Lisa Lampanelli announced last week that she’s retiring from stand-up and starting a new chapter as a storyteller and life coach. The lovable “Queen of Mean,” a mainstay of insult comedy known for her Friars Club and Comedy Central roasts of celebrities like Chevy Chase, David Hasselhoff, and Larry the Cable Guy, among others, cemented the announcement on Howard Stern’s show, where she did a final roast of Ronnie Mund for his 69th birthday as a good-bye to the form.
“I’m going 180 degrees. It’s not like, ‘Hi, I’m leaving comedy to do movies,’ you know?” says Lampanelli, who started doing comedy in 1991. She was inspired to leave comedy after taking a transformational workshop about food and body image (she lost over 100 pounds after getting gastric sleeve surgery in 2012) where she also did storytelling. She found the combination of self-help and deeper performances to be more fulfilling.
Lampanelli further explained her decision in a Facebook Live Q&A, in which she expressed a fear of sending mixed messages with her insult comedy (“God forbid I cause anybody pain”) and acknowledged that it’s no longer the era of Don Rickles. Although not common, she sees her transition to broader storytelling and life-coaching as a natural departure from stand-up, which she knows was never the only thing for her.
“It’s not a typical path. It’s pretty weird for somebody to do this,” she says. “But you know what’s funny? I said to Stern, ‘This is why I don’t think I was ever a comedian first.’ I think it was my way of connecting with people. Now I’m using storytelling and workshops to connect, so I don’t think I was a true lover of the art form. I was just doing it.”
In an interview for Vulture, Lampanelli opened up more about her decision, revealed how Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette affected it, and shared some keen life advice for comedians and people in general.
So, you’ve quit comedy! Let’s get into it.
That’s right. My last live show was in June. Howard Stern asked me, “Aren’t you gonna miss it?” I go, “Dude. I haven’t done comedy in four months. I could not miss anything less.” Right now, it’s a Friday night, and I’m like, Oh my God. I’d probably be at some F-ing theater doing an act that I liked, but worried that people weren’t getting it, as far as the right message. Jesus Christ. I’m home with my dog, thank you.
Sounds like you have no qualms about it.
I think at this age, I was just ready to go, “Yeah, I don’t wanna do that anymore.” It’s so funny because they always say it’s harder walking away from a good job than a bad job, because you go, “Oh, the money. The this, the that.” But it’s weird — it wasn’t hard because I always wait until I am absolutely sure so I have no regrets. Like, with marriages, divorces, I know it when I know it. I said to my manager after [my Off Broadway play Stuffed], “You know what? Let’s gear up to make those shows that I have contracted the last ones.”
On Stern, you mentioned that you made the decision to quit a few years ago. What sparked that?
It’s been brewing since a few years ago, yeah. Comedy was going great, I was chugging along and loving that hour and half onstage every couple nights. Then my father got sick in late 2013, so I had to cancel a bunch of stuff. I noticed that after he passed away that I honestly missed, not the idea, but the act of service. Like, when someone close to you, especially the person whom you’re sort of closest to in the world, gets sick and tragedy happens, for me it was like, All hands on deck. Let’s do this. Let’s help. Lets rabble-rouse, and make sure he’s comfortable and happy.
So, I think the universe sort of was saying to me there’s this hollowness — not just from the loss, but from the lack of doing something exclusively for somebody else. Obviously, I have had food and body-image issues all my life. So I decided to write a play about it. Every time we’ve performed that play Off Broadway, I really felt like, Oh, it’s resonating, and people really got it. They were walking away feeling less alone. So I go, Well, I wanna do more of what makes me feel connected to people, and what makes them connected me, and each other, and that’s through storytelling.
What is the difference between stand-up and storytelling to you?
The difference is basically — I think Hannah Gadsby really said it best, “Stand-up is setup, punch line,” which is great. I was always one of those rapid-fire comics, so you just didn’t have time to think. The audience is just laughing and not having anything sink in. Storytelling can be just as funny, but you tell the whole story; you tell the beginning, middle, and end. I think that just works better for me now.
It sounds like Nanette had a pretty big effect on you.
Well, I’d already been in rehearsals for my show, and I resisted watching it because I thought it was stand-up, and I don’t watch stand-up — I’m so fricking bored of it. But when I watched that, I start sobbing. I called all my friends and was like, “Dude, the universe put her on TV so I could watch and see that I’m doing the right thing.” I watched it five times. I thought, This is for me to move ahead and not be fearful, and just go. This was put in my path so I could know I’m doing the right thing.
So like Gadsby, you realized you didn’t want to continue on with the same act anymore.
