Forget the whole sad man behind the happy face, because Charlie Ballard isn't a sad man. No, he's not clownish either, but he is funny and has been funny for a long time. (His mom told me so.)
You see, Charlie Ballard is a comedian. A Native comedian. A gay Native comedian. Yah, I know, maybe you're thinking…lots of bitter politico-socio-in-your-face kinda stuff; a gay Mort Sahl or Indian Richard Pryor.
No, not that either. He has other aspirations.
"One of my main goals is to be on television so I can hook up with some groupies," he laughs. "I figure the more guys that see my face on the tube, my dating pool will expand."
Yep, Charlie Ballard, gay Anishnabe/Sac/Fox and a little bit of Cherokee comedian who hails from San Francisco, is neither sad, clownish nor bitter. But funny he is; often irreverent and utterly at ease celebrating his gayness and Indianness; a comfort that makes some people squirm. And that's okay too. What's most important to Charlie is keeping his integrity while keeping folks laughing.
"If it's one thing I won't do in Hollywood, it's sell out my Native culture," he says, "You won't see me war whooping around in my regalia trying to sell cheeseburgers for Burger King. I don't care how tasty their cheeseburgers are. The main problem with Hollywood is that they still keep American Indian roles living in the western and 1492 genres. I don't know why they think we can't play doctors, lawyers, esteemed businessmen, or President of the U.S.A. without an arrow flying by."
It's this kind of honesty that defines the comedy of Charlie Ballard. Influenced by Margaret Cho and Paul Mooney among others, this 33-year-old jumped headlong into standup after graduating from Haskell University in 2003 with a degree in American Indian Studies. This wasn't a lifelong passion, not something he ever thought about making into a career.
But as most things in life, Charlie found his calling; and four years later he's performing before gays, Natives, and white bread Americans. After all, funny is funny—even when it picks on the PC crowd. And it works. He was a semi-finalist in NBC's 2005 "Stand Up for Diversity" competition and has no problem booking gigs in the piranha infested ponds of L.A. and New York.
He's refined a routine that's edgy not angry; ethnic and sexual without being polarizing or crude. Not easy; especially with the entrenched expectations that define a "gay Native comedian." Boring, he says.
"We live in a politically correct time and people are easily offended… I really enjoy writing jokes on that premise (of being gay and Indian) but everyone tends to box me into that category as if that's the only thing funny about me. I believe I'm here for everybody. I want to be a good role model, and there are some things I just won't joke about."
How does he, we wonder, pull this off? How can he possibly walk the line of being a positive role model while still prodding polite sensibilities?
Let's be real; being "nice" ain't hilarious.
That's simple—Charlie isn't always so "nice." He does outrage some, not with a sledgehammer, but with a wink and a smile; jokes about smallpox and circling wagons and sexually provocative humor. Funny is as funny says, and you find yourself laughing even when the subject alludes to Manifest Destiny.
"…If I do make it in show business, great, just know I'm going to make it on my terms. And if I don't, no big deal. The only difference between me and those others making jokes is that when this is all over, I'll still have my dignity intact."
That's Charlie Ballard. The blissfully well-adjusted gay Native. Who, by the way is irreverent and funny and has been for a very long time. Just ask his mom.