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Henry Cho: From class clown to a standing ovation

January 16, 2020

Tom Netherland | Special to the Herald Courier

Since the latter days of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president, humor fueled Knoxville native Henry Cho to the upper echelon of America’s comedy circuit.

From the stage and screens small to large, Cho’s storytelling brand of clean humor placed him in households nationwide.

Now he’s coming to Bristol. Listen and laugh when Cho returns to the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee on Friday. That’s tomorrow.

On Monday afternoon, he recalled the time when his life took a major turn from college to comedy. One point made, he was not a class clown.

“None whatsoever,” said Cho from his home in Nashville. “I was a smart aleck, not the class clown. When I first started to try stand-up, I told my buddies. They said, ‘You’re not funny.’”

Regardless, a truckload of University of Tennessee college students ventured into a nightspot in Knoxville one night in 1986. It was an open mic competition. Better still, Showtime taped it for a television special.

“I went up there and just destroyed,” Cho said. “Got a standing ovation. I won.”

Life changed for Cho almost instantly.

“I won on Monday,” Cho said. “They hired me on Wednesday. I dropped out of college on Friday. Then I went anywhere and everywhere. Worked some horrible venues.”

His parents were not exactly thrilled.

“Oh, my word,” Cho said. “My parents, who came from South Korea 65 years ago, wanted me to be a doctor.”

Cho operates, all right. If laughter leads to better health, then his audiences leave his shows in much better shape than when they came. So what if he doesn’t operate on their broken bones; Cho tinkers with America’s funny bone to make them laugh and not cry.

And he’s done so with a decidedly Southern accent.

“We didn’t even know we were different until we were in college,” Cho said. “I had a thick Southern accent. We were on spring break, and these girls from Michigan thought I was mocking my friends.”

Cho’s Southern accent does not resound as prominently nowadays. Credit his years of hosting NBC’s “Friday Night Videos,” guest spots on network television sitcoms including “Designing Women” and on such late-night television shows as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”

Lately, he’s made a long string of appearances on the mother church of country music, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

“Oh, the Opry helps a lot,” he said. “It’s amazing, the people who will say that, the far reach that the Opry has, I never expected it. People come up to me after my shows wherever I am, saying they heard me on the Opry. Cool!”

Back to Cho’s Southern accent.

“I never wanted to be known as the Southern Asian guy, just a comedian who happened to be Southern and Asian,” Cho said. “(Jerry) Seinfeld told me I had the greatest hook since Rodney Dangerfield—‘So, c’mon, man, use it.’”

He does. Only thing, it’s not the centerpiece of his act these days. OK, he opens his shows with it, but it’s not why Cho will begin filming “The Henry Cho Show,” a sitcom, in either March or April. Look for it in the fall via one of television’s numerous streaming platforms.

“It’s hilarious,” he said, “and it’s a lot like my stand-up— and the whole family can see it. There’s something for everybody.”

Cho’s clean. Four-letter words crop up on primetime network television nowadays with growing regularity— but most definitely not from one particular funnyman from Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I’ve done (clean comedy) since day one,” Cho said. “It’s adult humor, and it’s clean. I’ve never said an off-color word onstage.”