Insult comic Lisa Lampanelli has been making people laugh for more than two decades.
Known as “The Queen of Mean,” she is a regular on televised celebrity roasts and has cultivated cut downs of such folks as Donald Trump and Pamela Anderson. Onstage, she can repeat a joke she’s told 20 times, but it sounds as if she just thought of it. But jokes don’t spring fully formed from her head. A very particular craft informs her comedy: a process of talking, taping, listening and revising. She recently added a bit in her show about the fact that her assistant had a baby. She had been thinking about it before going onstage. Then she tried it out and revised it later.
It takes a leap of faith to go out with untested material, but Lamapanelli is a seasoned pro, and her confidence has grown over the years. Her work has evolved as well. She has cut back on the insult shtick and now tells more personal stories that have several punch lines until she reaches a ba-da-boom at the end. That shift coincided with several recent changes in her life. She lost more than 100 pounds after gastric sleeve surgery in 2012. She got divorced. And her father died in 2014. She started to look inward and is now working on a play – tentatively titled Fat Girls, Interrupted – about women and body issues. Playwriting is a completely new process, which she finds fascinating.
Lampanelli isn’t “on” all the time. During a recent phone conversation, she eagerly discussed her process and revealed the precise moment she decided to become an insult comic and how she crafted that persona. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our exchange.
How do you craft your comedy?
A lot of comics and other types of writers seem to be able to say, “I’ll sit down at the computer and work on jokes.” I don’t do that. I’ll have an idea – something will happen that day – and I’ll go onstage and talk about it and see what comes out.
I did it this past weekend. My assistant had a baby on Saturday. I said, “I am going to talk about it and what an inconvenience it’s going to be to me. I just don’t approve that she had this baby because how is she going to take care of both of us?” I went up with the idea that my flight got up messed up, and I had to handle it myself. Of course, I’m an adult. I’m 54 years old. I can do that. I was thinking, “Wow, what an inconvenience. My assistant is so good at what she does, and this baby is going to block my happiness because I’m going to have to share her.” I thought it was funny to talk about me being helpless without her. So I basically went on with just an idea in my head, nothing written down, nothing formed fully.
I have an iPhone, and I just have it on record when I am up there. I’m going to listen to that, transcribe that and see what’s funny, add to it and punch it up. I will take the funny lines that came out of it and add to it onstage. I do 99 percent of my stuff on the stage. Then if I get stuck for a really killer punch line, I will try to do something with either a team of people or myself and try to get to the big ending. But for the most part, it’s done on the stage.
Say I am taping a special for FX or HBO or Comedy Central. I’ll tape the entire show, and then I send it to my assistant to transcribe, and I’ll work on it as a whole. You’ll have an hour of material that you want to craft fully and make into a one-hour special. To me, taping is the only way I remember the exact way I say something.
How can your assistant transcribe now that she’s had the baby?
It’s a different assistant. Transcribing an hour of comedy takes eight hours. It’s so miserable, she would have quit a long time before this baby.
How do you take the transcription and build it into the hour set?
You have been building up to that hour for about a year and a half or so. The jokes are pretty much where they are going to be. I will go through the transcript for weak punch lines, because there are always a couple that I think could be better. I pinpoint those and start working on better punch lines. A lot of them are stories, so they have punch lines throughout them. You want that big ending thing. So I will go through for that. I’ll also go through to make sure the order makes sense and that the audience has a little break in the middle, because I am a fast delivering comic. In the middle, you want a slight dip so they can get their breath a little bit. I’ll do something that is a little more low-key and then build up again. Then I will work on punching up the ending to make sure there is a real payoff at the end. And honestly, the hardest part of any special is coming up with the beginning, the ending and the title. The beginning is like, “Oh my God, what do I say as the first thing? Oh man, what do I say?” It obviously ends up working out but for me, but that is one of the toughest things to come up with. It’s just trial and error.
Do you do trial and error at home in front of the mirror?
Nah, that is amateur stuff. You have to be onstage. I don’t know any comic who has practiced on anything on home. I do know a lot of them go to clubs and try to work things out. I play theaters, and my audiences are so accustomed to what I do. They get my rhythm, so I test things on them and if they like it, I’m like, “OK, that stays or that has to be funnier or they told me the truth by their reaction.’’ You just listen to the audience. And again, I can’t stress enough, and I’ve said this to other comics, if you think the subject and your take on it is funny, it is going to be funny. It might take a few months to develop the joke, but there is no way you think it is funny and have a comedic mind and everyone else is going to look at you and go, “What are you talking about?” It just takes a few months to get it right.
