But when one's jokes are this canny and sharp, why bother with the overt autobiographical details, which only muck up the rhythm? I'm the One That I Want's energy noticeably drags when Cho offers up her confessional anecdotes, which unfortunately never cut very deep. "I'm going to succeed as myself," she proclaims in defiance of social stereotyping but sounding more like an inspirational infomercial.

Cho's physical comedy is priceless — some of her best bits are imitations of her nosey mother recording messages in halting English into her daughter's answering machine or trying, in her daughter's presence, to explain the gist of a gay porn title Ass Masters. But as often as Cho seems to resist Asian stereotypes, she also caricatures them in these allusions to her mother.

With her embrace of gay culture and an anecdote about Tennessee rednecks, Cho's is a reassuringly lefty shtick, the patois of the dyed-in-the-wool urbanite in N.Y., L.A. or San Francisco whose ventures outside the metropolitan hub tend to confirm her worst fears. Neither as caustic and snide as Garofalo, nor as hip and in-your-face as Sandra Bernhard, Cho courts the latter's fan base of gay men, lesbians and hip-girls, the kind of people who will catch Cho's references to Karl Lagerfeld, Andre Leon Talley, poppers, gay porn and appreciate the merits of being "heterophobic."

Yet, for all her wild-child confessions of drugs, sex and Courtney Love-type behavior, Cho's shtick is the naughty girl in the good girl's body — even her most profane confessions never really take the shine off of Cho's sweet-faced girl-with-the-pink-tinted-hair image. Cho's hilarious signature gestures are a joke followed by the comedian striking various cherubic little girl faces or "Oh-My-God!" poses, as if perpetually shocked at the vile pronouncements that have just escaped her lips. It's this knack for balancing good girl and bad that makes Cho such an endearing personality and such a surprising vehicle for her more frank sexual revelations.