SAN FRANCISCO – “As an American Indian I feel like an endangered species. I do. I told that to one of my friends and he said ‘I didn’t know fat gay guys are in danger.’”
After many years of hard work, comedian Charlie Ballard, Sac and Fox/Anishinaabe, is starting to headline and play colleges. He was recently featured on LOGO TV, and has appeared in numerous showcases and festivals. He hopes this attention will lead to a shot at stardom.
Born in 1974 and raised in the Bay Area, Ballard was not immersed in Native culture until he was 14 and went to a Native American boarding school.
“I think I always knew I was gay, just being very flamboyant when I was a little kid, screaming around the yard,” Ballard said. “Being gay really didn’t come into play, growing up here in Oakland, I just couldn’t find any other kids I could relate to. A friend of the family said their kid attended Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif. So I took a chance, and that’s where I found other people like me and that’s when it became an issue. They just kept putting it in my face, like ‘You’re obviously in the closet, so you should just come out.’ With the support of some friends I finally did, and I came out to my mom when I was about 17. Of course, all parents know, and she was very supportive.”
Ballard said it was after leaving high school that he started having problems. “That’s when I started college, but I just couldn’t find my niche, I started dropping out of schools and that’s when I started drinking and partying.
“By the time I turned 23 I had to decide what it was going to be, partying or school, so I sobered up and concentrated on school. I went back to Haskell in 1997 and basically started over. I got my bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies in 2003.”
Aside from going to only one comedy club in the ’90s, Ballard wasn’t a huge fan or student of standup comedy at first. “It never crossed my mind that this is what I should be doing – it was just a night out.
“Eight years down the road, when I’m finishing school I asked myself if there was one thing I could do in life that would make me happy and it went off like a light – standup comedy. I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t realize that here at home – San Francisco was a good place to start, as the city has a rich tradition of creating great comedians.
“The first place I went to was The Punch Line in San Francisco. I showed up like ‘Hello, I’m here, when do I start telling jokes?’ And they explained that there was a whole system to breaking into the club. They told me to go to open mics, learn how to be funny, and work my way into it, and that’s what I did. I hung out with other aspiring comedians, told jokes to strangers, and all kinds of people, riff raff, tourists, somebody just passing through looking for a cup of coffee – anyone who would listen. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I’ve been doing this since 2003.”
All comedians have their heroes who first gave them inspiration. Ballard found his when he was young, watching “Beverly Hills Cop.”
“The first person to knock my socks off was Eddie Murphy, I saw his concert film, ‘Raw,’ when I was 12 years old, and it was so funny, and he was so in your face, and he swore. … his stage presence. For a long time after that I tried to watch other standup comedians and nobody did it for me. Then Sam Kinison hit and I was really into him for awhile. Then there was Margaret Cho in 1992, I just fell in love with her.”
When asked about how he put his ethnicity into his routine, Ballard said it was easy. “Just being Native American myself, I definitely have an urban Indian point of view. I have had probably 99 percent support from Native Americans. My first big show was for the Native American Health clinic, The Electric Pow Wow, in 2004. I did five minutes and I blew them away.
“My show is very adult orientated, and I’ve been labeled ‘controversial,’ but I rather think of myself as ‘progressive.’ I’m going to talk about what I’m interested in. There’s no reason to try to convince you to laugh if I’m not into it. I don’t think of myself as unique. Not all gay Indians are on stage, but they are out there in your life; they are a part of your community, and you are a part of ours. If anything, I think I just bring more visibility to the topic, and that’s a great thing.”