You are comfortable doing that in front of an audience? What does the audience think?
Oh, they love it, because they feel in on the process. I am writing this play, and people love coming to readings of the play. They give feedback, and then they are in on the process.
What is important to you when you are revising?
I have a rhythm that I like, so when it sounds like it is not my cadence, it doesn’t really work. If a joke comes out that sounds different from the way I usually speak onstage, I try to reword it so it comes out more naturally as me and does not sound as written. When you sound writerly, the audience doesn’t like it as much. They are not paying to hear you read your book out loud. They are paying to hear you say it – quote unquote – for the first time. That is what I look for: Does it sound like I’m just thinking of it? Some of my insults that I do with the audience I have said for 10 years, and they always think I just thought of it today. I’m like, “Yeah, right.”
I watched videos of you, and the audience seems to think it’s all fresh and brand new.
Exactly. You have to make it look as if it is just like you talk. In real life, I don’t talk like that. Even at a party or dinner, I am just normal and quiet, not like the big shot comic making jokes all the time. But with that onstage persona, you want to make it sound like that is how you are in real life.
Has your process changed over the years?
I think it is just basically more of the same. I always did the taping, listening and revising. You know how many billions of times you’ve heard that writing is rewriting. It is the exact same process but quicker over the years. It may have taken 10 shows to get something up and running, but now it takes fewer shows to get a joke in its top form. And I am more confident. I was doing open mics when I first started, and I was so scared I’d be pacing in the kitchen thinking, “What if the audience hates me?” Now it’s like, they are not going to hate me. They paid whatever the ticket price is to see me. I just have no fear.
I read that when you first started, some guy yelled out, “Bring back the fat chick!” when another comic was bombing after your set.
That is sort of how I started as an insult comic. When I was offstage, a guy yelled that. I guess he liked me but didn’t like the guy who was on. I was so embarrassed. Even though he liked me, all I heard was the fat part. I went home that night and sat at a table in my mother’s den, and I wrote these very amateurish comebacks. It made me feel like a Boy Scout. I would always be prepared. And every time you are prepared, you don’t need it. Like every time you bring a Band-Aid in your purse, you don’t cut anything. The second you are not prepared, you need the Band-Aid. Because I had those comebacks, I didn’t get heckled much, but I always had them to pull out just in case. That night sort of changed my whole comic focus, which was really a blessing.
When you mold jokes onstage, does anything ever go wrong?
There was the time the whole Paris shooting thing happened, but I didn’t know because I hadn’t turned on the TV. I made fun of France that night, and nobody laughed. They always laugh when I make fun of France. Everybody hates French people. I suffered for 24 hours, and then I heard when I got home from the gig that there was a shooting in Paris. So I rewrote a whole bit about being uninformed and that the real victim of that shooting was me because the joke didn’t work, and I tortured myself. Anything that happens to me that has a little kernel that can be funny, I just throw it in. It can’t hurt.
You have made jokes about race that others could never get away with. Have you ever written a joke that went too far?
No. I think I know my gauge. There are a couple of words that always bothered me that I would never say. They just seemed too incendiary. But I don’t think I have ever written a joke that I thought was too insane to say. I don’t do racial or sexual stuff as much anymore because I’m telling more stuff about my life, but I love shocking people. I think it is hilarious. It tickles me. I only back off, say, if I am making fun of somebody in the audience and they look a little bit uncomfortable.
During celebrity roasts, you want the subject to be uncomfortable. Is the process different?
Roasts are 100 percent different. The roasts are like a month of huge pressure. You have a writing team. You pinpoint the subjects you are going to write about. Say it’s [Donald] Trump. We are going to write about his many wives, his hair, his kids, his buildings, his bankruptcy. We’ll find all the areas. I’ll also research a bunch of areas that aren’t as well known, so if I go later in the evening and people have already covered his hair, I won’t talk about it because it ends up to be repetitive.
We will all submit our ideas, then once we have our ideas, we will pick the A-level jokes. We’ll put together a script. I’ll write the whole script in the order in my cadence. I’ll write my segues. I’ll write my beginning and ending, and then we’ll all punch it up together. It is a hell of a process. It is hard, but it ends up that you have fond memories of that brainstorming. It’s like childbirth. You don’t remember how hellish it is, but you have fond memories of the product that came out. I am assuming that is how childbirth is.
