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Profiles of Alanis Morissette, Margaret Cho

Aired January 4, 2003 - 15:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Next, on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS -- she's the voice of scorned women around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every word, every line, every phrase, just kind of fired out of her soul.


ANNOUNCER: Before going platinum, she hit teen stardom in her native Canada. But don't make any comparisons to a certain American pop star.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She would kill you if you ever compared her to Debbie Gibson.


ANNOUNCER: Her U.S. debut was one of the best selling albums of all time, but stardom came with a price.


ALANIS MORISSETTE, SINGER: I didn't laugh for about two years.


ANNOUNCER: She traveled the world to find inner peace. She found it and has reclaimed her voice with a third record.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's one of best things she's ever done.


ANNOUNCER: The spiritual journey of Alanis Morissette.





ANNOUNCER: She's one of the queens of stand-up.


JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN: She's got like a true comedic voice.


ANNOUNCER: Her upbringing and background would give her comic material for years to come.


CHO: In the late '70s, we owned a book store in San Francisco, and my mother for some reason was in charge of the gay pornography section.


ANNOUNCER: She broke barriers with her sitcom, but it almost caused her to break down.


CHO: I mean, I'd burn out before I'd fade away.


ANNOUNCER: Now clean and sober, she's taking the stage by storm. A look at Margaret Cho. Their stories, now, on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn.

She made her name in music as the angry young woman with a record-breaking album, "Jagged Little Pill." But there's much more to Alanis Morissette than that. Over the past year, she's released two new albums, reflecting a new outlook on life. It's been quite a journey from a teen poptart to the soul-searching songwriter she is today. Here's Kyra Phillips.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When she exploded on the music scene in 1995, Alanis Morissette was dubbed a prophet, the voice of a generation, her "Jagged Little Pill" anything but hard to swallow.

GUY OSEARY, CEO, MAVERICK RECORDS: To me, this was mine. "Jagged Little Pill."

PHILLIPS: Generation X couldn't agree more, taking ownership in the blisteringly honest, sometimes X-rated album to the tune of 30 million sales. At the age of just 21, Alanis Morissette had the biggest selling female debut of all-time.

MORISSETTE: Very overwhelming, very exciting, hugely defining. Literally every two seconds I was being given an opportunity to really define who I was, and I wasn't entirely sure who I was. So therein lay some of the struggles during those years.

PHILLIPS: "Jagged Little Pill's" ride would have its repercussions -- exhaustion, withdrawal and a less than stellar follow-up.

PETER CASTRO, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: You know, it was almost a curse, because it was so successful that her next album in comparison was a complete flop.

PHILLIPS: And now, she's back. This past spring, "Under Rug Swept" and the single "Hands Clean" topped the charts in 15 countries. Eleven tracks, written and produced entirely on her own.

DAVID WILD, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "ROLLING STONE": "Under Rug Swept," it says that she's here for good, that she's going to be an artist who's not just some sort of a kid phenomenon, but that she's a singer/songwriter worth following through her adulthood.

PHILLIPS: An adulthood that has run the gamut from teen pop star to angst-ridden superstar.

Alanis Nadine Morissette was born on June 1, 1974 in Ottawa, Canada, three years after brother Chad and just 12 minutes after her twin, Wade.

MORISSETTE: I grew up in a very masculine environment. So I was around a lot of men. My brothers and their friends, just a lot of guys around.

PHILLIPS: Georgia and Alan Morissette were teachers, and raised the three children in a seemingly idyllic Canadian home.

MORISSETTE: Somewhat patriarchal, very communicative. We didn't really watch television. Had to read half an hour a day and we were only allowed to watch half an hour's worth of television.

PHILLIPS: But movies were allowed. By 4, Alanis developed an obsession with the 1978 film, "Grease." Two years later, she took up the piano.

MORISSETTE: I started playing the piano when I was 6 and knew that I wanted to be involved in that form of expression, whether it was through music, or acting, or dancing, or painting, or writing. You know, I was always writing all the time.

PHILLIPS: Opportunity came in the form of a local folk singer, Lindsay Morgan, a friend of the family who made a living making music.

