Henry Cho belongs in a category of one as a comedian.
He’s a Christian.
Oh, and he’s a Southern American of Korean descent.
“There’s never been a Southern Asian comedian,” said Henry Cho, 54.
That is until Cho came along. Three decades on stage as a comedian precedes his appearance at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, on Saturday, Sept. 23.
“When I first started (his Korean-Southern American heritage) really mattered,” Cho said by phone from his home in Nashville. “A lot of people thought I faked the way I spoke. Whenever I do the Grand Ole Opry, I know there are people out there who go, ‘Oh, my God, is this real?’”
Watch Cho’s act on the hour-long Comedy Central special, “What’s That Clickin’ Noise,” which currently airs on Netflix.
Cho’s as real as a Vince Gill ballad — only funny.
“I saw Steve Allen in 1989,” Cho said. “He said, ‘Henry, you know that thing that there is no such thing as a new joke? You have 10 of them.’”
Cho hails from Knoxville. His family’s lineage traces to South Korea. He grew up with a comedic personality and an accent — a decidedly Southern drawl.
Late in his college career at the University of Tennessee, Cho decided to give stand-up comedy a try.
“I went on stage on a Monday night at Funny Bone in Knoxville,” Cho said. “I was hired on Wednesday. I dropped out of college on Friday. My parents did not think it was a funny thing.”
In those days, Cho accentuated his Southern accent on stage. Then as now, people tend to notice him right away, an obviously Asian man with a distinctly Southern drawl.
“It happens all the time. To this day, it happens,” he said. “Even though it’s 2017…they have a hard time wrapping their head around it. We didn’t think it was deep, that I had a Southern accent, until I went to college.”
Particularly among students from other regions of the country, when Cho spoke they noticed.
“These girls from Michigan thought I was mocking my buddies’ accents,” Cho said.
Quickly and as with his audiences, Cho ingratiated himself with those who reacted as such with a kind yet witty personality. Insults aren’t his thing. Likewise, derogatory comedy does not fit in his life or show.
“English-speaking Koreans like me a lot,” he said. “Everything I do is positive. Now, there is a language barrier with some in the Korean community. If I played violin, they would accept me. But I’m in a part of the arts that’s not widely accepted in the Korean community. It’s not really their thing.”
Cho’s audience gravitates to his humor. They also embrace him for his embracing of a clean and non-controversial style.
“That’s vital,” Cho said. “I never want to make fun of. I want to make fun with. Most of the Asian stereotypes I didn’t even know until I moved to Los Angeles. Like, my dad and I are great drivers.”
Cho leaves stereotypical comedy to others. He neither curses nor denigrates people. He’s respectful, clean, and yet quite funny.
“I do clean comedy,” he said. “It’s important for me. I don’t cuss. I’ve never called myself a Christian comedian, but I’m a comedian who happens to be a Christian. I do Vegas every year. Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, that’s what I grew up listening to. Early in my career, I opened for Jerry Seinfeld. He said, ‘I don’t know why anyone would do a joke that you can’t do on television.’”
Cho’s resume includes a numerous appearances on television.
He turned up on CBS sitcom “Designing Women” in 1989, three times on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” during the early 1990s, and he hosted NBC’s “Friday Night Videos” in the late ‘90s. Multiple offers to star in a sitcom followed for the comedian.
“I would do a weekly TV show — if it fit,” he said. “Between ’04 and ’07 were my best shots to do what I wanted to do. I had a show in the 90s with (fellow Asian-American actor) Pat Morita, who was to speak in broken English. I said no.”
While movie roles remain slim, he’s well in demand on stage. For instance, he regularly appears on country music’s Grand Ole Opry. Quietly, gradually, Cho overcame stereotypes without sacrificing his humor or his dignity.
“I never wanted to be a Southern Asian comedian,” Cho said. “I just wanted to be a comedian.”