Honestly, somewhere, the message that I was saying as an insult comic was getting lost. Going back to Rickles or Totie Fields or Joan Rivers, the tradition of insult comedy and roasting is about including everybody. I make fun of everyone, so I include everyone, and therefore, I don’t dislike anyone. But in these times, something was getting lost in translation. Maybe it was that people in their 20s and 30s weren’t getting into that tradition. So part of me was going, Wait a minute. I’m doing stand-up like all my heroes did, and the message is hidden too much for them to understand that I love them all. I want to say literally what’s on my mind. I don’t want to be misunderstood ever again.
Other comedians might argue that doing stand-up is a good way to connect with or help people.
Oh, absolutely. They can. I did for years. But then, I lost that because I didn’t feel it was serving people. I would literally hear people say, “Laughter is the best medicine,” and I’d go, “No, it’s not. It’s chemo. Shut the fuck up.”
In addition to the storytelling, you’re also becoming a life coach. What does that entail?
Yeah, I’m getting my life-coaching certification because I’m doing a food and body-image workshop called Love Your Body, Feed Your Soul. It’s a few days of meditation, yoga, journaling, group discussion, storytelling, and more. So I’m getting certified so I can handle anything that comes my way in a workshop and have those tools. I’m the type who over-prepares for everything. I mean, I took acting lessons to play myself in a play.
What has the reaction been so far from your fans or peers? What you expected?
I mean, I’m not going to lie to you, I was thinking 50 percent of people would say, “Go back to roasting,” but no. I have gotten so many freaking emails, people saying they want me to coach them. I thought it would be a bigger struggle, but I think people saw that I really meant it.
Do you remember your first show?
Oh, yes, are you kidding me? It was at Jokers Wild in New Haven, Connecticut. It was my first open mic as part of a comedy class taught by a guy named Michael Jackson. Not kidding. He was such a good comic. I don’t think he does comedy anymore, but he really knew how to teach us. You can’t teach somebody to be funny, but he taught us how to construct a joke, how to find a persona and work on it. I loved my first show. I was so conceited after that. I called in sick to my day job. I was like, I’m not gonna need a day job anytime soon. Of course, I needed it for seven years.
What was your day job?
At the time, I was an editor. I had gone to school at Syracuse University for journalism. And for about ten years after that, I was a journalist, copy editor, and fact-checker at various publications. That’s the thing, too — in my gut, I knew when I was done with that. I think the problem with everybody is that they don’t listen to their gut. You can’t let your head talk your gut out of what you want. If I didn’t go with my gut, I’d have never started comedy. I would have never quit comedy. And it’s the two best decisions of my life, probably.
What would you say your career in comedy has ultimately taught you?
I think it taught me confidence, to get up in front of people who could potentially really hurt your feelings. Basically now, if some bitch in a workshop just stares at me or doesn’t have love in her eyes looking at me, I’ve dealt with so much worse than that. I think resilience is obviously something we all have to learn, or we just quit. It also taught me, if you work enough, you can kind of do anything. I mean, really. I started out with less than five minutes of material in that class taught by Michael Jackson, and I ended up selling out Radio City and Carnegie Hall within three months of each other. It’s pretty insane.
It also taught me that you really can ask for help. Comics tend to be real lone wolves. When I didn’t have an agent, I had to put it out there to other comics and see what would happen. When I didn’t have a manager, I could break down and cry in front of comics, and they’d be like, “Oh, I know somebody,” and I ended up with the greatest manager. So even though it’s a solitary profession, you don’t have to do it alone because no one grows in a vacuum.
What advice would you give comedians who are feeling exhausted or frustrated with their careers or the state of comedy in general?
I really think the words “You’ll know when you’ve had enough” is something to embody. There’s no shame in moving on to something else. It’s what your soul wants to do that counts. Plus, if you’re going to stick with comedy, then you can’t complain anymore. I always said, “Never explain, never complain.” So never explain your jokes. If you love them, you love them. Never complain about the work schedule because there’s Joe Blow out there in a coal mine, and I know it’s cliché, but it’s damn true, that what he’s doing is a lot harder than what you’re doing. I don’t care if you’re doing eight sets a night — that guy’s coming home with coal under his fingertips, and possibly getting blown up.
Also, one last thing: Stop with all the drinking. I never let my opening acts drink. Come on. Stop being sloppy. This is a business. Stop it. And you know, stop banging all the girls, too. You’re disgusting.
Despite your announcement, you’re performing in the New York Comedy Festival this weekend. Is it weird to be promoting a comedy show when you’re no longer billing yourself as a comedian?
When I was walking to Stern, it was still half dark out, and I saw this big billboard for the comedy festival with all our pictures on it. I started cracking up, like, “Well, that’s the last time comedy’s gonna be associated with my name.” Then, it’s funny, because on Good Day New York today, they go, “Can we say comedian Lisa Lampanelli is no longer the Queen of Mean?” I go, “Maybe put former comedian.” They forgot. But I thought, Hey, ain’t nothing wrong with it. When a president gets replaced, they still call him president. So I was like, “How about President Lisa Lampanelli?”