MORISSETTE: And I used to peak my head in through the emergency exit door to just watch them, because obviously I wasn't allowed in. LINDSAY MORGAN, FRIEND: So the twins stood there, and especially to this day I can still see Alanis standing there. I can see her eyes.

MORISSETTE: I thought, OK, so you can love what you do. This is exciting. So I just started writing and I didn't think it was unusual or odd at all.

PHILLIPS: Two years later, in 1984, an audio cassette, this audio cassette, landed in Morgan's mailbox. On the tape, the rough beginnings of a song.

MORGAN: There was a line that came out, "fate stay with me." I remember thinking, this is not just a little girl singing words, there's something there. It was unstructured, it was like words after another, but it united was there.

I talked to Alanis and I said, write some more.

PHILLIPS: Months later, Morgan was shocked by his protege's progress. She came down with a book, this notebook, and she hesitated and she said, "You promise you won't laugh?"

MORGAN: And I remember saying, "Alanis, I'm not going to laugh."

MORISSETTE (singing): You've got the right man in the right place / Once in a while you meet him face to face.

MORGAN: I remember sitting there, and I remember feeling the hair come up on the back of my neck and she just went right through the song. I knew right then that there was something incredible here.

PHILLIPS: Her first big break came in the spring of 1985. Ten- year-old Alanis landed a role on the Canadian children's show "You Can't Do That on Television."

MORISSETTE: One thing I know is how to get attention at a party. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She would get slimed. She got her chops doing that and learned a lot about where the camera is and stage presence and all that.

PHILLIPS: Using money earned from the show, Alanis and 42-year- old Morgan formed a label. Her first single, a recorded mastered version of the song left in his mailbox.

MORISSETTE: I think we printed up 2,000 copies of it and pretty much gave all of them away. I think I sold three of them.

MORISSETTE (singing): I want to be, want to be, want to be free.

PHILLIPS: Although the single received little air play, it did provide exposure, and at 13, Alanis took home the top prize at a local TV station talent search. But finally, in 1988, fate stepped in. His name was Leslie Howell, a successful Canadian producer who saw a pop future in the young teen.

LESLIE HOWELL, PRODUCER: She's known right from a young age that she wanted to be a singer. And she's done everything she can to make it happen.

PHILLIPS: Signing with Howell and MCA, the single "Too Hot" debuted in the spring of 1991.

MORISSETTE (singing): Never too hot and never too cold, you make your last shot, too hot to hold.

WILD: Her music in Canada was sort of dance pop diva stuff. Sort of a post-graduate Debbie Gibson.

PHILLIPS: Her debut album, "Alanis," quickly went platinum. There were tours and sexy videos like "Feel Your Love."

Coming up from pop tart to queen of angst. Alanis Morissette is radically transformed by a "Jagged Little Pill." It's an about-face that many people will question.

WILD: Any time you sell that many records you're going to have naysayers. And from the beginning there were people who thought she's a fraud.


ANNOUNCER: Also ahead...


CHO: Mom, it's LSD. How do you know that?


ANNOUNCER: Her comedy has broken barriers of race in its own unique way.


CHO: They'd never seen a Korean-American role model like me before. You know, I didn't play violin.




CHO: Stick it in.




CHO: I didn't know what happened.


ANNOUNCER: And always funny. Margaret Cho, that's later on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.




PHILLIPS: With big hair, shoulder pads and hits like "Feel Your Love," by 1991 Alanis Morissette was Canada's queen of pop. But with that label came a nickname she despised.

CASTRO: She would kill you if you ever compared her to Debbie Gibson.

WILD: She came out the other side of it wanting to be real, wanting to be herself, not some sort of Canadian Debbie Gibson.

PHILLIPS: Following a brief appearance in the 1992 Corey Haim flick "Just One of The Girls" her second album, "Now is the Time," hit the stores in October of 1992.

Audiences were in for a surprise.

With ballads like "No Apologies," the album was less glitz and much more thoughtful. The result -- a flop.

MORISSETTE: Everyone around me was horrified. But I was happy.

PHILLIPS: Alanis was 18 and ready for change.

Following graduation from Glebe Collegiate, she said good-bye to her family and moved to Toronto on her own.

