Margaret Cho has donned many personas over the years—comedienne, actress, gay rights activist and now ex-con. For her first ever YouTube exclusive web series, In Transition, the openly bisexual Cho stars as Tawny Kim, a mangle-toothed, frizzy-haired former drug addict fresh out of prison.
"Watching Margaret transform into Tawny is fun," says John Stapleton, co-writer of the series. "From the messed-up teeth to the over-processed hair, to the tic. The funniest part about the nervous tic is that she was laughing, saying she was mad at herself for incorporating it into her performance, 'cause now my neck is hurting.'"
The series' 13 webisodes, airing every Wednesday, follow the twitchy Kim and her former cellmates Farhonda Jenkins and Concha Valenzuela (portrayed by Private Practice's Yvette Saunders and the diminutive Latina spitfire Selena Luna, respectively) and their exploits in a transitional living facility. The multiethnic trio plot to confront another ex-cellmate, Marla Stevens—a Martha Stewart-like television personality—and extort from her the protection money she promised them in prison. Stevens is played by Luenell, most notable as the zoftig prostitute in Borat. Jackie Beat rounds out the ensemble as a halfway house matron heavily inspired by Hope Emerson's character in the 1950s women-behind-bars film Caged.
While this cast alone should be enough to attract a gay audience, Stapleton feels it's the biting humor that will really resonate with LGBT viewers.
"As a gay man, I have always found queer humor to be on the cutting edge. Growing up in Brooklyn, I wasn't the strongest kid on the block, but I could fuck you up with the sharpest tongue around. The LGBT community finds humor in the face of adversity. When you think about shows like AbFab, Strangers with Candy, these off-the-wall, left-of-center types seem to have mostly queer followers. Plus, prison itself is kinda queer. Add Margaret Cho, Selene Luna, Jackie Beat and the promise of [Trick hunk] JP Pitoc shirtless in future episodes, and it's like Lizapalooza."
Cho agrees, adding, "It's super camp, so ridiculous and also very gritty and real—but hyper real. I think everyone will be addicted. It's raunchy, over-the-top, campy, dark and ambitious. I think it's perfect for gay audiences—very tailor-made for my kind of crowd! And almost everyone who works on the show is gay—we like to keep it in the family."
In fact, In Transition originated as a family reunion of sorts for Cho and her colleagues.
"Margaret and Rico Martinez, the show's EP, met with Selene Luna for drinks to discuss working together again since they had collaborated together on VH1's The Cho Show," Stapleton recalls. "So over a few cocktails, Rico and the girls scrawled out a few character notes that I tweaked with Rico and then formed the script."
While the script may be saturated with tart-tongued barbs and absurd situations, Cho's underlying message for In Transition is ultimately optimistic.
"I'm saying that it's always possible to start over, start fresh, begin again, no matter what's happened or what you've been through."
The concept of starting anew is personal for Cho. After the cancellation of her television series All-American Girl in 1995, the comic spiraled into a dark period of drug addiction and alcoholism, as chronicled in her autobiography I'm the One That I Want. After publicly hitting rock bottom during a performance in Monroe, Louisiana, where she was booed off the stage by 800 college students after going onstage drunk, Cho subsequently cleaned up her act and found success through her numerous live tours, books, films, music and political activism.
"I've had a tough time in my career," admits Cho, "but things get easier as I get older, and right now I have no complaints! I'm very lucky and very happy—it's the best."
Arguably, Margaret's life is easier because In Transition is developed not by network television but by YouTube's multichannel network Makers Studios, which already serves as an 'online liaison' to other big name celebrities such as Robert De Niro and Snoop Dogg. According to Stapleton (pictured at left with Luna and Cho in a photo by L.A. photographer Austin Young), there are several benefits to releasing a series directly through YouTube.
"We did exactly what we wanted to do. We could be as outrageous, dark, incorrect and intelligent as we wanted. There are no focus groups who would rather see Margaret in a red wig instead of the bad permed one she's wearing. No executives recasting people. The freedom is exciting. On the other hand, we all want great success. We've heard the term 'labor of love' overused for so long, but this series was seriously built on the principles of wanting to make something that's funny, and we want to have fun while we are doing it."
While In Transition's view on prison is lighthearted, Cho has a more somber experience with the American penal system. In addition to her work with LGBT, Asian and female communities, Margaret has aided inmates such as Stanley Tookie Williams and Damien Echols.
"I published Damien Echols' first book when he was wrongfully imprisoned in Arkansas and helped him eventually win his freedom," says Cho. "I come at my work as a human rights advocate in the same way I do as a gay rights activist—this is in my blood. It's my whole life."
Just as Cho labors for a brighter future, Stapleton and Martinez are laboring for Tawny's future.
"Rico and I already mapped out the next 13," says Stapleton. "As you continue to watch this season, it gets more twisted, and the stakes get higher for the three girls. We are aiming to go even further off the radar with the next 13. We have been approached by a few incredible talents who want to participate in future episodes, so we are thinking of new characters to jostle the girls. I think this is going well enough that we won't need Heather Locklear—unless she's willing to revive her role as Officer Stacey Sheridan."
Watch the first episode of In Transition below and find the entire series at Margaret Cho's Official YouTube page.