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David Choe Releases New Show On FX and Hulu

DAVID CHOE: Wait. First of all, I should ask - did the interview start already? Are we...




MARTIN: We're gone. We're on...

CHOE: All right. I didn't know if this was...

MARTIN: What you're about to hear was supposed to be a story about a new show on FX called "The Choe Show," created and starring the artist David Choe. But from the moment I started talking to him, it became clear it was going to be something else.

Let's do it.

CHOE: All right. So sorry. What was the question?

MARTIN: Who are you?

CHOE: Who - OK. Wow. (Sighing) I am - who are you? In this moment, I am nervous. I am sad. I am grieving. I am also joyful. I'm caring. And I am enough.

Now, can I ask you, who are you?

MARTIN: Choe's been asking that question of a lot of people. He is a successful artist, and that success has come at an emotional price, which we'll get to later. But right now his medium is conversation, and it requires a back and forth in which both participants are willing to be vulnerable. In this clip from the show, David is talking with tattoo artist Kat Von D about her pregnancy and how they are each managing complicated relationships.


KAT VON D: You got your homie that comes over that's dysfunctional. And like...

CHOE: Right.

VON D: ...Do you want that around your baby? No. Like...

CHOE: But the scary thing I heard right now 'cause it's - I'm dealing with this also, and I think everyone does - is family. That's, like, a hard thing to say - I have a hard boundary with my mom. Like, I come over to be with you.

VON D: Yeah.

CHOE: You start talking about...

VON D: Yeah.

CHOE: ...John 3:16...

VON D: Yeah.

CHOE: ...I'm out of here.

MARTIN: The conceit of the show is simple. Choe invites people he knows, usually his good friends, over to paint their portrait. To do that, he needs to understand them in an even more intimate way. And that's where the conversation comes in. And the setting is important. His studio is this crazy-looking house. Every inch is covered in some kind of paint or clay or something else. It's his childhood home, and he turned it into a giant canvas to process his own trauma that began when he was sent away by his parents to live with a relative in Korea at 4 years old. Later, as a teenager back in LA, he got in trouble a lot.

CHOE: I remember the first time I got arrested when I was 14. And I can't remember if it was for graffiti or shoplifting because I was, you know, not old enough to go to jail. The judge gave me an option of going to juvenile hall for a week or doing community service with family therapy. And just the thought of sitting in a room with my mom and dad and my brothers, I was like I'll go to jail. I'll go to jail.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Seriously?

CHOE: Yeah. And he's like, dude, you don't want to go to jail. You will get roughed up, you know.


CHOE: So I did the family therapy. And I remember that's the first time my dad verbalized everything that I had thought growing up, which is - you know, the therapist asked him, why do you think David is acting out in this way? You know, we're - and you know, my dad got very defensive. And he's like, no, we don't do this. Like - he's like, everyone has a hard time growing up. You don't talk about it. You zip it up. You fold it up. You put it in a drawer in your chest, and you you lock it away, and you just deal with it.

MARTIN: But he didn't deal with it well. On the surface, David was doing great. His art career took off. In 2007, Facebook commissioned him to do a mural at their headquarters. He was paid partly in company stock. After Facebook went public, David Choe became very, very rich. And he spent a lot of that money paying to feed his addictions to gambling, sex and fame.

CHOE: I live on a spectrum where - it's a narcissistic spectrum where one end of it is, you're nothing, where I'm the victim, you know? You're a piece of crap; like, you're a phony. And that's one end of the spectrum. And then there's the other end of the spectrum is like, you're the hero; you're here to save everyone. You have the strength, the power, the finances. And that's where I live, right? You're the worst, or you're the best. And to kind of live right in the middle where - that's the challenge every day.

MARTIN: David and I spent most of our hour-long conversation talking about his own story, his own mistakes and how he's managing the depression and anxiety that still grip him. He told me he called his therapist for an emergency session before our interview.

CHOE: He's like, and you have a real problem (sighing) - you have a real problem, like, sharing all the good stuff you do, you know? Like, I work with - see, as soon as - I am hearing the voice in my head right now. I'll just talk it through with you, I guess. I'm about to tell you some of the good stuff I do.


CHOE: And I'm already hearing a voice in my head saying, you're - what a douche. Shut your mouth. Don't be that guy.

MARTIN: Part of what makes "The Choe Show" work is that David just puts himself out there, like he did in our conversation, and then his guests respond in kind. A lot of these people are performers, and the entire endeavor could feel contrived. But it doesn't. Here's a clip with the actress Maya Erskine. David had asked her to do this exercise where she talked to her younger self.


MAYA ERSKINE: I think I just felt emotional thinking about how beautiful everyone is as kids. And how it can just...

CHOE: Mmm hmm.


ERSKINE: (Sighing) Yeah, how the hurt can make us so guarded and...

CHOE: Mmm hmm.

ERSKINE: ...Scared.

MARTIN: The authenticity you hear there is because David Choe had been doing this for years before he turned it into something for public consumption.

CHOE: When someone was closed, I would just try to, like, finish the painting and be done. And when someone was really open with me, I'd try to, you know, express that through pigments. And sounds weird, but I would be painting someone, and I would start crying or they would start crying and just real, like, healing through painting.

MARTIN: Because while the guests are the centerpiece of the episodes - their trauma, their revelations captured in a portrait revealed at the end of each episode - you come to understand quickly that this show is a part of David Choe's own recovery, a way he can understand his own struggle with addiction and shame. And if it makes someone else trapped in that darkness feel less alone, all the better.

CHOE: I'm extremely proud of this TV show. I'm proud that, you know, through every single step of the way, which was a battle, it got done. And it's coming out, and people get to see it. And I release myself of all outcomes and expectations. How do you feel?


MARTIN: "The Choe Show" premieres today on FX and tomorrow on Hulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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