It turns out the old adage “You can’t judge a foul-mouthed book by its cover” is true. Like many would, I assume, when I learned I’d be interviewing Lisa Lampanelli, I imagined I’d be talking to a tough, maybe even crass woman. Not mean to me or anything. It’s not like I expected her to roast me or insult me during our interview, although that would certainly be an honor. I just don’t think I quite expected to enjoy the thoughtful conversation that I did. As you may have seen, Lampanelli has gone through a lot of changes lately, most notably losing 107 pounds. In speaking to her, I learned this healthier person is not just a new on the outside, she’s done a lot of work on herself from within. She was considerate, soft-spoken, and really a delightful person. Her new comedy special Back to the Drawing Board premiers on EPIX this Friday, 6/26 and you’ll see that she’s still the insult comic we know. It just turns out once she steps off the stage, there’s a much softer side to her.
When and how did you know that being an insult comic was the right fit for you?
I think it was about a year into doing comedy, you know you’re doing open mics and things like that. It was pretty much a decision that was made for me. I didn’t like the idea of anyone getting me before I got them. It seemed like sort of an evolution. I do remember one time, it was about my fifth time on stage that this guy had heckled me, but it was a weird heckle. It wasn’t even really insulting. I was off stage and the guy after me was bombing and the guy yelled, “Bring back the fat chick.” Most comics who had any self-esteem would think, “Oh, he likes me. He wants me to come back on stage.” I of course heard the one word that every woman dreads to hear, which is the word “fat,” because as you know, it’s the worst word ever. I felt shamed and so terrible that I went home and wrote a bunch of one-liners in case that ever happened to me again. After things started rolling I was like, “Those jokes are really good. I really don’t want to take the chance of someone else yelling out and hurting my feelings.” I was like, “I’ll just go into the audience and see what happens.” It sort of evolved from there. I always felt the most comfortable on stage doing that style of comedy and thankfully it paid off and people enjoyed it.
Were you nervous at first when you started doing jokes about race and directly to people?
No, because I loved talking to them. It just seemed like such the right fit that it wasn’t really nerve wracking. I felt that I was the most comfortable on stage more than anywhere else in my life. I’m more nervous on a date, or one-on-one, or at a dinner party. On stage it’s like, “Whatever, this is easy.” I was always shocked if people were offended. I was like, “How dare they? They should know I’m kidding.” More often than not I feel like I’m doing the right thing and they’ll just have to deal with it.
Do you find that when you’re not on stage, people in your life are nervous that you’re going to pick on them?
No, not people who know me, but people will say to my friends, “Oh you’re friends with Lisa. Is she always funny or does she always throw insults your way?” And they’re like, “No, she’s just totally normal.” Honestly that’s so exhausting. Nobody in my real life is paying me enough to make fun of them. It’s not worth it. It is fun on game nights to know that I’m always going to have something to say if somebody gives me a hard time. Funny people can still be funny offstage. I just think we don’t choose to be as much, because we want to sort of be left alone and just blend in with everybody else.
What’s something that would surprise people about you?
Um… That I’m just really, super overly sensitive. Because, on the roasts, I always made it a concerted effort to laugh whenever the camera was on me, like whenever there was a joke about me. It was really rare that anything hurt my feels anyway, because a joke is a joke. But if something was just mean and stupid, it was like, “Oh, gotta laugh it up for that.” Other than the roasts though, where obviously it’s jokes and everything is funny, in my real life I get really hurt a lot. My hot buttons are being disrespected, but not in a “You got to respect me” way, but in a way of like being dismissed. If I’m ignored or put last, or I’m not picked for “gym class.” If I’m the one person who isn’t invited to something or whatever, I get my feelings hurt really bad. I’m always working on not overreacting.
Another thing that people might be surprised about is that about a year ago, when my father died I decided that I wasn’t going to curse off stage anymore. I had taken this spiritual retreat, which I’m sure that’s another surprise to people, where the woman said, “Change one thing about your life for a week and see if it brings people closer to you or farther away.” I said, “Let me just not curse for a week. Let me just see. Onstage is another thing, but let me just see if not cursing will work.” I found that so many more people talked to me. Maybe it was just the vibe I was giving out, but I really have probably cursed maybe twenty times in over a year, and it was just a slip. Not at someone, but where you say, “This effing… whatever.” It feels great, because people just kind of feel more open. I feel like it’s more welcoming to have a presence that’s not going to be cursing and screaming and carrying on.
That’s a really good challenge to take. It’s like how when you’re trying to figure out if you have an allergy, you’re not supposed to not drink milk for a couple weeks.
(Laughing) Oh my God! That’s a great parallel. That’s good. I’ll probably use that. I just felt like it changed my whole life. Even my little nieces and nephews, it was so cute. They’re fourteen and fifteen, the youngest two. When I told my brother that I wasn’t cursing anymore, their dad, he started laughing. Both the kids were like, “No no. She really doesn’t.” They couldn’t believe that that’s something I could actually do. It’s so great to change people’s minds.
That was actually a question I wanted to ask you, about if you’re spiritual. Were you before this, or was the retreat a new thing maybe to do deal with things like your divorce?
No, nothing had to do with my divorce at all, because that was the easiest thing I’ve ever gone through, honestly. Because, when you have an amicable divorce, because you were smart enough to get out of it before anybody cheated on each other, that’s the way to go. We were both adults about it. The hardest thing was, you know my dad being in hospice and his death last year. When he died I just felt like his energy that he had in the world, he was so humble and he was very a very warm, sweet guy, very non-assuming, quiet, artistic. He was a painter. I was just like, “That kind of energy needs to be replaced in the world.” So, I started working on myself to be more like him, more unassuming, quieter off stage, more contemplative.
It lead me to this retreat place called Kripalu, which is in Lennox, Massachusetts. It’s a yoga retreat, but they also have a lot of spiritual workshops and it just kind of build from there. I just loved learning more about why I do things, learning about what my hot buttons are, learning how to be more of service to the world, because you know, I really see no reason to do anything if it’s not a service to somebody else. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. That was a switch that my father’s caretaking turned on. That if I’m not caretaking my dad, I’m going to do it with somebody else. Yes, I can go extreme and try to help my friends too much, but you know, there could be worst thing and I’ll dial it back. You know, help people who really need to be helped. Even through comedy, even through speaking, even through just being nice or smiling or charity. It all sort of just comes down to, if it’s not going to help somebody besides myself, I don’t see any reason to really do it.
That’s lovely. And I totally get what you mean. I’m a comedian myself and I feel like finding that spiritual side and doing things like meditation just help the anxiety we deal with on the other side, because it’s so hard. It’s a good way to find balance.
Yeah. I don’t like when comedians say, “I don’t work on myself, because I then won’t be funny on stage.” It’s a really unenlightened attitude, because I found that I take more chances on stage the more confident I am. Working on that spiritual side makes me feel more confident with who I am and what I believe in, and I guarantee you I am much funnier now, and also more real. People sense that. I don’t think it’s a coincident that I started getting standing ovations right after my dad died, without even changing my material. I changed maybe just the way I was doing things, imperceptibly, like a little shift took place, and people just started jumping up again. I go, “Uh, something’s going on here.” So, it’s really cool.
Yeah, when you do the hard work on yourself it starts to show to others. So back to your divorce. Do you miss anything about being married?
No. I miss nothing. I hated it. It wasn’t anybody’s fault except mine, because I got married. I’m the type that loves a wedding. I’m so I happy that I had that wedding, because I know it was meant to be like a family reunion. All I remember is my father dancing to every single song with my nieces and nephews. That was really a family reunion. It was meant for that reason. So, I’m glad it happened, but no I hate being in a relationship. I honestly do not get anything out of it. Because I’ve always been with the wrong person, so I never feel like someone is giving as much as I am. I don’t know how to do a relationship correctly, so until I know how to I’m not going to date. I just think it’s one of those things where I like alone time so much and I love quiet. I can’t even think of anything in my life I would change right now. It’s weird, because I’ve never felt that peace before.