MORISSETTE: Toronto was my saying, "OK, it's time to grow up, it's time to get way from the studio and the people I was working with and get out some of those dysfunctional relationships and start with a fresh chapter.

PHILLIPS: That fresh chapter meant little money, a rodent-filled apartment and guitar lessons, taught by an old family friend.

MORGAN: I remember teaching her "Achy Breaky Heart," which she might not have liked, you know, but I remember significantly sitting there and showing her those two chords.

PHILLIPS: Collaborations followed with more than 100 musicians. MORISSETTE: I knew that I wouldn't stop in terms of looking for someone to collaborate with until I felt like I was being myself. Whatever that was.

PHILLIPS: The wait wouldn't be long.

In the winter of 1994, she headed to Los Angeles. There, she was introduced to producer Glen Ballard.

GLEN BALLARD, PRODUCER: We were laughing and having a cup of tea within five minutes. And ten minutes later, kind of diving into a creative no-man's land, really.

MORISSETTE: I thought wow, here's someone I can delve into some subject matters that may offend, or trigger or bother some other collaborators.

Glen was embracing it; and he was saying, keep on, let's do it.

PHILLIPS: And with that creative pairing, barriers collapsed. Hidden anger and frustration from the past poured out, and the music flowed freely.

MORISSETTE: It took a minute or two for me to come out of my shell. And then once I did, I thought, OK, this is who I am.

BALLARD: We were in the middle of writing another song, and for whatever reason I think we got bored or frustrated with a particular passage, and I just went to an E -- and then resolved it.

And she said "Sometimes."

Then I went up to an F sharp minor nine.

(singing): It's never quite enough.

MORISSETTE: There's a part of me that was, like, I'm sick of walking on eggshells and being...

BALLARD: (singing) Perfect.

MORISSETTE: (singing) Then you're in my life.

BALLARD: And so she jumps the melody up a whole step there, which is really brilliant.

MORISSETTE: And you know, there's this inner conflict of, you know, wanting be a people-pleasing, perfect girl.

BALLARD: (singing) Don't forget to win first place.

BALLARD: Don't forget to win first place was, like, OK, I don't know what's going on here, but this is great. I mean, because she's coming up with it on the spot.

MORISSETTE: A part of me that just wanted to be authentic and raw, you know, not -- not lie.

BALLARD: And that whole overwhelming sense of childhood started pouring down on you, I think she had encapsulated in four bars. So it's a beautiful moment.

MORISSETTE: (singing) If you're perfect.

I want you to know...

PHILLIPS: In the coming weeks, the album seemed to write itself. Locking themselves into the studio, 12 songs emerged. In some cases, a song a day.

And when "Jagged Little Pill" was released in June of 1995, it immediately caused a stir.

KEVIN SMITH, FRIEND/FILM MAKER: Anytime somebody mentions oral sex in a movie, your ears prick up and listen, no pun intend. Like, who is this? Who in the heck is this chick?

PHILLIPS: The song was "You Ought to Know," taken directly from Alanis' journal, a scathing ode to an ex-boyfriend.

MORISSETTE: I was worried about some of the subject matter in it, and I remember Glen turning to me and saying, "Is this how you feel?"

And I said, "Yes."

He said, "Well, then don't change a damn thing."

PHILLIPS: But there were detractors, especially when her Canadian pop tart past was discovered by the press.

JOHN ALEXANDER, FMR. A&R EXECUTIVE, MCA RECORDS CANADA: I was blindsided by someone from "The L.A. Times." He started asking questions like, how come those first two albums that you made aren't available any more? And are you embarrassed by them?

WILD: People assumed that Glen Ballard had created this persona for her and created this music for her.

BALLARD: The idea that I did anything other than just empower what was already there ignores the fact that she's just an enormously talented singer, gifted lyricist, powerful personality and a very spiritual and strong person.

PHILLIPS: Naysayers aside, there was no denying the momentum.

Four Grammys later, "Jagged Little Pill" was on its way to selling 30 million copies, the biggest female artist debut of all time.

MORISSETTE: And it was so scary and so great, and I was humbled and blown away. It was just like catapulting into who are you-ness, who are you in the face of this mayhem? PHILLIPS: Coming up, after two years on the road, the enormity of "Jagged Little Pill" blindsides Alanis, forcing her to take a break.

WILD: The rest of the world around her is going crazy. People are expecting her to save a generation and that was just not going to happen.



MORISSETTE: (singing) I had no choice but to hear you...

PHILLIPS: By the winter of 1996, the world, it seemed, had fallen head over feet for 22-year-old Alanis Morissette.

The "Jagged Little Pill" tour had taken her around the world twice, and with 30 million albums sold, six Top 40 hits and four Grammys, the Canadian transplant was being called the most successful new female artist in pop female history.

WILD: She sold 30 million records with a very intense, psychological, artful, non-pandering piece of work. That's really unprecedented.

PHILLIPS: But with newfound icon status bearing down upon her, pressure was building. Fame, it seemed, was not everything she thought it would be.

MORISSETTE: I didn't laugh for, like, two years. One has to almost experience it to be able to truly see that it doesn't offer what it's touted as being able to offer.





PHILLIPS: The wild ride had to stop. And as the "Jagged Little Pill" juggernaut approached its second year with no sign of slowing down, a decision was made: the tour would end.

And on December 14, 1996, a visibly drained Alanis said good-bye to her fans, hugged her band mates and set off to find herself.

WILD: If Alanis didn't have trouble with what she went through, she wouldn't be human. Fame of any level is challenging.

PHILLIPS: In the coming months, friends and family were met by an altogether different Alanis, closed off and distant.

ALEXANDER: I think she started to, maybe, isolate herself a little bit from some of the people she was very close to. I could sense that something was amiss, something was wrong.

PHILLIPS: Adding to the pressure, the industry was pushing for another album. Paralyzed by expectations, those closest to her say, she nearly walked away.

MORGAN: I went to see her down in Los Angeles. I remember her saying, I've thought of walking away from it many times. It's that brutal.

PHILLIPS: With the help of yoga and eastern spirituality, Alanis turned inward. And following a life-altering trek to India in January of 1998, she began to write again.

When she returned to Glen Ballard's studio months later, the angst was behind her and a peaceful Alanis Morissette walked in.

BALLARD: When she walked in the door that day, we went right to it. And within an hour, there it was. It was the song that had the easiest time being created and that certainly was, I think, a gift to me from her through India.

MORISSETTE: (singing) Thank you, India.

PHILLIPS: The album, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," was released on Nov. 3, 1998. Like "Jagged Little Pill," autobiographical, but something was different. The anger was gone. And fans didn't know what to think.

WILD: On "Jagged Little Pill," it was all about everybody in the world related to this record, particularly young women. On the second record her experiences were things that no one else could relate to.

PHILLIPS: The 17-track album sold 10 million copies, just one- third of what "Jagged" had taken in.

CASTRO: Immediately they talked about the sophomore jinx, which was rubbish. I mean, this was, you know, if any other person had that album out at the time they would have been deliriously happy.

PHILLIPS: And in 1999, she developed into an actress, debuting in director Kevin Smith's dark comedy "Dogma." The role was unusual.

SMITH: She said, I feel really rested and really comfortable. I was wondering if there's anything left in the movie.

And I said, well, there's a small, but crucial role still left wide open. A lot of people have asked me, like, why is Alanis Morissette as God? And I said, I thought God had to be Canadian.

PHILLIPS: By the spring of 2002, Alanis, the singer/songwriter, returned. This time, however, there was a hitch -- no collaborations, no producers. Her third album was all her own, and aptly titled "Under Rug Swept."

WILD: A lot of people were, I think, expecting her to fall on her face and come up with something inferior. I think it's one of the best things she's ever done.

PHILLIPS: Rocketing to number one the first week in release, its debut single, "Hands Clean," immediately sparked controversy.

ALANIS MORISSETTE, SINGER: (singing) This could be messy...

CASTRO: At age 14 she started dating a much older man who she hasn't named and it bothered her for years. It's really a no-holds barred song. And the lyrics are pretty intense and they're pretty incriminating.

MORISSETTE: It's a song about a relationship that I was not emotionally prepared to kind of deal with at the time. And I wanted to speak the truth about it without seeking revenge of any sort but seeking the liberation that comes from my speaking the truth.

