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Margaret Cho sexes up Atlanta comedy scene

Foul-mouthed performer and "Drop Dead Diva" star finds inspiration in the ATL

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"I love heavily tattooed women. I imagine their lives are filled with sensuality and excess, madness and generosity, impulsive natures and fights. They look like they have endured much pain and sadness, yet have the ability to transcend all of it by documenting it on the body," Cho wrote on her blog. "Even after the thrill is gone, the tattoo remains, as a reminder of a personal history, a life lived, flawed yet genuine, faded yet viable."

One thing separating Cho's comedic vulgarity from the rest of the industry's filthiest mouths is that she's not going for shock value so much as using humor to broach touchy subjects everyone struggles with, like body image and sexual identity. Cho's artistic drive doesn't start and end with making people laugh. She has certain humanitarian and political objectives, too.

In 2004, Cho toured through the swing states during the presidential election with the intent of dissuading voters from electing President Bush. In 2007, she went on the road with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Rosie O'Donnell and Rufus Wainwright to host the True Colors Tour, which was organized to benefit the Human Rights Campaign, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). (She returned to the tour the following year.) And she has been a staunch advocate of gay rights, most recently working on the Prop 8 initiative. Two years ago, the city of San Francisco declared a "Margaret Cho Day."

Cho arrived in Georgia in April 2009 to spend four months filming the first season of Lifetime's critically acclaimed "Drop Dead Diva." Since the show films in Peachtree City, Cho spent almost all her time out in the 'burbs. When "Diva" was brought back for a second season and Cho had to return to Georgia, she opted to pass on another stint in the golf-cart-centric community, finding the art and culture of Midtown well worth the commute.

She moved into a place near the Laughing Skull Lounge and quickly ingratiated herself to the local comedy community. Not that she needed to. (She's Margaret Cho!) And just as Atlanta needed her to raise the local comedy scene's profile, she needed Atlanta to be an honest audience — a testing ground for her most audacious material yet.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS: Margaret Cho with friends and local comics Trey Toler (left) and Marshall Chiles, owner of Laughing Skull Lounge. - TREY TOLER
  • Trey Toler
  • FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS: Margaret Cho with friends and local comics Trey Toler (left) and Marshall Chiles, owner of Laughing Skull Lounge.

Outside of Atlanta, she was working in another genre, too: rock 'n' roll. Her rock-comedy album Cho Dependent is scheduled for release Aug. 24. Cho's clear that her priority and passion always have been and always will be stand-up. Still, she took the musical production of the album, her sixth (but first musical), seriously. Several comedians have made musical-comedy albums before, and Cho isn't the first to be as concerned with the quality of the music as with the power of the jokes. What's different about her approach, though, is that she recognizes her limitations and formed big-name collaborations to compensate.

"I wanted real musicians to be involved with the project," she says. "And I'm lucky to have friends that just happen to be some of the best musicians in the world."

Cho called in favors from the likes of Fiona Apple, Ani Difranco, Garrison Starr and Rachael Yamagata to lend their musical abilities to tracks such as "Gimme Your Seed," "Eat Shit and Die," and "Captain Cameltoe." While she can play the guitar and keytar, Cho isn't shy about admitting she was nervous to make music with these legends. "I was having the most explosive, nerve-wracking diarrhea thinking about going in and singing with these people, but they were all so great about it and made me feel really comfortable doing it that in the end it was so much fun."

"Nerve-wracking diarrhea" might also be the phrase some Atlantans would use in describing their reaction to Cho's unannounced appearances around town. She started surprising unsuspecting audiences with 20-minute guest sets at the Laughing Skull Lounge and Funny Farm, among other places. She'd also show up at smaller venues, such as the Star Bar's open-mic Mondays, to enjoy the semi-pro comedy with a PBR in one hand and a notebook in the other.

Friend and local comic Trey Toler says her contributions were immediately felt — and will continue to resonate.

"Margaret is the personification of kindness," Toler says. "Seeing someone of her caliber treat everyone with respect has made a lasting impression on the scene."

The impression-making goes both ways. Marshall Chiles, owner of the Laughing Skull Lounge, says Cho has upped Atlanta's comedy game — and that Atlanta has improved her game, too.

"It was educational for all of the Atlanta comics to see her doing the same thing they were doing — just working stuff out on stage at the Skull — but doing it at another level," Chiles says. "She told me that the Atlanta scene made her excited about comedy again. To hear that is just surreal."

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