Outrageous stereotypes — of race, gender, religion and sexual preference — dominate Lisa Lampanelli’s act, but what she savages above all is bigotry itself. At the end of every night, the “Queen of Mean” comedian reminds her audience that real haters can’t be fans. An outspoken supporter of gay rights, she once pledged to donate $1,000 for every protester when a right-wing hate group threatened to picket her show. Forty-eight showed up, and she told TMZ, “I won’t quibble. I’ll make it an even $50,000.”
Inspired by a love for Dean Martin celebrity roasts, the 50-year-old Lampanelli entered comedy late in life. Her big break came in 2002 when she appeared at a Friar’s Club roast of Chevy Chase. She’s done several since, and served as Roastmaster at Larry The Cable Guy’s 2009 Comedy Central fête.
Recently, she appeared on Celebrity Apprentice, finishing in the final four and raising $130,000 for her favorite charity, Gay Men’s Health Crisis. After years of struggling with weight issues, Lampanelli and her husband Jimmy Cannizarro had gastric sleeve surgery last spring; she’s lost 52 pounds so far. In June, when Adam Carolla took heat for saying “dudes are funnier than chicks,” she defended him – even though his explanation riffed her routine: “When you’re picking a basketball team, you’ll take the brother over the guy with the yarmulke.”
Lampanelli spoke with the Hippo from her home in New York.
First of all, it’s very gracious of you to let Adam Carolla steal part of your act.
Oh, I love him! Literally, he and Penn Jillette were the reasons I got through Celebrity Apprentice.
You agreed with Carolla, saying your top 100 comic list only has three women — who, and why?
I love Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman. Joan Rivers is iconic, so of course she’s in there. But yeah, there’s very few. I like women who can do comedy guys can do, not “woman” comedy. Like, I don’t want to hear about your period, or your shopping habit or your husband and he’s this or that. Typical woman stuff, I hate. But those chicks keep it real, so that’s who I’ll go to see.
What made you think you’d succeed?
I always listened to what the audience found funny, because that’s what I found funny. I found it funny to make fun of people, and I loved Rickles and the roast personality. I would listen to the cassette tape of my show in the car on the way home and say, “I’m laughing at that section.” If I’m really laughing at that and the audience isn’t offended, that’s what I’m going with. I started doing comedy late enough — 30 years old — that I already knew what I was doing already.
Before you were a comic, you worked at Rolling Stone magazine. Did that experience shape your style at all?
No, but it did help me promote myself. It’s two different art forms, but when you can’t afford a publicist and you’re doing your first 10 years of comedy without any money, it really helps to be able to write a good press release. My training in media savvy as a writer helped me publicize myself.
You also worked for Spy magazine. What was that like?
It was so intimidating because every person there was a Harvard grad; I’d gotten my job because I’d done a Harvard program called the Radcliffe Procedures Course, which was a big deal to get into. But I was this person who didn’t know what I was doing, and they said, ‘You’re chief of research.’ Oh, my God! So I legitimately felt like such a loser. But 10 years ago they did a Spy coffee table book and interviewed us all. When I said I was intimidated, the editor told me everyone said the same thing; that it was so weird to walk in and feel like the stupidest person there. Everybody felt it, because it was so heightened, such a high-end publication that we all felt we didn’t belong.
It must have felt good to be a part of it.
Yes, and at Rolling Stone, places that mattered. I was at Us Magazine before it was US Weekly, when it was a good magazine. I’m not saying it’s bad now, but it’s shifted to total celebrity tabloid stuff. So it’s kind of like wow, back then it was very selective … there were no New Jersey housewives on the cover.
You have a Broadway show coming up. What can people expect?
With a one-person show, you really need a story arc. Billy Crystal did 700 Sundays, about his relationship with his father. I have his writer helping me write my show, and it really is a story, but it resembles my standup in that it’s still funny. It definitely has moments about my life and my struggle, but without belaboring it. I always say to my hardcore fans, don’t worry; we’ll gloss over the crying part real quick. But there will be enough substance so that people will know … why I am this way. There’s a lot about men and food — the things I’ve always been obsessed with.
It’s an extension of your book?
You recently had a gastric sleeve procedure and lost 50 pounds. Was it a difficult decision to do surgery?
No, because I knew the time was right after 32 years of struggling with it. We bought a place in Canyon Ranch, the healthiest place in the world, and I gained weight there. Life’s too short to not be able to look in a mirror and like what you see, and also have potential health risks that are really bad … it was the easiest thing I ever did, but now it’s hard. Two ounces of food six times a day — that’s tiny.
Let’s talk about funny stuff: Have you added any new names to your worthless person roast list?
Not yet, but we’ll need to add Sandusky, Tom and Katie, Travolta, anybody who’s in the news will be there next time.
Do you ever feel like there’s a target that’s off limits, or is everything fair game?
Oh, no. Everyone’s equal — if you make fun of one minority, better make fun of all of them. You’re pretty racist if you don’t. I always felt like leaving somebody out is the biggest insult of all. So no one’s off limits, but the only people I have trouble making fun of are the people who’ve been nice to me. If I met someone at a party and then they do something stupid, I feel kind of douche-y making fun of them later. But you know what? If the joke’s funny, I’m gonna have to say it.
That didn’t help Donald Trump at all.
Well, the Trump thing was great because he added me to Celebrity Apprentice after his roast, because he loved the roast so much. I thought, hey — if he can invite me on the show, if he can take it, screw it. Everybody else can too.
Have you ever regretted backlash or felt powerful people like Sarah Palin putting you in their sights?
I don’t think so. …. Sheri Shepherd hates me and has called me racist on The View but Whoopi always defends me and says it’s comedy. She made fun of everything and loves that kind of humor. So I don’t think anybody powerful or smart has — because Sheri Shepherd is neither. But that’s really the only person I’ve heard of who’s a douche to me.
Have you ever met someone who didn’t get your act, who said something like, ‘Hey, you want to help Kickstart my Jewish conspiracy book?’
Yes, but not any more because I talk about it at the end now. But before they’d come up and say, those were some funny ... jokes there. You just educate or school them after. Most groups get the point — like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis know the reason for the jokes. Most people are smart enough to get it.
You raise a lot of money for that charity. Are there others?
I don’t think so, because the focus is really on them now. With The Apprentice — and I took on the Westboro Baptist Church and donated all that money to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis from my own pocket. As of now, they’re the guys I’m aligned with. They get me, I get them; I’ve been down to their headquarters. As far as jumping into something else, I’d have to investigate that first — because I love these guys.
Do you have anything to say to people who felt you got robbed on The Apprentice?
I got kicked off just at the right time — after winning big money and before I killed anyone!