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Interview With Comedian Lisa Lampanelli

Lisa Lampanelli
Courtesy Photo

Since her breakthrough performance on Comedy Central’s Roast of Chevy Chase in 2002, Lisa Lampanelli has ascended to the top of the comedy world on her own terms, becoming the only female insult comic funny enough to have earned the nickname, “The Queen of Mean.” With more than 21 years in stand-up comedy, Lampanelli has reached a place in her life where she’s comfortable in both her personal and professional life. Just this past October, Lampanelli tied the knot with her husband Jimmy Cannizzaro, and more recently adopted her first puppy, a small teacup Yorkie she named Parker (short for Sarah Jessica Parker.) As she prepares to go on the road in support of her third upcoming special for Comedy Central, I was fortunate to grab a few minutes of her time as we sat down to talk about the beginnings of her career as an insult comic, and what it’s like to travel the country as a newlywed with a small puppy.

How is Parker doing today?

Lisa Lampanelli: Oh he’s good. He was a little sick last week. He had diarrhea. But luckily my assistant was only home--so glad you earned that BU degree to clean up my dog shit.

How long have you had the puppy?

Like 6 months maybe.

So the honeymoon’s almost over then.

Yeah, it’s pretty much going to be over soon if he keeps shitting up my house.

Do you take him with you when you go out on the road?

Oh definitely.

That’s got to be a new experience for you.

Well what’s great is that we’ve discovered Benadryl. Because you can give him a quarter teaspoon of Benadryl before the flight and he doesn’t bark. But I was making all these enemies on planes because he kept barking during take-off and landing. And all these assholes would be staring at me. It’s a little different when Jimmy’s with me because they’re not going to fuck with him. But you know, I was just hating my dog and hating everyone on the flight, but now we drug him and it’s a beautiful thing for everybody.

And have the Hotels been accommodating for Parker?

I find that really low life hotels are great with pets and really high end hotels are great, and it’s the in-between ones who are douchebags. So, like, the high end ones will always be giving him bowls and little pillows, and they even have doggie menus, with like, types of food for them. It’s crazy how rich people treat their dogs. But the ones that are kind of in-between like your Marriott’s and Hyatt’s, it’s like no dogs allowed and I’m like, “Whatever dick, I’m staying at the good place.”

So your life has changed dramatically, especially when you’re traveling around the country now.

What’s good is Jimmy works a lot. He’ll go over to the theater two or three hours early because that’s the business he was in. He’ll do lights, sound, security and all that stuff. So I get my little bit of alone time to get ready, and boom, we do the show. And he’s fun to hang out with afterwards, you know. You don’t have to be alone in your room, possibly binge eating. It’s a lot better this way. I don’t hate going on the road anymore. I used to really hate it because I was surrounded with assholes, and it was a lot of stress. But now I’ve pared it down and it’s a lot better.

This is your 21st year doing stand-up, correct?

Yeah I think so.

Can you recall the first set you ever did?

Oh yeah, it was awesome. It was really cool, I had taken this little class in how to put together your first five minutes of comedy because I had no idea how you get up there and what you talk about. I did that gig; it was a little open mic, but for some reason the show was packed. It was one of those things where people just happened to still be going to see comedy a lot years ago, once the boom was kind of coming back. It was great; I remember just really doing well and I’m not even embarrassed of the tape that I have of it. It’s like, wow that was pretty cool, so it kind of made me keep going. Dude trust me, if it wasn’t good I wouldn’t have continued. I’m not going to force something that’s not going to work.

Was that in New York City?

Oh no, that was in New Haven, Connecticut.

And prior to doing stand-up you were a journalist and a DJ.

Right, I worked for Rolling Stone, I worked for Spy, I worked for a bunch of magazines in New York. I decided I wanted to do comedy but I didn’t know how to start. So I heard an ad on the radio for a DJ company that did weddings and things, so it’s like at least if I can learn how to talk on mic I won’t be nervous if I eventually do comedy. So it was kind of like a warm-up to starting to have the balls to do comedy.

So you were a journalist during the day and wedding DJ at night?

Actually I quit journalism, because I had had enough. You know how it is, enough of earning twelve grand a year and interviewing douche bags like you have to do right now.

So you interviewed a lot of heavy metal bands from that era.

Oh definitely man, I interviewed every bad hair band that ever existed in the 1980s. I don’t like to brag, but I interviewed Cinderella and Slaughter, so I guess you know how fucking cool I am.

Those were fluffy metal bands. Did you ever interview any of the harder acts like Slayer or Metal Church?

Oh no, I wasn’t that hardcore. I was scared of them. I was more into really fag rock too. I really like progressive rock, so I liked interviewing Yes and Tull, and Rush. I was really into that stuff, so I’m a big nerd at heart.

I remember when Jethro Tull stole the Best Heavy Metal Grammy from Metallica.

Hey, now I know how Metallica felt because Flight of The Conchords won the Grammy that I was up for. So it was like that Tull thing, I was like; “Those guys ain’t comics. Are you out of your mind? At least give the award to George Lopez, he only has one kidney. He deserves at least an award.”

When you were writing about these hair bands were you injecting humor into your articles?

I think a little bit, like where you can. Because people like that take themselves really seriously sometimes. There was always a lot of personality in all the articles. It was almost like I was writing from my point of view about meeting them instead of just about them. So there was always a little bit of sense of humor, a little bit of new journalism in it, and it wasn’t as dry as just a plain old interview. So yeah, it was a little comical sometimes.

