Like it or not, self-proclaimed “Queen Of Mean” Lisa Lampanelli has firmly ensconced herself into American pop culture. With everything from her cartoonish villainy on The Celebrity Apprentice to a cheerfully offensive stage act that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush, Lampanelli has somehow charmed her way into mainstream America’s good graces. America loves an underdog—in Lampanelli’s case, a pit bull with puppy-dog eyes—and that’s precisely what she remains, despite having been in the comedy game since the early ’90s. A former writer for Rolling Stone and Hit Parader, Lampanelli toiled in the comedy trenches throughout the ’90s before finding her niche on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts, dishing out the insults and absorbing more than a few, endearing herself to the audience with a warm smile and robust laugh that let everyone know, as an equal opportunity offender, she’s happy to take shit as well as sling it.
With Lampanelli’s upcoming one-woman Broadway show that will (supposedly) show us her soft underbelly, and a dramatic turn as Aunt Josie in writer-director David Chase’s feature-film debut, Not Fade Away, the recently wed, 50-year-old Lampanelli is happy to be diversifying and remains busy as ever. Before her Oct. 20 show at the Rialto Theater in Joliet, Lampanelli talked to The A V. Club about beautiful people, .38 Special, and dining with Hitler.
The A.V. Club: With your upcoming Broadway show and scene-stealing villainy on The Celebrity Apprentice, are you ever shocked that America embraces you, even if it’s a love/hate relationship?
Lisa Lampanelli: No, because you always like people that are extreme. I’ve never wanted to be a person where somebody would be like, “I like her; she’s okay.” Love or hate is fine, because it sells tickets.
AVC: Was that the game plan from the beginning, to be big and over-the-top, almost like the Kiss of comedy?
LL: It just happened naturally, and then it ended up being that love/hate thing. It’s like in Howard Stern’s movie Private Parts. There’s that line about how the average Howard Stern hater listens longer than the Howard Stern lover. I don’t think he ever tried to do that. He was just being himself.
AVC: Do you think that being self-deprecating helps you get away with it?
LL: I don’t think so. It’s not a general rule. With Don Rickles and me, we’re just telling the truth. We’re not terrific people, and we’re not gonna win the beauty contest. We’re just average Joes. We’re just being who we are, and I think people like that.
AVC: If you were model-thin and classically beautiful, do you think you’d be able to pull it off?
LL: I wouldn’t bother. I’d be sitting there getting paid to model. I’d be so excited that I could be a vacant idiot like Dayana [Mendoza] on The Apprentice. If I was like a fuckin’ model, dude, I’d be so happy. Interesting-looking people have always been comedians, and it’s rare that someone who has the choice to model ends up being a comic. Except for maybe Whitney Cummings, but that’s about it. That’s why she’s special, because she can combine it.
AVC: It is strange that beautiful people aren’t comedians. Do you think it’s because average people have to build their sense of humor as a defense mechanism?
LL: I don’t know about it as a defense, but definitely as a way of making friends and being accepted. This friend of mine once said to me, “Why aren’t there any beautiful women comedians?” It’s because beautiful women don’t have to be funny.
AVC: The guy comics are always complaining about not getting laid.
LL: Right! I mean, there’s always the exceptions. There’s Dane Cook, who’s very good looking. There’s Whitney Cummings, and people like that. But more often than not, that’s the exception.
AVC: Do you feel that most female comics play it too safe?
LL: I think I used to, but now I’m happy to see Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Whitney, and people like that who take more chances, so I’m happy about that. In the ’80s and ’90s it was so friggin’ boring, and I’m glad I came up then because it was easier to stand out.
AVC: It’s a really amazing time for female comics right now.
LL: You’re 100 percent right. Like Amy Schumer, do you know who Amy Schumer is?
AVC: I interviewed her last week.
LL: She’s one of the new breed, and I’m like, “All right! There we go!” More and more are popping up.
AVC: The Celebrity Apprentice cast seems like the setup to a million jokes. Does your brain think in terms of insults, or is the insult humor reserved for when you’re writing and performing?