PHILLIPS: It seems honesty will always be at the core of Alanis Morissette. Learning through the music just as audiences continued to live by the words.

And although "Under Rug Swept" sales, at three million to date, is nowhere near 30 million, by all indications her story is far from over. And truth continues to set her free.

MORISSETTE: (singing) I'll be happy right now...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Alanis has a lot to say. Her voice is clearly one of the great instruments for expressing just about anything that she may be thinking about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a woman who has a story she wants to tell, and I think she'll spend a lifetime telling the story.

MORISSETTE: I'll be writing songs until I die, there's just no question.


ZAHN: Alanis Morissette's latest CD, "Feast on Scraps," was released last month. It features eight unreleased songs and a DVD with exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.



CHO: She makes she so crazy.


ANNOUNCER: Her sitcom was the first of its kind, and it was almost the end of her.


CHO: I just started to have a kidney collapse, a kidney failure. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Rebounding from near ruin. A profile of Margaret Cho, when we return.



ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

Everybody in her life told her she'd never make it. But Margaret Cho, the Korean-American comic compared to the outrageous Lenny Bruce, has proved all her doubters wrong.

With an off-Broadway sell-out, a best-selling book and two hit comedy films, Cho has become one of the most popular comics in America. But success has, by no means, come easily.

Here's Kyra Phillips with the Notorious C.H.O.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's got her own stories about life, but somehow you can relate them to all the kooky things that go on in your life.

M. CHO: I was walking down the street and I walked past this guy and he goes, "Me so horny."

EVA KOLODNER, FILM PRODUCER: She catches you, like, off guard. You find yourself laughing at something and then you're, like, wait a minute, she's making me think about sexuality and gender and race discrimination.

M. CHO: Maybe someday I could be an extra on "M.A.S.H."

LORENE MACHADO, FILM DIRECTOR: I think her messages of invisible racism are really, really important.

PHILLIPS (voice-over): She's been compared to stand-up legends Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.

She's racy.

M. CHO: Monogamy is so weird, you know. Like, when you know their name and stuff.

You go, girl!

PHILLIPS: She's brutally honest.

M. CHO: I had -- I had sex with a woman on the ship. And I went through this whole thing, you know, I was like, am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized, I'm just slutty.

PHILLIPS: She mocks her own mother.

M. CHO: She calls me and leaves me these messages on my machine. Are you gay?

PHILLIPS: And some say, Margaret Cho might be the funniest woman in America.

SEINFELD: She's got, like, a true comedic voice. She's not, like, trying to be a comedian or acting like a comedian. She is a real comedian.

PHILLIPS: But for this 34-year-old Korean-American comic, it's not just about the jokes. Her stand-up is part comedy, part social protest, raw material drawn from her own life experiences.

It's made Cho an icon for many people who have experienced sexism, racism, and homophobia.

From her early days on the comedy circuit to a stint on prime time television, Cho has battled discrimination and depression her entire life.

M. CHO: I have always been a reject. I've always been too loud and unpleasant to look at and unpleasant to listen to and just altogether wrong.

PHILLIPS: Rejection, even from her own family. Her strict parents wanted their Korean-American daughter to walk a more traditional path.

YOUNG HIE CHO, MOTHER: Become a lawyer or professor or a doctor, something like that.

M. CHO: Beep. Hi, it's Mommy. Don't marry a white man!

PHILLIPS: Though her parents tried to push her into the role of a traditional Asian-American woman, Cho would be inspired by a completely different culture.

San Francisco, 1968, a time of rebellion and experimentation, free speech, and free love. It was during this time, on December 5, little Margaret was born. Her parents called her by the Korean name, Moran.

Y. CHO: Her head is very big. But she was so narrow, the baby clothes is all the time coming down like this, and the shoes so tiny.

SEUNG HOON CHO, FATHER: I liked this picture very much. She had something to say.

PHILLIPS: Cho's parents, Young Hie and Seung Hoon, had recently left their war-torn homeland, Korea, in hopes of a better life. They settled in San Francisco. Her father earned an MBA and found work as an auditor. But money was tight.

At just 4 months old, Margaret was sent to Seoul, Korea, to live with grandparents.