So when you finally started doing stand-up, were you working on written material or were you doing crowd work from the get go?

I think I didn’t do crowd work until about three months in. Because when I was doing regular comedy, you know you just start and I go, “Well it’s going to take a lot of being comfortable to start talking to the audience.” Then once I started doing that, I never wanted to stop because I just had a blast with it. I loved just that whole crowd work thing and then it turned into just being more of the “insult comedy” where its crowd work without wanting to hear anything back from them. It just kind of took and developed from there.

When you first started doing “insult comedy” was there ever any instances where something you were going after just turned out bad?

I mean I don’t ever remember the audience turning on me or being assholes, but I’m sure stuff didn’t work. And I’m sure like, if somebody was made uncomfortable, the audience senses that, which is why now if I’m doing a joke and making fun of somebody, if they look uncomfortable or they look like they don’t really want to be participating then I just jump onto somebody else. Because really, why make them uncomfortable? What’s the point of the show? It’s to make people laugh, not be uncomfortable. But I’m sure at one point or another people were like, “Wow that was really rude.” It’s well now. I mean you paid to see what was promoted so now it’s never an issue.

Can you recall any hecklers that have stood out in your career?

Oh yeah I remember, I wrote about it in my book. I was like the first time I got heckled was sort of an indirect compliment insult. I was really new to the business, but I was still pretty decent. I always had a little stage presence which made me keep going even though everybody sucks at first. So I did pretty well; a guy went up after me and he was bombing, and somebody yelled, “Bring back the fat chick!” So I mean most people would be like, wow that’s a compliment they want to see me again. I was like, “Oh my God he called me fat!” Like I spent the whole next day writing heckler retorts and things like that, in case somebody yelled mean stuff at me, and I think that’s how the insult comedy came into play.

If you had advice for a young comic who was interested in doing crowd work and insult comedy like you and Jeff Ross and the great Don Rickles, what would that advice be?

First of all I’d say never group Jeff Ross’ name with me and Rickles, that’s it. I’m just kidding, I love that dirty Jew. I think if you really like them you can make fun of them. So you have to kind of love the people you’re making fun of or it’s going to come off like hate, which is why I’ll turn down a roast if it’s for an enemy. Because people are going to sense you mean it, and it’s terrible. Nobody’s that good an actor to hide their hate for someone. I think first of all if you don’t like everybody or you’re racist at all, you can’t do it. But I would say, if you got the gift you got the gift. If you got the will to keep going, even though you go, “I know I can talk to them but that one didn’t really hit.” You got to keep trying it until you find your voice. And it’s hard to find, because there’s a lot of trial and error and you could bomb some nights. But if you’re getting sixty percent good response, you’ll make it up to seventy or eighty percent.

When would you say that you found your voice?

I always say for everybody it’s about seven. When you have seven years in you kind of start knowing who you are.

How often in a week would you get up onstage when you lived in New York?

Oh my God, ten to twelve. They’re all these short little sets; they’re all like 10-20 minute sets. I remember doing up to seven a night on Fridays and Saturdays when I was really committed to being in New York. So yeah, you do a lot.

How long did it take you to come up with a forty-minute set, because half of what you do is improv and crowd work.

Forty minutes was probably three or four years. I remember going by the rule that Seinfeld or somebody said which was something like: it takes six months to get a good solid five minutes. Which is pretty much true, so I just operated on that and didn’t pressure myself to come up with amounts of time. If you’re doing a three person show, your first spot is the emcee, and they do ten minutes up front then five in the middle. So it was like, well if I have fifteen minutes I’m okay. After two years, I experimented in getting little paid emcee gigs and stuff like that. So I always felt like it was right on target and that was the pace it was supposed to be at.

As far as the Comedy Central roasts go, how far in advance do you start writing?

Probably a month, because you really have to wait for a month to find out who’s on the dais itself. Because that’s sort of a rotating door it seems. So it’s always a pain in the ass, it’s like a month in advance you to get your work done on the main person, the subject of the roast. And then you kind of have to do a lot of jokes on those other people. So it takes about a month to get it together.

You play really large venues now, but do you still go out and make club appearances around New York when you’re at home?

Never. I haven’t been in a club performing in over eight years. Why would I be bothered? I work enough. It’s like those comics who have to do comedy every night, it’s like this weird obsession and need, I just don’t get it. It’s like work when you have to then have some time off and shut the fuck up. No one cares about you.

You’ve attained your level of success.

Well no, but I want more. But you’re not going to get more running around clubs like some kind of insecure douche bag. If there’s a bit I really need to work out, it’s going to be in front of the audience at the theater. Because I’m funny enough to have the confidence to go, “You know what, I have the beginnings of a really good joke here, and I bet I can make it funny by the end of the bit.” So you have to that confidence to go, “People at Spreckels Theatre are going to like my new thing and I’ll eventually get to the funny part of it.” I don’t think running around New York helps.

Are you still working on material for your new comedy special?

No it’s done. Oh my God it’s so good, it’s finished. We taped it in December. So it’s coming out either the end of March or early April. That’s the stuff I’ll be doing at the show, it’s all new stuff.

Where are we going to see that?

Comedy Central.

Does Lisa Lampanelli have a message for the children?

Yes. Kill yourselves. Because you know what, life doesn’t really get that good and you’re not talented like I am, so you probably should cut your losses early and end it all.

Lisa Lampanelli performs at Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego, Friday, February 4th at 7:30 p.m. View Details

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  • Venue: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego