Why ‘Queen of Mean’ Lisa Lampanelli Quit Insult Comedy for Good
In a rare interview with “The Last Laugh” podcast, Lisa Lampanelli reckons with her legacy as one of the meanest insult comics of all time.
Two and a half years ago, Lisa Lampanelli went on The Howard Stern Show and did the unthinkable: She retired from comedy.
After nearly three decades as a stand-up comedian, during which she rose to infamy as the “Queen of Mean” on the Comedy Central Roasts of Jeff Foxworthy, Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Flavor Flav, Larry the Cable Guy, David Hasselhoff and, yes, Donald Trump, Lampanelli simply walked away—becoming, of all things, a life coach.
She hasn’t told a single insult on stage since. And aside from a handful of live appearances like an upcoming storytelling show at a local Connecticut theater, Lampanelli has almost entirely vanished from the spotlight. Which makes it all the more exciting to see her pop up among an impressive array of female comedians in the new documentary Hysterical, premiering this Friday, April 2 at 9 p.m. on FX (and streaming the next day on FX on Hulu).
“I really just say no to so much stuff, but there was something about it,” she says of the film, which is directed by Andrea Nevins and produced by comedian Jessica Kirson, on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast.
Lampanelli’s first reaction to the documentary, which features stories from comedians—and former podcast guests—like Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin and Iliza Shlesinger about the sexism they faced in the industry was, “My god, these girls had a hard time!”
“Somehow the universe took care of me,” she adds. “I never got #MeToo’d, I never got sexually harassed.” Like Joan Rivers before her, Lampanelli says she existed in a “sweet spot” where “we were kind of treated like male comics and nobody grabbed us.”
“Maybe it was because I was fat,” she jokes, “but there are plenty of guys who like fat chicks so I have no idea.”
Below is an excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including stories about roasting Donald Trump (twice), competing on The Celebrity Apprentice and her unlikely feud with Joan Rivers—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
We haven’t seen much of you in recent years because, as some people might know, you retired from comedy, which is something nobody does. It’s very, very unusual to walk away from stand-up comedy.
It is weird, I think, to walk away from anything that you feel you had a calling for. I don’t think I ever was a “comic.” I think I was just somebody trying to connect any way I could. And I happen to be funny, so, “Hey, let's try this!” We just want to fill that hole. And you know, once that thing stops filling the hole and you feel like you’re filling the hole in your soul or heart with life, then you don’t have to do something that doesn’t bring you that much joy anymore.
Was there a breaking point for you? Was there a moment where you said, “You know what, this is not working for me, this is not giving me what it used to give me?”
Everybody wants the breaking point. But what it was is I had started doing a lot of spirituality work and I took a lot of workshops just to see what was going on with me. After my dad died, I had a lot of grief and I was like, how do you process grief? So during meditation—which I don’t do, I suck at meditation, I suck at all of that stuff—but you just notice the thought and let it go and you don’t judge yourself. So I started noticing without judgment that every time I’d have a show, I’d be like, ‘Oh, yay, a show…’ [sarcastically] And I was like, you have to start noticing if there’s no joy, because the audience might start to see that. So get out before you hate it. I did the same thing with two marriages. I do it now with other pursuits or friends. You get out before you hate it, and then there's honor in it. So it was really not a breaking point. It was more just noticing.
Did it feel very different from the beginning when you started doing comedy? Did you find a lot of joy in it in those really early years?
Probably the first 28 years were so joyful. Because the first time—it was like the first time I ate Betty Crocker chocolate frosting right out of the can, you know what I mean? It felt just like that. And then I turned into this insult comic, which was super badass because no women were really doing that. And I was like, oh, this is awesome. But after 28 years, I felt like I did everything a comic needs to do, which is sell out Radio City, Carnegie Hall, nominated for Grammys, but it still didn’t fill the hole. That’s compassion and acceptance and self-love and connection with people and things. But you know, it’s like 28 good effin’ years that you feel like, yeah, I’m into this, that’s a pretty good career. That’s most people’s lives.
