It's been 14 years since Kate Clinton left her job teaching high-school English in upstate New York for a career as a stand-up comedian. But that doesn't mean she's stopped acting like a teacher.
"If somebody is not paying attention in the audience," she noted with a chuckle, "I've been known to turn to the person and say, 'Would you like to share what you were talking about?' You fall back into those really annoying habits."
In many ways, though, Clinton remains an educator: Her humor is topical, political and informative, her delivery rarely pedantic or overbearing. With her low-key personality and thoughtful wit, she might be described as a cerebral Johnny Carson or a folksy Dennis Miller.
She also is something of a pioneer. When she changed careers in '81, she simultaneously came out as a lesbian.
During the '80s, her act was centered largely around lesbian and gay issues. A Clinton show these days touches on a wider array of topics, from the national economy to Robert Dornan's presidential ambitions.
"When I first started," she recalled, "people said, 'Could you do more about politics and less about being a lesbian?' Now I go places and they say, 'Can you talk more about being a lesbian and less about being political?' "
She said she felt more comfortable broadening the scope of her show because of the growing number of outwardly gay comedians today. She realized she had colleagues plying the stand-up field who were presenting positive gay images.
Their achievements have been significant. Last year Bob Smith became the first openly gay comedian to appear on "The Tonight Show," and lesbian comic Suzanne Westenhoefer landed her own HBO special. The outrageously funny Lea DeLaria has also made impressive strides into the mainstream in recent years.
Nevertheless, gay comics still face a relatively formidable road when it comes to gaining national visibility. When Clinton approached HBO about the possibility of doing a special, the cable network informed her that it had tapped out the gay-lesbian market with the Westenhoefer special.
"There's still a lot of work to do," Clinton said.
While some performers loathe labels, Clinton is proud to wear the tag of "lesbian comedian" as well as "fumerist" (a term she coined for a feminist-humorist).
"I could pass as a straight comedian," she said. "I could do boyfriend jokes and use vague pronouns. But now more than ever it's important for me to be identified as a lesbian comedian from a political standpoint.
"I know it's sometimes limiting, and it keeps some people away because they have certain ideas of what it's going to be like or what I'm going to do," she said. "But I choose to see this as a historical process and that I'm very much a part of history."
Clinton still uses some comedy bits from early in her career. One segment, which she terms "de-dyking the apartment," revolves around how some lesbians rearrange their apartments when their parents come over to visit. "It's like 'Oh we can't leave that picture up!' or you turn around all the books that have the word lesbian in the title," she said.
Because Clinton's shows rely heavily on current events, they rarely run the risk of going stale. She says she loves to present material that she's just thought of that day. Her constantly evolving concerts, however, can create occasional onstage confusion.
"I just did a bunch of shows in Boston," said Clinton, now a resident of Provincetown, Mass., "and for the first time in years I completely lost where I was because I had added so much stuff and I shifted things around.
"Usually, I'll ask the audience, 'What was I talking about?' But I was so lost I didn't even think to ask them. That was an indication that I was perhaps tired as well."
A self-described class clown while growing up in upstate New York, Clinton was inspired by her best friend's mother to be a comedian.
"I call her my comic mom," she said. "She would call me up and say, 'Channel 4 right now' and I would turn on Channel 4 and there would be some fabulous comedian like Richard Pryor for the first time on 'Merv Griffin.' She had fabulous comedy albums like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. And I amused her. She was one of my earliest audiences."
After a friend unexpectedly arranged her first gig at a comedy club in 1981, Clinton found a home performing for predominantly lesbian audiences around the country. By the mid-'80s she had expanded her following to include gay men. Now her audiences also include a good percentage of heterosexuals.
Clinton, who is working on her first comedy book and is preparing her fifth comedy album, clearly is encouraged by her more diverse following and the diverse perspectives it brings to her shows.
"What's so great about comedy is I write a line and I think it's funny, and then someone else hears it in a completely different way," said Clinton, who sometimes wears a shirt with "Hilarity Clinton" splashed across it. "You realize that people are laughing for all different reasons, which is kind of an interesting utopian moment when all these different opinions can be one."
* Kate Clinton performs tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.