Tuesday, March 02, 2010

My Roger Ebert-Will Lietch-esque Story; or, Margaret Cho and me

A couple of people have posted this story by "Deadspin" editor Will Leitch in feeds I follow or sent it to me directly, including N'Gai Croal and Nelson Wang. It's worth a read—moving and wistful, and heartfelt, I think.

The funny thing is, I have a story that's similar in ways, regarding Margaret Cho. I was TV critic for the Village Voice at the time, having just been entrusted with that role by Jeff Salamon, one of the editors whom I credit most in shaping my writerly voice (the others being Andy Hsiao, who's probably the most important individual in my journalistic career, a role model and great friend, and Lisa Kennedy, a tough, smart editor who simply pushed me to be better at every turn). 

In addition to writing for the Voice, I was also working—unpaid, like everyone at the time—on A. Magazine, the Asian American periodical I, Bill Yao, Amy Chu and Sandi Kim had founded after graduating from college. To keep the magazine afloat, we'd throw fundraising events; one of them was a showcase for a comedian who was a fast-rising star in standup, but hadn't yet taken the step to "household name" status—Margaret Cho

After wowing the crowd with her set, an ecstatic Margaret made the first public announcement that she'd been given the opportunity every standup hopes against hope for, the chance to star in her own prime-time TV show...a sitcom to be called All-American Girl. 

Well, all of us were as happy as she was. This was a tremendous, staggering breakthrough for the whole Asian American community—one small step for Cho, one giant leap for Asiankind, that sort of thing. It could, we thought, only be good for Our People.

A few months later, the first buzz started to emerge about the show—troubling whispers that the show was just...not very good. And with every trickle of early rumor, my heart sank further. And that's when I received the assignment I'd secretly been dreading. I was asked to review All-American Girl in my capacity as TV critic for the Voice

I tried to gently dodge the bullet, suggesting that I might be in a compromised position—knowing Margaret personally, and considering her a friend. And my editor pushed me, suggesting that professionalism as a critic demands that you rise above the personal, to judge things on their merits. Afterall, criticism is a landscape of the subjective, in which everyone by definition has preferences and passions and entanglements. 

I think when you're young, and you're challenged by people you deeply respect to say SOMETHING, to find your voice, to slide hard, you can end up going too far. I wanted to prove I could be objectively critical, even ruthless; I ended up writing a scathing, witty—or what I thought was witty—piece that mercilessly ripped the show apart as a star vehicle whose miscasting and bad decisionmaking started with the star and radiated outwards. Because, even setting aside the concerns some in the community had of how Asians were being depicted, the show took everything that made Margaret funny, and stripped it of its brilliant, serrated edge. It was Family Ties, if the show focused on Tina Yothers rather than Michael J. Fox.

The next day, Margaret called me, and said she'd heard my review was in the paper. She asked me to fax it to her. Which I did, with a cover letter that tried to soften it, contextualize it. 

She never called me back.

From then on, I heard that Margaret told people that she felt like the lack of support from her community was heartbreaking, but the betrayal by people she "knew and respected" was sickening—and that more than anything, she blamed those people for the network's yanking away support for the show. Shortly thereafter, the show was canceled. Margaret went into a personal spiral toward self-destruction, and there hasn't been a sitcom written around an Asian American star ever since. 

It was over half a decade before we talked again, Margaret had gone through rehab, and come out of it with a revised set of priorities and a fresh handle on her career. She had a brand new one-woman show out, I'm the One That I Want, and I organized a big group to go see it when it came to New York. The centerpiece of the show was a grueling recap of her horrendous experience with All-American Girl, in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. And when she got to the part when she talked about being stabbed in the back by a certain TV critic of her acquaintance—no names named—I sank down in my seat...swallowing hard.

Margaret's gone on to a fascinating career, as a blogger and a performance artist and a burlesque diva and a reality TV star, among many other things. She's found her calling, her zone, and every interaction we've had since then has been terrific. But reading Lietch's piece reminded me: As journalists, and especially for those of us who are cultural critics, we have a responsibility to more than just the story on the page, and certainly to more than our own careers. Ripples as they spread can build into tsunamis. We can inspire and provide hope, and we can hurt and destroy

Professionalism, as much as anything else, means knowing our limits, and taking responsibility for the fact that words have power, and wielding them has consequences.

Posted via email from OriginalSpin

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