Once upon a time I worked as a television and film extra on a semi-regular basis. I mostly appeared on WB shows—“Charmed,” “Roswell” and “Felicity,” to name a few. I was in school at the time and it just so happened that I often found myself playing students. But in November 2001, I accepted a gig, not to appear in a classroom but to appear in a faux hospital waiting room on the “ER” set. I’m not a fan of the show, so I only remember a handful of details about that experience. But two stand out in particular.
It was almost a couple of months to the day after 9/11, and an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after taking off from JFK International Airport in Queens. The news made everyone antsy, as we weren’t sure if the plane had crashed due to mechanical failure or because a terrorist had caused it do go down. It turned out that the plane crashed due to a combination of pilot error and mechanical failure.
Still anxiety-ridden over the news of the plane crash, I left the “ER” set to take a break. As I stood on a stoop on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, I saw three actors walk out of the neighboring set. I recognized them from a very crass, very unfunny show called “Off Centre.”
For some reason, I ended up locking eyes with one of the actors. Our gazes fixed on each other, but it wasn’t a flirtatious exchange. I remember thinking how much the character that particular actor played annoyed me. Because I so disliked the character, in that moment, I found it difficult to separate the character from the man. Accordingly, I kind of scowled/shrugged at him as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” and he finally turned away. How I wish I could revisit that moment. I had no idea then that in three years I’d develop a soft spot for the actor—John Cho—after seeing his performance in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” the sequel to which, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” is now playing the festival circuit and will soon have a theatrical release.
While “Off Centre” and “Harold & Kumar” are arguably designed for the same audience—Maxim magazine readers and “American Pie” fans—the former was simply crass, but the latter was crass, funny, cute and groundbreaking, to boot! That’s right “Harold & Kumar,” a film about two weed-lovin’ friends who go on an adventure after a case of the munchies has them jonesin’ for “White Castle,” is groundbreaking.
I’m not the only one with this opinion. In the “Slanted Screen,” a documentary about the history of Asian men in Hollywood, “Harold & Kumar” was highlighted as one of the few films that have portrayed this group against type. The film challenges all sorts of myths about Asian American men—mainly, that they’re asexual, passive, number crunchin’ nerds. In addition to giving us a three-dimensional portrait of two Asian American protagonists, one of Korean descent and the other of Indian, the film stands out for pairing Cho with a Latina love interest. The film also offers an internal critique of films such as “Sixteen Candles,” which featured a character called Long Duk Dong, up there with Mr. Yunioshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as one of the most unflattering portrayals of an Asian man on celluloid.
Cho’s Harold Lee is the antithesis of Dong in every way—tender, vulnerable and a little neurotic but ultimately willing to stand up for himself and follow his heart. There’s also great chemistry between Harold and his polar opposite Kumar, played by Kal Penn.
The movie is by no means perfect. Some parts require a total suspension of belief, others are chock full of juvenile potty humor and others, still, contain stereotypes of their own. Overall, though, “Harold & Kumar” deftly uses comedy to deconstruct myths about Asian American men. That said, if the sequel is even half as good as the original, I’ll be the first to line up at the theater.
As if the release of the new “Harold & Kumar” movie weren’t enough to make my head spin, I also had the good fortune of learning today that Margaret Cho has gotten her own reality show on VH-1. This is the first time she’ll be appearing on a television series since her ill-fated and much talked-about show “All-American Girl” was cancelled more than a dozen years ago. I’m excited that this time around Margaret will have some creative control in the series in which she’ll star. Oddly enough, I’ve also had an encounter with Margaret Cho, no relation to John, by the way.
Several years ago, when “I’m the One that I Want” was playing in a West L.A. theater, Margaret was actually in line breaking off people’s ticket stubs as they entered. I was taken aback by her beauty, stylishness and reserve, alike.
This weekend, thanks to my boyfriend, I’ll be seeing Ms. Cho in San Francisco. I’m betting that her new TV series will find its way into her routine.
Here’s to her return and John’s. And if you’d like to see these two in a film together, check out “Bam Bam and Celeste.” I haven’t had a chance to catch that flick yet myself, but the presence of the two Chos make it a must-see for me.