I think for people who know you from the roasts and insult comedy, there’s a really intense contrast between the person you were on stage and hearing you now talk about self-love and all these things. Did you feel like there was an anger to your comedy that you were trying to let go of? Is that part of what made you want to move away from it?
Insults and anger are two different things. The insults were with love, which is why people would come back two or three times. It’s like watching [Don] Rickles or listening to [Howard] Stern. So I always knew how to do the insult comedy. It took me 20 years to learn how to do it to not hurt an individual’s feelings. But if you and I had sat down as friends and talked in real life, even while I was in the comedy business, it would have been just like this. I was never insane off stage. So I think snapping at people on stage, that was probably when the anger came out, but not in the insults themselves.
One thing that did occur to me with your decision to walk away is whether you thought at all about getting out before you could get “canceled,” which has become this huge thing now. Your comedy is very risky and you make fun of all kinds of ethnicities and gay people. You’re kind of an equal-opportunity offender in that way, which is in the Don Rickles model. But did that occur to you at all? Like, do I want to stop doing this before someone tries to cancel me?
Well, no, because here’s how clueless I was. I didn't even know about cancel culture. I was so focused on myself and my career and my own pain and anger and grief that I was like, “What, it’s wrong to do a joke about retarded people? What, it’s bad to say the n-word even if you don’t mean it?” So I was still doing shows my way. I was kind of grandfathered in, like Rickles was. So it didn’t occur to me to retire because of that. But I think it’s a happy accident that I did. I think a good by-product of retiring for me is that there will never be a trans kid in the audience that I hurt. Even if it’s an accident, you should apologize. I’ll always apologize to an individual. I’ve had incidences of people saying I hurt their feelings on stage and we talk about it. I’ll never apologize to a group, but if it’s an individual, he or she is getting a chat and an apology for sure.
In the documentary Hysterical, Nikki Glaser says she envies your ability to walk away. And I think it’s true that there are so many comics who maybe would want to retire but feel like they can't or they’re just compelled to keep doing comedy. So there must be something different about you. Maybe it’s not a compulsion for you in the way it is for so many of them.
There’s a line in that great movie, Soul, that just made me sob—and I get choked up even now—when he says something like, when a talent becomes an obsession, then it’s bad. Anything you become obsessed with is awful. So even though for 28 years it was super fun, it was always like, what’s the next thing? It’s never good enough. You sell out Radio City and the promoter says, “Next, Madison Square Garden!”
There’s always something bigger to conquer.
And then you’re like, I’m a failure because I didn’t do Madison Square Garden. And people don't mean to put it on you, but they have hope for you. So comedy, I don’t think was a compulsion towards the end. It turned into a job. Those people paid money, so before I’m not enjoying that part, let’s go. I mean, if you don’t notice your own life, you’re not going to ever quit anything. And by the way, I think these ladies can quit and I love Nikki [Glaser] because she’s so honest about everything. And I remember when I retired, she was like, “I freakin’ admire that you could walk away.” It’s just noticing you’re not as connected anymore.
When you think about your new career in life coaching and embracing this more spiritual side, do you ever think about it as kind of atoning for anything you did in comedy? Is there anything that you regret or feel bad about that you’re trying to make up for with your work that you do now?
I don’t think so. Because I don’t think that’s what can motivate you. I think everything had to happen that way. Do I regret screaming at the drunk lady in Vancouver because she triggered me? She said something like, “We paid you. We get to yell whatever we want!” That for some reason always set me off. I go, “You’re not pretty, you’re not ugly, which means no one will ever notice you.” So yes, there are things that I go, I probably made somebody want to really kill themselves. But it’s a weird superpower I have that I don’t want to use anymore. So I can’t regret it, but I wish I hadn’t had the chemistry and upbringing that was looked at as the best way to handle that. So we can only do better every day.