Michele Balan
Michele Balan

This upfront New Yorker is a whole lot more than just another ‘lesbian comic.’

Before Michele Balan became a standup comic, she was impersonating Bette Midler at gay clubs in New York in the ’70s. While it gave her certain recognition among gays, she wanted more. Fast-forward to 2006 when Balan had the chance to showcase what she’s best at on Last Comic Standing—witty one-liners that poke fun at getting older and being a brash New Yorker.

She’s produced such comedy shows as We’re Still Standing and Women Are F*@&ing Funny but on her bucket list, however, is a guest spot on The Ellen Show, where she says women comics like her would love a chance to grace the stage. You won’t find that here if you’re looking for jokes about lesbian bed death and U-Hauls. But you will find someone who’s unafraid to tell it like it is—who knows that once you label yourself, that’s all you’ll ever be—especially in this biz. She’s made Debra Messing laugh so hard she claimed to pee her pants, and even though Balan has a subscription to AARP, she’s among the many late-in-life comics who hope the next show will still go on.

It doesn’t seem like you’ve pigeonholed your comedy to be just for gays.

Exactly. Even when I do gay events, I just do my comedy. So, my act, even from the very beginning, even though I was a lesbian, was geared toward everybody. I used to take offence when people would call me a “lesbian comic.” What does my sexuality have to do with my career? I mean they never say, We’re going to have a straight comic tonight! Why do you have to say that? Funny is funny.

In your act, is there anything you ever limit yourself from talking about?

I believe that good comedy is based on good observations—human nature—and also I’m very honest about who I am. One thing that people have said is that even though I’m a tough New Yorker, there’s a vulnerability about me because I am honest. I don’t care what I say. As long as I make you laugh, I’ll tell you anything about me—I should try being that honest in relationships [laughs]. The one thing I don’t do: I don’t pretend that I’m straight either. But they wouldn’t know either way. I refer to myself as bicomical. I perform for both gay and straight.

It seems like women comics have been fighting for equality in the spotlight for many years now. What’s your take on that?

Remember the old days with Phyllis Diller and Mom Mabley? All those women were on more late-night shows than we can get on today. Half of those women were on Ed Sullivan a million times; they were on Johnny Carson. And this was 40 years ago and we can’t get on them today. Once in a while, we get on. But if a late-night show uses a woman comedian, they’ll use somebody like Ellen DeGeneres, but they’ll use an unknown guy nobody’s ever heard of…I got lucky and I was asked to do the Tonight Show a couple of times, but of course, they always called me last-minute, and could you believe me: four times I couldn’t do it. I know how to hurt my career [laughs]. I don’t need help! If anybody’s going to sabotage it, it’s going to be me! But I always hear, “Women aren’t funny,” and I think, are you kidding me?

You poke fun at your age a lot. How does that play into being in the entertainment industry as a comic?

Unfortunately, the hardest thing is not only sexism but ageism. The only one doing well is Betty White because she’s 90. And I’m sure if I make it to 90, things will go great for me. So, right now, I’m at that awkward age between 20 and 90. And in this business with women, they either want you to be under 30 or over 90. Seriously. Years ago, especially in standup comedy, like with Totie Fields and when Joan Rivers started, none of them were young. They all started comedy late in life.

How can women change this double standard?

Ellen’s mom Betty DeGeneres, she’s done a couple of cruises I’ve been on, and she’s always been a big fan of mine. And I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t you have your daughter put me on her show?’ I did a show in New York called Women Are F*@&ing Funny, and I put new women comics on. I want to give them a chance. Women should help other women. I just want to be on Ellen once. And meanwhile, I’m just trying to pay my dental bill! (comicbalan.com)