S. CHO: She become really independent from all the stage, I think, because she was, you know, sent over there.

PHILLIPS: Margaret was 3 when she returned to San Francisco to live with her family. She and her parents and little brother Han (ph) lived at this home in the Sunset district, just south of Golden Gate Park.

Her bold manner made her an outcast early on.

M. CHO: You know, because I was just, like, the irrepressible one who wouldn't shut up. It was just, like, so horrible. It was like "Lord of the Flies" every single day.

PHILLIPS: Although a bright student, she was ostracized by peers for her Asian features and her Korean name.

M. CHO: You have to understand, I heard my mother scream it from across the hills. Moran! Moran!

PHILLIPS: Margaret couldn't relate to her Korean culture or her classmates. She was lonely and frustrated. But when she was 10 years old, things changed.

S. CHO: Right at the corner of Polk and Tangonia (ph)...

PHILLIPS: Her parents bought Paperback Traffic, a bookstore in the heart of Polk Street, in the late '70s, an epicenter of gay culture in San Francisco.

Surprisingly, Cho's conservative parents employed mostly gays and lesbians.

M. CHO: My father especially encouraged me to hang out with gay men, because he knew that gay men had the key to culture, that they knew everything about the arts and that they had really good taste in music and food and art.

Y. CHO: We were really open. And so Margaret sometimes joking, Mom, Dad, you are intelligent hippie, something like that.

PHILLIPS: She attended a prestigious high school for kids with above-average intelligence.

But Cho fell into a bad crowd. She began cutting class, drinking, smoking pot. At 15, she was expelled. Her parents were crushed. They wanted their smart Korean daughter to put education first.

Cho became motivated by something very different.

M. CHO: It was seeing Richard Pryor in the film "Live at the Sunset Strip." It just really, really changed me. I thought, wow, that's it. PHILLIPS: Cho watched the outrageous stand-up, and was inspired. At age 16, she auditioned, and was accepted, at a high school for artistic teens. She dove into drama classes, and joined an improv group.

M. CHO: What I'm interested in is power.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please welcome Margaret Cho.

PHILLIPS: When we return, Margaret Cho rockets to Hollywood fame. But crashes along the way.

M. CHO: I just lost an incredibly large amount of weight. And it was so horrible.



M. CHO: I looked like one of those girls you would see in a Korean grocery store on a calendar. Holding a box of soy milk.

PHILLIPS: Before she became famous for her rants on race, Margaret Cho struggled with her own identity.

As a teenager she became obsessed with American culture and TV. White bread shows like "The Brady Bunch."

M. CHO: And I would always see Asian-Americans all over the place, and I never saw them on television. So I started to think that maybe there was something wrong with us.

PHILLIPS: Cho finally found her own niche while performing in high school comedy sketches.

Cho's keen observations about life and her own Korean mother set her apart from her classmates.

M. CHO: My mother has a problem with blind intersections. She will sit there for a very long time and rant, "they never give you a chance!"

PHILLIPS: The raw material eventually would become an audience favorite, but Cho's parents didn't approve.

M. CHO: Everybody in my family, it was just not something that I could do, they said, you can't. But I just knew inside that there was a way.

PHILLIPS: By the late '80s, Cho was obsessed with comedy. Stand-up pulled her out of depression, but it didn't keep her in class.

At 17, she dropped out of school, moved out of her family home, and in with a friend. She worked at her parents' bookstore and took on other odd jobs to make ends meet: an FAO Schwartz salesperson, a phone sex operator, even a clerk at an S&M leather boutique.

Cho gathered invaluable comedy material.

M. CHO: Those S&M people, they are bossy.

PHILLIPS: In 1986, her roommate dared her to perform at an open mike.

KENNEDY KABASARES, FRIEND: We both kind of debated it, we were kind of looking at each other going, I don't know, do you think we should? Oh, I don't know. And at one point we just -- I think she turned to me and she just goes, let's go.

PHILLIPS: She took center stage at a comedy club, coincidentally upstairs from her family's bookstore. She kept it a secret from her disapproving parents.

M. CHO: I knew not to tell them. I didn't tell them for a long time. I didn't tell them for years.

PHILLIPS: Cho brought the house down. Eventually, she took her show to L.A. She fine-tuned her material and tried her luck on the college comedy circuit.

