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Margaret Cho sexes up Atlanta comedy scene 

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

"I helped deliver one of my best friend's children. I just was so amazed by my friend, because she was not just a woman; she was not just a mother. At that moment she was creation. She was life. She was God. And as I looked in her eyes, BOOM! Her pussy exploded."

Margaret Cho — belly dancer, provocateur, and, of late, the Atlanta comedy scene's most renowned member — is not the funny girl she once was. She's no longer the plump sitcom star who struggled with her identity (both on the set and off) on ABC's "All American Girl." She's no longer battling an eating disorder or drug addiction, or trying to prove that she's not too Asian ... or isn't Asian enough. Nope, the modern-day Cho is both a happily married fortysomething with a humanitarian agenda, and a tatted-up, foul-mouthed temptress who seems to have mastered the transition from poetic to crass in a single, seamless punch line. Basically, Cho tells dick jokes with a purpose.

The exploding pussy piece de resistance from Cho's 2003 Grammy-nominated comedy album, Revolution, is actually pretty tame compared to most of the material she spent the last year writing in preparation for her new tour, Cho Dependent. That means some people will be doubly stunned. Cho has been a bravely raunchy comedian for some time. Her words can still shock the crowd, however, so at odds are they with the mid-'90s Margaret Cho some still inexplicably cleave to.

These days, Cho's a very busy lady, tasked with writing and performing new stand-up, filming a television show, advocating for human rights, releasing a new rock-comedy album, and charming the pants off Atlanta's comedy scene. As a part-time resident of the city, she does frequent, impromptu performances at venues large and small, and has helped galvanize a burgeoning comedy community.

No sooner did Cho settle into her Midtown home, though, than she was out the door to kick off her new tour, which starts in Portland, Ore., next week and ends in Atlanta on Dec. 12. The tour primarily will showcase Cho's stand-up material, but will also feature her rocking out on stage to a few songs from her new album, which shares the tour's name.

Yet even while Cho's on the road, Georgia will undoubtedly remain on her mind. The star's newest work is inspired in part by Atlanta, where most of the jokes she wrote for the tour were conceived and cultivated. It's a place she's grown fond of, in large part because of its tight-knit network of comedians.

"On any night of the week, you can go out and see great comedy here, which isn't true of a lot of other big cities," Cho says. "It's a smart city, and the people really like comedy. I find the creative atmosphere of the Atlanta comics to be really supportive, but really competitive — which is what you want, because you want to perform with people who support you, but also force you to get better."

Born Moran Cho in 1968, Cho grew up in San Francisco, where she attended grammar school off of Haight Street. She attributes much of her eclectic artistic perspective to the neighborhood. But while her psychedelic surroundings helped nurture the unusual voice that a 16-year-old Cho first brought to the stage, she actually cites her family life as the reason she became such a profane comic.

"I've always been comfortable with this rebellion against traditional Korean values and what my parents wanted me to be," she recalls. "My parents didn't know what to do with me, because I was such a weird kid. They weren't supportive of the fact that I did stand-up, but they didn't know how to stop it, either."

Of course, they could see, at least a little, where she was coming from. Her father had written a Korean joke book, and Cho performed stand-up for the first time in a space above the bookstore her parents owned. It's doubtful anything could have stopped her at that point. "Comedy is just something that I've always had to do," she says. "From the first time I saw it and figured out what it was, I knew it was going to be my life."

Cho's experience as a comedian has been transformative — a journey from behind-the-scenes self-doubt to confident raunchiness. Over the years Cho has explored belly dance and vaudevillian burlesque in an attempt to find ways to incorporate them into her act.

The latter part of her journey has also seen a physical transformation. Like much of Cho's work, the tattoos that have come to cover almost a fifth of her body over the past five years are more than skin-deep. Just before receiving her first tattoo in December 2005, she described the experience in transcendent — and endearingly earnest — terms:

"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."

click to enlarge PIXIEVISION PRODUCTIONS
  • PixieVision Productions
DOING LINES WITH MARGARET CHO

"And I went through this whole thing, you know. I was like: Am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized I'm just slutty. Where's my parade? What about Slut Pride?"
- I'm the One That I Want, Cho's 1999 off-Broadway one-woman show

"It's time that African-Americans and Korean Americans put aside their differences and focus on what's really important: hating white people!"
- Notorious C.H.O., Cho's 2001 37-city national tour, recorded and released as a film

"In this one show, I said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if the president could say nuclear correctly?' And some woman's like, 'How dare you say that about our president!' And she wrote this petition, it said 'I Hate Margaret Cho' and she had all her friends sign it, and she sent it to me. So I wrote a petition, it said 'Fuck You' and I had all my friends sign it."
- CHO Revolution, Cho's 2003 tour that grossed $4.4 million, was released on DVD and CD, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2003

"I always wonder why Republicans hate gay marriage, because they certainly don't hate gay prostitutes."

AND

"They need to read the scripture, where it says, in Matthew, chapter four, verse 17, it says, 'Shut the fuck up!'"
- State of Emergency, Cho's politically charged 2004 tour that travelled through presidential election swing states that evolved into her 2005 Assassin Tour

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