Do you think that’s because you’ve been a comic for 25 years and been on the road in a lonely career or do you think you were always like that?
No, I was super codependent and always wanted a boyfriend or a husband for years and years without a break in between. I’m great in the beginning of a relationship, because it’s that honeymoon phase where you’re all in love. Then I’m terrible during the relationship. I just hate everything the person does. I always disagree with them and I think they’re beneath me and they’re an A-hole. Then at the end I’m great, because I’m generous and I stick to the prenup and I don’t try to get out of paying it. I’m good at the beginning and the end. I just have to work on the middle part.
Well, it sounds like you’re working on yourself so it’ll happen… or it won’t and you’ll be cool with that too.
Well that’s the thing. I don’t want to become shut down to the idea of it, but it doesn’t have any pull for me. Maybe that’s the right place to be in.
Speaking of the fact that you’ve been doing this for 25 years: the industry’s changing now and TV’s changing, so how has that affected your career?
Well, I was always a loner. I was never a joiner. I was never a part of a group of comics who do things together and develop shows and this and that. I just went with, “Oh, I’m funny. I can probably do this for a living someday.” So, I don’t really let the business affect me, because hey if they’re going to put you on a roast or give you a special or give you a shot at a TV or whatever, they’re going to give it to you. If not, it wasn’t meant for you. I don’t let the business affect me. In fact, I watched the Entourage movie last night and I go, “Oh my God, I wouldn’t trade my life for being in the movie business in a million years.” I’m so lucky to be self-employed, because it just looks, I’m sure that’s a dramatization, but it looks so hard to get a movie made and oh my God, just kill myself. I wouldn’t have time to do anything. Like today I had a meeting with a producer for a potential play I’m writing and then I just went over to my mom’s and I hung out a little. Now, I’m just at my house at the beach. I’m like, “Man, I don’t like the business.” I just like doing comedy. That’s how I sort of stick with it.
Well, that’s inspiring! You know, as someone who’s trying to make it in the “business” I really struggle with the idea that I’m not doing the “right” things or “enough” things. I’ve finally gotten to the point of being like, “Eww, no. I don’t want to do that…” whatever it is. I’d rather just do what’s fun to me, and hope it works out from there.
Well that’s exactly what it is. Michael Ian Black and I had lunch the other day and he said to me… and it was the first time I’d met him. I told him how I had felt this pressure to be an actor and try to get TV shows and this and that and he goes, “Oh, so you were living a dream. Just somebody else’s.” I go, “That’s so smart. I’m gonna tell people that.” Because if in your gut you know what you want, then nobody can sway you, nobody. All I want in my future, as far as “the business” is, I want to be able to earn enough money over the next few years, so that I can not worry about money and have plans in place. I want to eventually evolve into speaking about serious subjects, but in a humorous way. I want to do this play about eating disorders and food issues, just to help women. Honestly other than that, I think I’ve done enough. I mean how much do we have to try to fill the hole with accomplishments until we say, “That’s not what’s going to fill the hole. It’s gonna come from inside”? I got caught up in the never enough fame or money, but then it was like last year I was like, “My God, nothing is going to fill the hole except service and self acceptance.”
Right off the bat in your special you talk about this, the fact that you’ve lost 107 pounds.
Mmm, yeah. That was the beginning of all that work. Because, I had to get rid of the outside struggle, before I could attack the inside.
Are you finding people are being annoying about it?
No, everyone is being great. 99% of people are like, “You look so great.” It’s the first time I’ve ever felt, from my perspective, that I look good. I’m never going to win a beauty contest, but I never have to. At least I can stay healthy and not have self-hate about it.