In 1991, she won a competition. Her prize, a chance to open for the king of stand-up, Jerry Seinfeld.

SEINFELD: There's not a lot of people, really, that do comedy that really -- that that's their thing. There are a few people that are lucky enough to find that thing that that's what they should do, and she's one of those people.

PHILLIPS: Television execs agreed. By the early 1990s, Cho was the most booked comedy act in the market. She landed prime time TV specials.

CHO: And maybe it's me, but tell me honestly. Do I look like Connie Chung's slutty younger sister?

When I was a little girl, there were never Asian women on TV, so I had no role models. Oh, one. "Excuse me, Mr. Eddie's father."

PHILLIPS: The laughs kept coming. In 1994, the 26-year-old had a chance to make television history.

M. CHO: Mom, this is how they used to fight on "The Brady Bunch." We can do better.

PHILLIPS: Cho became the first Asian-American to land a sitcom. If the pilot was picked up, she'd play a family-friendly version of herself in ABC's "All American Girl."

Producer Ken Mok was a show developer.

KEN MOK, TELEVISION PRODUCER: She's edgy, she's brash. She's in your face. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have confidence that you will do what is right.

M. CHO: Based on what?

MOK: And I think that was an important image to get out there to say that, you know, we as Asian-Americans can also be just as obnoxious or, you know, as confrontative and funny as anybody else.

PHILLIPS: But before Cho got the part, network execs wanted her to look the part. They were concerned she didn't match the image of an Asian-American girl. They asked her to lose weight for the pilot.

CHO: Now, the fact that they said that is fine, but just the idea that these people had a meeting to discuss my big fat ass.

MOK: I think unfortunately in the television business that, you know, there is a premium put on, unfortunately, in many ways, just physical attractiveness.

PHILLIPS: Cho didn't want to blow her chance at stardom. She went on a crash diet, began taking diet pills. She kept her ordeal a secret.

M. CHO: I just lost an incredibly large amount of weight and it was so horrible and I just started to have, like, a kidney collapse, a kidney failure.

Y. CHO: She was quiet and we just meet and she never talk how she suffering.

PHILLIPS: Cho says all of her suffering paid off. The sitcom was picked up for 1994. ABC execs called her to break the news.

M. CHO: Margaret Cho, your pilot is going to series. Margaret Cho, you're a star! It was, for the first time in my life, acceptance.

PHILLIPS: But the show bombed. Ironically, it was the Asian- American community that disliked the sitcom and Cho.

S. CHO: The first episode she was dating a mechanic. And for most of the Asian community, it's just unthinkable thing. They wanted to have their daughters to date Ivy League, you know, college kids and not a mechanic, you know?

MOK: People didn't feel that that Asian-American experience was authentic and Margaret in the show was like putting a round peg into a square hole.

PHILLIPS: But she wasn't ready to give up fame and fortune.

When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, Cho fights to stay on TV and the all-American girl hits rock bottom.

M. CHO: And I really wanted to commit suicide but I was afraid to actually do it. So I would just be drinking all the time.



PHILLIPS: By 1994, 26-year-old Margaret Cho had become a famous stand-up comedian.

M. CHO: Cheesecake factory!

PHILLIPS: When she left the stage for prime time television, her world fell apart.

M. CHO: I was still willing to sacrifice my health for this chance at the big time.

PHILLIPS: She had endured a grueling diet, lost 30 pounds. But sitcom execs still didn't find Cho Asian enough. They tried revamping the show, even hired an Asian consultant.

M. CHO: He would follow me around, "Margaret, use chopsticks. Use chopsticks. And when you're done eating, you can put them in your hair."

PHILLIPS: But producers, and the Asian-American community, still didn't buy it. In 1995, amidst poor ratings, ABC canceled "All American Girl." It rocked Cho's world.

M. CHO: At that point I really thought, well you don't have legitimate career unless you're an actress. So I thought that everything was kind of done.

PHILLIPS: Cho's self-esteem sunk with the show. She lost herself in alcohol, drugs and one-night stands.