LL: My brain thinks that way. If anybody on the street comes up to me, I’ll give them a little insult because they’re fans. But, on The Apprentice, you don’t have time to think; you just have time to do the task and react as any human being does to a stressful situation. Nobody’s funny on that show. Adam Carolla was on the show, and he was really funny, but he didn’t last that long. Me and Penn [Jillette] and Arsenio [Hall], and even Clay [Aiken], who’s a really funny guy—we’re all just doing the work to try and survive. It’s absolutely the most stressful situation I’ve ever been through in 50 years. Oh my God. The hours are crazy, and you sleep very little. It’s six days a week, 20-hour workdays, and sometimes all-nighters. It’s hard-core, dude, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And you know that I’m a hard worker anyway.
AVC: So, with reality shows, it’s not that the people would put forth the effort when the cameras were on, and then it’s just fun and games?
LL: No, it’s not fun. It’s a lot of torture.
AVC: Is Trump always in “Trump mode”? It’s hard to imagine that he’s very funny or “just one of the guys” off camera.
LL: The only time I saw him off camera was the day after my first task, when I got Victoria Gotti fired. He pulled me aside and said, “I’m really impressed. You’re so smart.” So I never had a problem with him.
AVC: Some of the other cast members, not so much though.
LL: I couldn’t stand most of them. I wanted them to die. I do a half hour now just on The Apprentice, because everyone was so fucking annoying.
AVC: Many people might not know that you started your career as a journalist for Rolling Stone, Spy, and Hit Parader. Do you think your journalistic instincts helped shape your comedy, in the sense that you really learned to study people and culture?
LL: Maybe, but I think the way that it really helped me was to merchandise myself. Knowing how to promote yourself and knowing how to write a press release is really hard to do before you can afford a publicist. So, at least I knew what I was doing and could really promote myself within the business angle of comedy.
AVC: You were tasked with covering a lot of the hair metal bands back then, right?
LL: Oh yeah. I don’t like to brag, but I interviewed Billy Squier and Cinderella. You know, all the good ones.
AVC: Is that what you were into? Were you a headbanger back then?
LL: No, not in the least. But, because Hit Parader also covered Rush, Jethro Tull, and Yes, and that real faggy progressive-rock stuff I was into, I took advantage of that and got to interview Rush three times instead of .38 Special.
AVC: I like .38 Special.
LL: They’re got two songs. Tell me you know more than two of their songs, liar!
AVC: Actually, that’s true. I only know “Caught Up In You” and “Hold On Loosely.”
LL: [Laughs.] See, there you go.
AVC: Did you ever see yourself as a rock-star comic in the vein of Sam Kinison? Do you feel that the “insult comic” tag is reductive?
LL: I always tell people I’m an insult comic. Even nowadays, when it’s not insult as much, maybe 30 percent versus 100 percent, but I just feel like it’s a cool-ass title because nobody can do it. It’s so hard to do, to not worry about your likeability, so I’m proud of it. So, even now—when I’m doing more mature material, and [for] 70 percent of my act I’m talking about other stuff—I still feel proud of it, and I like it.
AVC: Who coined the title “Queen Of Mean”?
LL: Well, I say The New York Times did, because I planted it in the Times. In an interview, I said something like, “The comedy club called me the Queen Of Mean.” So, I basically invented it and took it to the Times.
AVC: There’s that journalistic marketing at work.
LL: Yep, exactly. Twist the media as much as you can.
AVC: Does it freak you out that in a couple of years, you might be called “The Grandmother Of Mean”?
LL: I would love it! I would totally love it! Joan Rivers is kind of like the grandma of comedy, and I think that’s such an honor, man. I love it! I’ve never lied about my age. Well, I guess just once. I was so stupid and couldn’t remember the math when someone asked me, “What year did you graduate high school?” But, I don’t consider age to be a problem at all.
