Less Rage, More Reflection: An Interview With Lisa Lampanelli 


Lisa Lampanelli has a new comedy special, and it’s less about fucking black guys—a big part of Lampanelli’s schtick—and more about her personal struggles: Turning 50, getting a divorce, living through both bariatric surgery and taking up yoga. Sporting an edgy haircut (think Suze Ormond at a punk show) and tight jeans instead of the flowing skirts she’s worn in comedy specials before, Lampanelli spends the set talking about why it’s hard to see herself naked in the mirror—no one her age, she says, should be seen outside of their clothes—and how she feels about Bill Cosby and Honey Boo Boo’s mother. Her racial jokes, still present, seem almost perfunctory—a way to keep the audience focused on the old while she slips in the new.

The title of Lampanelli’s special, premiering Friday night on Epix, is Back to the Drawing Board, and it does seem like a new beginning or at least a moderate evolution. Fans of Lampanelli’s older work are likely to be surprised by the show’s storytelling as well as its liberal political message. Those tuning in to see Lampanelli spout off racial epithet after racial epithet might be disappointed by how infrequently the comedian throws down a “chink” or a “dirty Jew” during the hour-long set. But that’s okay, Lampanelli says, when we talk on the phone. She’s never going to change her act based on what anyone thinks.

Were you trying to show the audience a different facet of yourself by talking more openly about your own life?

Yes. I think I need to really show them who I am in order for them to feel better about themselves. I feel like I’ve been asked a lot of questions over the last few years about the weight loss and weight struggles and about divorce and relationships and I’m like, You know what? I’m going to put out there what I’m been thinking about and working on and seeing if it could affect somebody else.

You mention in the special that the first thing people say to you now is “Lisa Lampanelli, you must be so thrilled about your new look!”

It is kind of cute when people say that. I do like the way I look—from the neck down in clothes—and that’s pretty much how everybody sees me anyway, so that’s fine. Thank God nobody sees me naked, as you know.

You talk about your divorce, the weight loss, you’re off sugar, you’re doing a yoga retreat. This is all new territory. You told Yahoo that audiences stopped giving you standing ovations with your old material in the end of 2013.

No, I said they started giving me standing Os. They started giving them to me as I sort of revealed more about myself.

Oh, okay.

The more I wrote material about me that was also funny and insulting and all that stuff, I don’t know, there was some intangible thing that made them just jump up. Maybe they felt more like we knew each other.

In this special I noticed that when you went on the attack, you were attacking certain people and certain groups like the Westboro Church—as opposed to attacking large groups of people based on their ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Do you think that’s something you’ve changed based on criticism or something that’s natural?

No, because obviously you’ve heard my list of gay slurs, you’ve heard me call a black guy 12 Years a Slave. I kind of never change for anybody. I’m self-employed and I can’t get fined, fired, or called into human resources so I don’t really change. I just was like, well, the funniest jokes are evolving, and I’m just putting the funniest stuff in. It’s all still fodder for me. Nothing’s off limits and I think talking about date rape and that raper Bill Cosby and Honey Boo Boo’s mom dating that pedophile…

Oh, man…

Yeah, I think that’s just as edgy as talking about race and all that. And that stuff is sprinkled in, too. It’s just a little more even now.

When I heard the race stuff in this special, it felt a little bit more perfunctory. Like that’s how you get people to listen and then you move into your stories about weight loss and such.

I wish it was that well thought out. I’m just an idiot who says whatever comes to their mind. It’s seriously not science. I don’t plot it out, but I’m going to steal that and say I do, because it makes me sound much more intelligent than I probably am. I just have fun with it and usually hit on most of these groups in the audience a little bit, hit on a couple celebrities that I think are pretty awful, and then spend the rest of the time on myself. Which is how how it should be for me.

I don’t know if you follow Margaret Cho, but she seems to have a similar arc: she started out with hardcore comedy and then started sneaking in some of this really personal, serious stuff into it. Recently, I read that you wanted to move towards doing humorous motivational speaking.

Yeah. I want to sort of sneak in the message through the back door, no gay pun intended. I saw a drag queen—I wish I could remember her name—and she had such a beautiful message about acceptance but I didn’t notice it till I left because she was so funny. That’s why, any time I can slip a little something in there, I go, okay, you know what? Even if just a few people hear it, that’s okay. Like talking about positive self-talk instead of negative self-talk or goofing on the yoga retreats. It’s bringing to light what I think is kind of important, but in a humorous way.

Was it uncomfortable doing that kind of stuff after coming from insult comedy?

I think the first couple stories were where I go, “Oh my God, I hope they listen,” but then I notice—wait a minute, I have punchlines all throughout the stories. They’re diluted enough for the audience to think it’s not a story, they’re just hearing jokes, so that’s good. After a couple months it was like, okay, as long as there’s punchlines every few seconds, I’m cool.

How many people are surprised coming to a Lisa Lampanelli show and hearing this kind of stuff?