M. CHO: I thought, well, I'm just going to be a really destructive rock star and then I'm going to be on tour and be a stand- up comic. But I'm just going to be the best stand-up. I'm going to be the best stand-up comic there ever was, and I'm going to be the most disgusting. Like I'm going to live the most gross life. I'm going to burn out before I fade away.

PHILLIPS: Cho eventually tried stand-up again, but she was deeply depressed, still consumed by alcohol and drugs.

M. CHO: I would perform in a blackout and I would sort of wake up in the middle of it and be, like oh, wow. What am I doing?

PHILLIPS: The substance abuse continued for months. But by 1996, the 27-year-old grew tired of the self-loathing. Her turning point: in bed, after a booze-filled evening with a boyfriend.

M. CHO: But the stain was in the middle so we couldn't figure out who wet the bed. And I said, what kind of (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Motley Crue behind the music (EXPLETIVE DELETED) is this?

I realized it's not me. This is not what I do. And it just really struck me as very stupid. So I just kind of woke up.

PHILLIPS: Cho got herself out of bed, and put the misery, the loss of her sitcom behind her. She went back to stand-up, this time clean and sober. Her real recovery came when she started talking about her own problems on stage.

She starred in 1999's off-Broadway hit "I'm the One That I Want." It was different from any other stand-up she had performed. There were plenty of jokes...

M. CHO: They'd never seen a Korean-American role model like me before. You know, I didn't play violin. I didn't (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Woody Allen.

PHILLIPS: But Cho was mostly dead serious. She used the stage to talk about the suffering she had endured over the years.

M. CHO: It was the first time I'd really talked openly about all of the really dirty stuff that I didn't think was funny.

PHILLIPS: Audiences loved Cho's new confessional stand-up. The show sold out. A critically acclaimed film version and best-selling book followed. She was hot again, even making an appearance on HBO's "Sex and The City."

M. CHO: You're in or out. I don't have time for this.

PHILLIPS: And the edgy comedian hasn't stopped since.

In 2001, "The Notorious C.H.O.," her raucous comedy tour, had audiences howling. And this year, "Notorious C.H.O." hit the big screen.

Cho toned down the rage, but not the raunch. She focused on her own struggles with body image and sexual identity.

M. CHO: There's some stuff I don't really understand. Like the G-spot. Where is it? I can't find it. I logged on to Mapquest and everything.

PHILLIPS: But it's the impersonations of her Korean mother that keeps fans flocking to the shows.

M. CHO: I saw her in the lobby before the show, and she was looking around at people going, you know me? I am so famous.

Y. CHO: It was the first time we went there, and I was so surprised, you know, because everybody was standing line to buy the ticket. I felt like to serve them coffee and doughnut.

PHILLIPS: But what about her daughter's X-rated material?

Y. CHO: I don't understand the details, that's the best part.

PHILLIPS: Nothing's off-limits for the outrageous Cho. Not family and certainly not sex. M. CHO: Bam.

PHILLIPS: But she's cleaned up her act. She's settled down here in Glendale, a suburb outside of L.A. Her funky hillside home is a lot like Cho: bold and colorful.

M. CHO: Hi, boys. I thought all of this time I was a winter but actually I'm a vibrant spring. So these are all colors of the vibrant spring palette.

PHILLIPS: When she's not giving home tours, she's on tour, trying out new stand-up material all over the country.

But you can still count on one familiar face.

Y. CHO: She's so busy, she cannot have baby yet. I love babies so much.

M. CHO: She doesn't really know how to walk on a leash. She has to be attached to me.

PHILLIPS: But until there are babies, she says her dogs will do just fine.

M. CHO: Hi, girl. Hi.

PHILLIPS: After all, the 34-year-old notorious Cho has never been very good at doing what she's supposed to do.

M. CHO: I'm going to succeed as myself and I'm going to stay here and rock the mike until the next Korean-American fag-hag, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) starter, girl comic, trash talker comes up and takes my place!

Thank you. I love you.


ZAHN: You can catch the Notorious Cho in March when her new tour starts. Tickets are on sale now.

Also, you might see the outrageous stand-up back on Broadway again. And don't be surprised if you see her at the movies soon. A screenplay featuring the comedian is in the works.

That is it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining us.


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