By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Lisa Lampanelli says dreadful and appalling things for a living. She shamelessly machine-guns racial and ethnic groups, and regularly sticks it to gays, women and "retards."
She is a cartoon of unsuppressed hatreds and unmedicated hostilities. She's also as foul-mouthed as a Marine.
People love her for it.
Like her idol, Don Rickles, Lampanelli has elevated -- probably the wrong verb -- insult and shock to its own kind of comic art. At the moment, the 47-year-old Lampanelli is the hottest female stand-up comic not named Sarah Silverman, and a budding conglomerate. Within the past year, "the Queen of Mean" has sold out both Radio City and Carnegie Hall on an endless comedy tour (tonight, she rolls into Washington for two shows at the Warner Theatre).
Next Saturday, HBO will air her first stand-up special ("Long Live the Queen"); the network is also developing a series with her. Her autobiography ("Chocolate, Please," a reference to Lampanelli's fondness for dating black men) arrives later this year. And so, too, might a Broadway show she's co-writing.
Like Rickles, Lampanelli's paint-peeling persona is partly well-honed shtick and partly an extension of her personality. It's just that it's hard to know which is which.
"What kind of name is that?" she asks, by way of greeting during a phone interview.
What kind of name does she think it is?
Lampanelli tries out several possibilities, all of them accompanied by a different foul-mouthed barrage. Nope. Wrong. Told the actual derivation, she doesn't hesitate. More bile.
Nice to meet you, too.
"I call myself an insult comic," she says. "I take no pride in being called a comedian. I like 'insult comic' because nobody can [bleeping] do it."
It's a delicate balancing act, really, she says. Years of performing have taught Lampanelli how far she can push things, when she can mash down on the accelerator and when to take her foot off. Plus, people know what they're getting when they pay $40 to see her. Nowadays, very few people walk out of her shows, and her hate mail is down to a trickle.
"I'm freakin' lovable, and everyone likes me!" she blusters. "So shove it."
In more contemplative moments, Lampanelli reflects that her audience gets the lack of malice behind her words, that she's playing a character. They relate to her self-deprecation, too, such as her frequent jokes about her low standards in men.
"I've gotten a few fan letters that put it really well," she says. "They like how [my act] brings everyone to the same level, how it shows we're really exactly all alike and how it defuses language, like Lenny Bruce did. The words have no meaning by the end of the night. It really takes the anger out of those words. It takes the stereotype out of them."
Real hate, she says, doesn't play well. Which is why "I only make fun of the people I really like."
Like another comic icon, the late George Carlin, Lampanelli went to Catholic schools and grew up in a voluble household of five. ("We were total rage-aholics. It was just insane.") Her father was a contract negotiator for Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut who retired early and became a painter. Lampanelli's comic inspiration is her mother, a genteel and often clueless bigot.
Once, when the family had a Jewish guest at their house, Lampanelli's mother inquired as to whether the gentleman was a jeweler or a furrier -- the only professions she associated with Jews (he was neither). More recently, Mrs. Lampanelli was asked by an interviewer if she wanted her daughter to marry again (Lampanelli is divorced). Her reply: Yes, of course, as long as he's white.
"I always kind of use her voice for a lot of things because she's very entertaining and amusing," Lampanelli says. "With some of my jokes, I even hear her voice, which cracks me up. Look! I'm yelling just like my mother. It's hilarious." (Lampanelli says both parents are fans of her work, except for her riffs about having sex with black men.)
After graduating from Syracuse University, Lampanelli worked as a journalist, bouncing from a newspaper job in Connecticut to positions at Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics and Spy, the late satirical magazine. But she tired of the work. She considered becoming a schoolteacher, but she found that she enjoyed being behind a microphone during weekend gigs as a party DJ. She was 30 when she tried stand-up.
Her big breakthrough, perhaps not surprisingly, came after she appeared on a series of celebrity roasts (Chevy Chase, Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Gene Simmons, etc.) that were televised by Comedy Central starting in 2002. The format -- a few minutes of withering slams -- was perfect for Lampanelli, much as it had been for Rickles in the Dean Martin roasts of the 1970s.
Soon, she was appearing on "The Tonight Show" and semi-regularly on Howard Stern's radio program while graduating from clubs to theater dates. Outside of a short list of women -- Ellen DeGeneres, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Silverman -- she is one of the few female comics able to fill a large venue. She plays dozens and dozens of dates a year. "The only time I feel 100 percent present and 100 percent alive and 100 percent me is when I'm onstage," she says.
Some of Lampanelli's appeal surely owes to the fact that she defies cultural expectations. "It's much more shocking to hear a woman saying what she does than a man," says Allyson Jaffe, the manager and part-owner of the DC Improv comedy club. "It's just really surprising. That's why she's playing 800-seat theaters instead of smaller clubs. You just don't expect women to say those things."
Lampanelli recognizes this, and plays off it. A few years ago, after auditioning for a TV commercial while wearing a prim outfit, she rushed off to a club date without changing. The audience's reaction surprised her. "They were going nuts," she says. It was a lesson in comic contrasts. Ever since, Lampanelli has cultivated "a June Cleaver look," with very feminine dresses that she has custom-made.
Not that she wants to be known as a "comedienne" or anything so delicate. "I kind of almost have a male approach to comedy," Lampanelli says. "If you took any of [my material], a guy could do those jokes. The reason women comics suck is, they do chick jokes, they do chick humor. And, really, does a guy want to pay to hear some [female-specific expletive] moaning and groaning about the things women talk about onstage? No. If he really wants to hear that he can stay home and his wife won't charge him."
That's the kind of tough-broad talk that defines Lampanelli's onstage character. But it probably doesn't entirely define her.
Lampanelli doesn't let the world see it, of course, but there's a tender substrata just beneath the truck driver exterior. About two years ago, in an interview with this newspaper, she spoke about how much she'd sacrificed for her career -- all the years of living out of a suitcase, the lonely nights in crummy clubs, the loss of family life.
And then, overcome by it all, the Queen of Mean did something really shocking. She broke down and sobbed.