AVC: You’ve never been a storyteller comedian, so I’m wondering if it was difficult to pen your upcoming Broadway show?
LL: No, because these stories eventually had to come out, and that’s why I decided to do the Broadway show. I also have, thank God, my main writer Alan Zweibel, who worked on Billy Crystal’s Broadway show, to help shape my stories into a show. I had 40 stories that all go together, but I didn’t know how they were supposed to arc. So, thank God that he just loved the stories. He was like, “Let’s just be you. Be who you are, and show us your insecurities about men and food and anything people struggle with, without being heavy-handed.” It’s really funny, but also touching in places, so you need guys like that to help you. I’m not stupid enough to think that I can do everything myself.
AVC: Is it a straightforward one-woman show, with just you presenting?
LL: Yeah, well, there are theatrical elements, because it is theater and people are paying Broadway prices for it. It’s a lot like Carrie Fisher’s show, talking to the audience and telling them about you. But you act out funny things, and you have an encore with a song. It’s not some musical, but just you being you.
AVC: I assume you took a lot from your family. What are they like? You must have a strong mother.
LL: My mom’s Italian, and my sister is a really cool, big-mouth chick. I’m not lying when I say I’m the quiet one in the family. So you can imagine how loud my family is. My mother was always yelling at people. She was a foodaholic and a food pusher, and that’s how we all ended up this way. It’s cool to have the kind of family that I talk to once or twice a week. They get me, and I really feel like, “Okay, this is the family that’s nutty enough to be put onstage,” which is really cool.
AVC: As a performer who’s never been afraid to tackle any subject, has taking on yourself proved to be the hardest?
LL: Yes, because to do the show, I had to expose things about myself that people don’t know about. It’s hard to be like, “Here are my real faults.” If I’m going to go up there and make fun of everybody else for theirs, now I’m going to be exposing mine, too. There’s stuff that I can’t even believe I’m going to say in public. So, it’s hard, but it’s also a big payoff if people will say, “If she can afford to laugh at herself with those problems, she can afford to laugh at everybody else’s too.”
AVC: How did you get such a strong gay following?
LL: I was doing a signing at a gay bookstore once, and someone asked, “Why do you think gays like you so much?” And I said, “I think it’s because gay people feel like outsiders, and I’ve always felt like an outsider myself.” And a gay guy said, “I think we just like mean girls.” I thought it was maybe because I kind of look like a drag queen, because I look like I could be tucking a penis. But I’m happy to have them on board.
AVC: What was it like working with David Chase and James Gandolfini on Not Fade Away?
LL: It was wild! I had just come back from my honeymoon, and I never do any auditions, because I never get any parts. So I figured I wasn’t gonna do it, but my manager was like, “He really wants to meet you.” I was like, “Is David Chase definitely gonna be there?” She said yes, and I just really wanted to meet David Chase and tell him that my mom loves The Sopranos and uses it as an excuse to overeat because they were always eating on the show. So I met him, and he was a big fan and knew actual lines from my HBO special. I did the audition, and I didn’t even prepare, because I never get anything. I ended up being hired for this very serious, unfunny role, and I loved that because he saw something in me. Who’s gonna argue with that?
AVC: You being in a serious David Chase movie reminds me of Larry David playing the mob guy on Curb Your Enthusiasm with Scorsese.
LL: Oh my God! That’s so true! He probably had a hell of a lot more lines than I had.
AVC: He got whacked pretty quickly.
LL: Right, well, my 13 lines are gonna get me an Oscar I tell ya.
AVC: If you could plan your perfect Italian dinner party, with any guest living or dead, who would be there?
LL: It would have to be Hitler. Just kidding. Well, I actually wouldn’t mind having dinner with Hitler and find out what the fuck he was thinking. That would probably be really interesting. If Hitler was there, you’d have to have a Jewish bodybuilder there too, to kill him if he got out of line. Maybe a Klan member too, just to get inside their minds and figure out why the fuck people hate each other. That would be pretty funny, because we could film that shit and get Chase to direct.