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An Outsider Creates Her Own Way In

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Tonight Show” is off-limits. “Late Night” won’t touch her. Yet during her annual cross-country tour, Lea DeLaria--considered one of the country’s top lesbian humorists--regularly draws audiences of up to 2,000 people.

So while mainstream comedy venues continue to ostracize her, DeLaria, 34, has built a substantial following of both gay and straight, male and female audiences through shows at gay pride rallies, alternative performance spaces, and college and lesbian cultural circuits.

Along the way, she’s been featured on “20/20,” numerous radio programs and an all-female sketch comedy series, “The World According to Us,” on Boston’s PBS station. On Thursday, DeLaria, who is based in Boston, brings her latest show to Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica for four nights.

“I started doing this kind of comedy because I really wanted to change things--to bring the gay and straight communities together and maybe, for some, be a role model,” says DeLaria. “When I was growing up I was terrified to tell anyone I was gay. I try to give my shows a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ feeling.”

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Her uninhibited act, which changes every year and runs about 70 minutes, combines jazz and blues singing, audience participation, manic improvisation and stand-up comedy. In it, DeLaria, who’s been known to perform in a pink taffeta gown and army boots, uses humor to talk about the lesbian experience and preconceived social stigmas surrounding homosexuality.

“We’re getting more acceptability, although people are still extremely homophobic,” says DeLaria. “I think it’s ironic that you can’t do anti-Semitic or racist humor, but make gay remarks and no one says anything. How would the ‘In Living Color’ people like it if I shuffled across the stage in blackface and ate a watermelon? The oldest trick in the system is to put down other groups once yours gets some power.”

DeLaria started her comedy training while growing up in an Italian Catholic family in Belleville, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis.

“Childhood was a nightmare,” she says. “My town was ultraconservative, and here I am the littlest bull dyke. I survived it by going to Catholic school. It’s the best training ground for comics--it also helped me with my lesbianism.

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“My favorite nun was Sister Richard Marine--I swear, that was her real name. She was 6 feet,9 inches tall and weighed about 395 pounds--she was like Dick Butkus in drag. All the kids were terrified of her, except for me. I thought she was gorgeous.”

In 1980, DeLaria moved to San Francisco, where she found some success as a local actress and playwright. Two years later, she attempted stand-up comedy during amateur night at a night club catering to gays and lesbians and found her niche.

Her act has brought as many obstacles as followers.

One Maine performance drew opposition by the busful. “I’m used to seeing protesters, but not ones that put my name on the signs. It was a little unnerving: ‘Lea DeLaria is going to hell.’ ”

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That kind of reaction makes television executives nervous.

“Lea has the kind of outrageous, in-your-face style that’s reminiscent of Sam Kinison or the way Bobcat Goldthwait used to be,” says Barbara Gaines, the associate producer of “Late Night With David Letterman.” “And those guys had a very hard time gaining acceptance.”

Still, DeLaria is warmed by emerging pockets of acceptance. “I doubt Jesse Helms will come running to my show, but the fact that the mainstream press is calling me tells me there is some kind of attitude that is changing,” she says.

DeLaria performs Thursday-Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (213) 660-8587.

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