Out comedian Michele Balan talks about how her life and times have changed

By : Lauren Lee
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Michele Balan was the last lesbian comedian left standing on “Last Comic Standing” in 2006, and has appeared on “Where are they Now?,” “Comics Unleashed” and “The Joy Behar Show.” Life has been constant travel for the self-described “bi-comical” entertainer, as for the past seven years, she has been consistently packing, unpacking and repacking some more for comedy shows on popular cruise ships.

Balan said that every time she was about to quit comedy, something came her way. She worked temporary and bartending jobs and had to overcome many financial and cultural obstacles to get to where she is now. She says she feels lucky to be working every week and making a living doing something she has a passion for, whether that’s performing on cruise ships or for LGBTQ audiences in comedy clubs.

Balan will appear alongside Poppy Champlin and Jeff Jones for “Queer Queens of Qomedy” at the Orlando Improv on Feb. 17, a noted change of pace for the comic who will spend most of the next month performing back-to-back shows on cruise ships. Watermark spoke with the entertainer ahead of her landlocked show.

WATERMARK: We spoke in 2006 after you finished “Last Comic Standing.” How has your life changed since then?

MICHELE BALAN: I got old. I’m tired more, it’s great. That, mostly, and right now—for seven or eight years—I’ve been doing a lot of cruise ships. One after another: Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, I do all the regulars. Every week I’m somewhere doing a ship here, there and everywhere. It’s a lot of packing and traveling. I just got home last night; I was supposed to get home yesterday but spent an extra day on the ship. I leave again on Saturday with three ships in a row. It’s great, but you come home and unpack, go to the doctor and then pack again. In all honesty, it’s a beautiful thing that I’m working.

Are you looking forward to the change of pace with your Orlando show with Poppy?

That’s why I’m excited to do this thing with Poppy. I haven’t done a club in so long. Poppy is phenomenal. She’s a good friend of mine and we haven’t seen each other in years, but I saw her years ago in LA. I do a lot of ships out of Port Canaveral. I haven’t spent time in Orlando, when I was there I liked it though. It’s going to be a lot of fun doing the “Queer Queens of Qomedy.” I haven’t been there in so long and I love the gay audience, I mean I like all audiences—that’s why I say I’m bi-comical.

From your perspective, how have comedy and society changed since you first got into the business?

I’m finding now that on a lot of the regular cruises, I see a lot of gay couples holding hands. As a matter of fact, there were two women … a dancer and a singer from the cast that got married. There was a big party on the ship and the two beautiful women were dressed in white dresses, it was amazing. I see a lot of how the world has changed since I was last in Watermark. The world is way more open now. When I see these young girls on cruises holding hands, I do a double take. When I was younger, you just didn’t do that. This is unbelievable that gay women and gay men are holding hands and they are just so comfortable now. Most passengers are completely okay with it. Some are not, I mean, look who our president is.

What was it like when you were younger?

You know, I really am so proud that things have changed. In the old days you couldn’t even see a comedy show at a comedy club, you had to go somewhere in the field hidden behind the trees. I’m Jewish and didn’t do tents, but everything was hidden. I certainly hid who I was. I’m more open now, but because I grew up with that, I still have remnants of that time, so it’s still slightly uncomfortable. When you grow up like that it’s hard to change. When I was young, we didn’t have gay people on TV. Now, every show has to have a gay character or it’ll fail. It’s a whole different world.

How did performing at the local gay bars and comedy clubs back when you started shape you?

I remember I was bartending and I had to quit my corporate career to do this … and the producers of Sally Jessy Raphael were at the bar and they asked if I wanted to do their show. This was before the Ellen thing, and they wanted a lesbian to break the stereotype and I said no. I didn’t want to restrict my career into just doing gay comedy. I started late in life and I’m making a living in comedy. It’s the passion and now I’m here. I guess it’s a success story.

What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career as a comedian?

When it got out that I was gay, every show I got offered was ‘oh we’re doing a gay show,’ or comedy clubs where it was ‘oh we’re doing a woman show.’ Mostly it’s just straight man, straight man, straight man and once in a blue moon they’ll throw a woman in-between. It was like, “I’m a lesbian and I’m sick and can’t come to work today,” that’s the way people saw it. In the long run, they couldn’t hold me anyway. I’m one of the few women comedians on cruise ships. People come up to me and say ‘wow, I haven’t seen a woman comic here,’ and it’s 2019. I’m their girl comic. I’m different; I’m not the same person talking about the same shit as everyone else. It’s hard being a woman anything, especially a woman comedian. The hard thing is being a woman and then being older—well you might as well forget it. There’s sexism and ageism working against you. A comedian must have experience. I can talk about Facebook and a rotary phone.

What are some of your favorite topics to cover?

I do a lot about getting old and I’m very honest. The thing about doing comedy is doing things that mean something to you, not just jokes. When I’m on the cruise ships I make fun of the cruise, I can’t believe they haven’t fired me yet. I make fun of everything on the damn ship. You know what, I complain about everything because I’m Jewish, so I complain that I’m not doing this or that, the Netflix specials and everything. On the other side I work every week and I’m making a living. I got to be lucky for what I have and I’m very happy and I don’t want to do anything else.

What recent events have you done where you thought “Wow, what a career”?

I had met Camryn [Manheim] when I was on “Last Comic Standing,” and she was a very big fan of mine. She goes, “Michele, I’m a big fan, and I said, “You’re Camryn Manheim. You love me? I love you!” Afterward, she was having her 50th birthday party and she wrote to me and said, “Please, I need you to perform at my party.” I got there and it was a big, big event. I even have a video of it that I use as a promo for my shows. Every celebrity in the world was there and on stage, all these big names on the brochure, and then Michele Balan. I’m sure people were like, “who the fuck is Michele Balan?” I was so nervous, and I did it, so then I have a video of all these people telling me how phenomenal I am.

What’s next for you?

Well now I’m doing cruises and at first, I didn’t want to do cruises, because that’s where careers go to die. But let me be honest, I have been on ships where I have been absolutely blown away by talent and I go why am I here? People think cruise ships are dead and I tell them there are so many people that were on cruise ships. I have seen the best singers, the best dancers, the best pianists. I’m blown away. After this year, I’m going to slow down. I may move to Florida, get something inexpensive. I love the gigs, but traveling is tiring. You don’t see your friends and you have to squeeze so much into the time. I don’t know how I do it sometimes. One day they’re going to find me dead lying on a pier. I just got home last night, and I go all crazy because I have to do this and that in about five days, so slowing down would be nice.

Michele Balan, Poppy Champlin and Jeff Jones will all be performing live for “Queer Queens Qomedy” at the Orlando Improv on Feb. 17 at 4:00 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission. VIP tickets are $40 and include preferred seating, a meet-and-greet with the comedians before the show and a performance by members of the Orlando Gay Chorus. For tickets and more information visit TheImprovOrlando.com.

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