Not a lot of people. They probably out loud wouldn’t say, oh, you know, I’m going to positive self-talk myself. I’m going to look in a mirror, I’m going to say it’s okay you have a big ass. Love yourself the way you are. But maybe it will fester in their mind a little bit.

I want to do a special in three more years called Spiritual Gangster where I talk more about self-growth and the spirituality that I’m experimenting with that’ll have more to do with this journey. I think I could be a little more message-oriented but with humor. This is the first step to doing something like that.

Yeah. It might be that I was watching it and looking for changes but I noticed immediately that there was a message. It was refreshing and new.

Yay! Well that’s because you’re probably smarter than your average straighty.

You could tell I’m gay right away, huh?

Duh, girl, come on.

In the past, you’ve been criticized as racist. The biggest headlines came out in 2013 when Lena Dunham…

Oh, I know. You guys, you, Jezebel, you couldn’t jump on that fast enough.

What was that like reading that?

Which part?

The fact that people were criticizing you for it and the fact that Lena Dunham didn’t stand up for you.

Listen, I would be lying to you if I pulled some “I don’t care, it didn’t matter to me” BS. I was depressed for a month. I went to Canyon Ranch. You know what, I feel very brave saying this, because you’re the first person I said it to. I thought it was very brave when James Franco bombed at the Oscars and then said he went and hid for a week in New Haven, CT. I’m telling the truth. I was so bummed out because I was misunderstood.

One of my hot buttons in life has always been that I’m not understood. People don’t get me as a human. But, oh my god—nobody really gets that I have a great heart, or whatever. I didn’t care that Lena Dunham didn’t say anything, because it’s not her job. I don’t care. That’s her life; she’s cool. I have no problem with her. But I was so sad that a lot of people who were formerly fans now weren’t. It was more sad than anything else.

On Howard Stern, I even said I was sad that Wendy Williams was mad at me. But I wasn’t mad. I had nothing to be mad at. I didn’t take it back. I didn’t apologize. I was glad when it blew over, but I went to Canyon Ranch and my whole week there, I was ruined. I was so tired and depressed and I was like, okay, this too shall pass. That’s all you have to tell yourself.

And does it?

Oh, God. Within about a month, somebody asks you about it and you’re like, yeah, I was able to work through it. You can tell the truth. I think the more you tell the truth, the better.

You refused to apologize. Did you ever feel like you should have?

No. Three days after the incident, I looked up comics. I literally googled comics who have never apologized for a joke, and this list of 15 comics came up who were my heroes. I’m like, Oh, I like being in that group.

But if I honestly did something where I really hurt somebody’s feelings, I’ll be like, I take it back. Wendy Williams was really hurt by what I said and she confessed that to me on air and I think she actually looked really hurt. She didn’t have tears in her eyes, but she was real quiet and I said, “If it hurt anybody’s feelings, I take it back.” We hugged and I almost cried.

We’re not here to hurt anybody. If, tomorrow, you said, “I was really hurt because Lisa called me a dirty faggot,” I’d probably be like, “Oh man. I’m sorry about that, dude. I thought you knew I was joking around because it’s a phone call.” But if you’re in the audience and I go “Hey dirty faggot,” then honey, you bought a ticket. That’s what you’re paying for.

Do you think as your fans grow older, they’re also evolving into this idea of, “We want less of that, it was funny, it’s still funny, but it’s not our thing anymore”?

I think if you let a fan or two dictate what you do, then you’re screwed. Because who do you listen to? I’ll get a bunch of fan mail going “more insults” and other ones going “I like more stories.” If you try to please everyone you’re screwed.

You know who I like to say that I’m like? I’m like Cher. You know what Cher said? She said “I answer to two people, myself and God.” I’m not sure if there’s a God so I only answer to myself.

In terms of the racist jokes, you’ve said it’s a character you play when you’re on stage. Does that defense change at all now that the character you’re playing on stage is less the lovable “Queen of Mean” who’s here to insult everybody and more “It’s me, Lisa Lampanelli, showing you some of the ugly stuff that I’ve been through”?

Yeah. I think I’m more real in my daily life, whether it’s boring to other people or not. I’ve never been super jokey around in real life, to be honest. I’ve never been that person who likes parties. I hate small talk. I don’t go to a lot of premieres and openings because I don’t know what to say to anyone. I’m always feeling insecure and out of place and I don’t belong. In my real life I like being nicer and saying thank you and please and not yelling at the hotel clerk.

I used to be a raging maniac, then I decided I wasn’t going to yell at people off stage and it changed everything. People got closer to me. I was able to get better feelings into every day life. I don’t even worry about what I tell anyone. If people are sitting around sharing stuff, whether it’s a therapy group or a retreat, I jump right in with my sad stories of woe and then everybody feels like they can all talk, too.

When I fucked up with my recorder earlier in the phone call, I thought you’d swear me out and then never talk to me again and you have been so incredibly nice. It’s not what I expected.

Oh my God, of course. That’d be really effed up if I did that. You know? I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

It’d be a good story.

You know what it’d be? It’d be The Apprentice Lisa but with no excuse because I got sleep last night.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Epix/YouTube

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