You said Trump put up more pointless hotels than an autistic kid playing Monopoly. Did you get any pushback?
I love that joke. I remember a few tweets, but I didn’t care, because I know that I have great sympathy and empathy for people with special needs kids or handicapped kids or adults. It is called a joke. I am not a senator. Don’t start with me.
Are you going to talk about Trump during the election process?
Probably not, because I never really talk about politics. It is not something I am interested in, but I’m sure there will be a little observation on my part. He cracks me up. I know him a little from Celebrity Apprentice, and I have to throw in a few jokes here and there. I really hope he becomes president because at least I’ll be able to get in touch with the president.
Have you ever met a president?
Oh, God no. Nobody in any kind of controversial position wants to meet me. I don’t think I’m an asset to them.
Tell me about your play, Fat Girls, Interrupted. How is the process different?
It evolved from a one-person show I was going to do. I had written the show with Alan Zweibel. He wrote for Saturday Night Live originally. He wrote Billy Crystal’s show 700 Sundays for Broadway. We wrote a one-person show about me, regarding my relationship with food and men and comedy. Then my dad got sick, and I was like, “This show does not really do for me what I want it to do.” If I am going to go out there with a play, I want it to be a service-oriented play, meaning that you can see yourself in it, that it can help you. So I took the self-centered part out of it, and I made it into a play with four women talking about food, weight, body image and those kinds of struggles. I made it funny, but also emotionally viable.
How is the process different when you are turning a one-person show into a play with four different voices?
I had to interview a whole bunch of women about their different food issues. I am the compulsive dieter and compulsive eater, so we had that covered. I said, “What other women would come to see this and see themselves in it and be able to see they are not alone?” Anorexia and bulimia are big things. I also wanted to put in a character who is skinny and can’t gain weight, because it is a huge problem for women who feel shame about it. And then, as a beacon of hope, I put in this girl based on an author friend of mine who is a big girl who is actually confident and likes herself. It’s so rare. By interviewing a bunch of women and talking to people with these different problems, I was able to cobble together these four characters and just sit down at the computer and write their histories.
You did the backstory first?
Yes. I sort of made up a lot about Stacy, the character who likes herself. Then I also interviewed the girl who is Stacy and some of that went in. It was the opposite of what it is for stand-up, because everything started with the computer. Now, it is at the stage of happening live. I hear the reading out loud, and I go, “This is what I have to change.” It is a cool process. I like it.
It is the opposite of comedy writing.
It is a different muscle. It is so much fun. I can make up anything about this broad. I was having trouble with her because she seems not as well-rounded as the other women because she is actually from a real person. For some reason, I wasn’t getting those details in there. And I had a brainstorm over the weekend, like, “Oh my God, I know what I need to add.” I got so happy I just pulled out the computer on the plane, which I never do. So it is the opposite of the comedy writing. It is a good muscle to start getting used to using.
You said you wanted to start writing a service-oriented play when your dad passed away two years ago. I’m sorry for your loss. It sounds like it has fed your work. How did that shift change your craft?
It is just as an intangible openness that you have to people. And vulnerability. They wouldn’t even notice it, but they just sense something is different and more open about you. Ever since my dad died, I started getting standing ovations again. I don’t know if it is just a coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences. I think there is something going on there. It feels so much better now to not be looking to them to fulfill me, but them looking at me to give them something in return.
I think it all worked together. When I adopted my dog, it sort of cracked me open, and the weight loss cracked me open a little bit more. And my dad’s passing, which was so honorable, that opened me even more. It sort of all fell into place. A year from now, I might be super emotional onstage, who knows? I just go with it. I don’t fear anything.
When you are writing, do you think of the audience at all?
Only when it comes to economy of words. A comedy coach I had when I first started said, “The audience is paying for punch lines, not for prose.” Oh my God, I loved that. Get to the point. It doesn’t mean don’t tell stories, but have a few punch lines thrown in there. So the only time I really think of the audience is going, “Get to the point,” make sure they know you care enough about them to make them laugh and that you are not getting therapy up there. This isn’t about you getting therapy. It is about you giving them something. That is the only time I really think of them. Give them what they paid for, which is to laugh.
Patti Hartigan is a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. She was a longtime staff reporter at The Boston Globe, where she covered theater and the arts.