Success in standup comedy, like being a successful politician or football player, is largely about being opportunistic, finding the right opening, the right angle, which is usually an obtuse one. Comedians call it the “hook.” It was in Atlanta, 32 years ago, that Jerry Seinfeld told a young Henry Cho that he had the best hook he’d seen since Rodney Dangerfield, arguably the greatest pure standup of all-time. “I had just started comedy, and his opening act had to cancel, and I was the only clean comedian in the region, so I went to Atlanta to open for him. He’s still a good pal/mentor, and he helped me tremendously early in my career.”
Cho’s hook was demographic in nature: The son of first-generation immigrants from South Korea, Cho was born in December 1962 and raised in the Deep South—Knoxville, Tennessee, to be exact. “It’s a great town,” says Cho, who moved to LA in 1989 and now lives in nearby Nashville with his wife and three children. It’s a big showbiz town in its own right. “I love going home to visit, and if Knoxville had a better airport to fly more places direct, I would’ve moved my family there years ago.” This background endowed him with an accent that seemingly contradicts his appearance more starkly than anyone this side of Danielle Bregoli. The hook formed the foundation of a hugely successful comedic career, but to his credit, he’s never rested on his laurels, and he hasn’t coasted on his gimmick.
Cho has worked all 50 states, performed on virtually every late-night talk show in his lifetime, been featured on a Bob Hope “Young Comedians Special,” and he’s a regular at the historic Grand Old Opry. Through all that, though, Jacksonville has a special place in his heart. “I’m an avid golfer, so working in Jacksonville has been a no-brainer,” he writes in an email. “My agent says I work Florida to play golf, and also do some shows while I’m there.”
Cho’s ties to our city predate the 1989 opening of The Comedy Zone, where he’ll be doing five shows Feb. 1, 2 and 3. “My first performance in that area was at the old Punchline on Baymeadows in 1988 or ’89,” he says. “I did that club annually until it closed. … I’m old-school, so having longtime relationships with club owners has been my style, and Fred at the Zone is the best. My first few years of comedy, I worked 48 to 50 weeks a year, all at clubs. The past decade or more, I only do about six or seven comedy clubs a year; The Comedy Zone is one of my regular stops.”
You can tell how grounded he is by his response to a question I often ask in interviews: What’s been his favorite thing to eat so far this year? “Our church hosts 14 homeless men every Thursday night from November to March,” he replies. “We share a meal with them and give them a place to sleep and shower and do laundry. It’s called ‘Room In the Inn’, and my family helped out recently. It was simple chicken, potatoes and green beans, but breaking bread with these men and watching my kids engage in conversations with them was best meal of the year, by far.”
Like most comedians of his era, debuting on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson remains the highlight of his career. “I come from a time when that was a major hurdle. It used to take years to get that spot, lots of hard work and hundreds of hours on stage, unlike today with YouTube, etc.” As for the future, there aren’t a lot of items left on his professional bucket-list, but TV looms as the final frontier. “I’ve had five deals in my career, two that I could’ve done and been set financially for life, but the content was derogatory toward Asians, so I passed. Right now I’m not in the game, as my kids are at the age where I need to be home, but they’re getting older, so me and my TV pals are thinking about pitching shows again in a couple years.” Whenever that happens, look for the hook.
Off the stage, Cho lives as clean as he works; for him, “family values” is more than a catch-phrase. “I basically do the same show in Vegas as I’d do in a church,” he says. “It’s adult humor, it’s just clean.” The closest Cho ever got to actual controversy was his longtime domain-name dispute with Great-Grandmaster Shihak Henry Cho (1934-2012), who ran the biggest Tae Kwon Do studio in New York for 40 years. “How do you dispute against a guy who can harm you in 100-plus ways? I asked him why he didn’t use the ‘S’, and was told they thought they’d get more hits using my name.”
Well, that is true—it happened when I was researching for this very article.