Fame & Fortune: Comic Lisa Lampanelli

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Lisa Lampanelli has found success in modern-day comedy with a style that’s as old school as it gets.

A former researcher and rock journalist for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Spy, and Hit Parader, Lampanelli delivers zingers — many racially tinged — in the purest Don Rickles tradition, playing on ethnic stereotypes to decimate her audience but with a wink never far from her eye. This blatant style has made her a key attraction at the roasts thrown by Comedy Central and Howard Stern, and a favorite on “The Tonight Show.”

Lampanelli is also starting to find success on the big screen, with roles in major films such as “Larry the Cable Guy’s Delta Farce,” which hit theaters in May, and next year’s Owen Wilson starrer “Drillbit Taylor.”

Lampanelli shows why she’s known as “The Lovable Queen of Mean” as she skewers some of the top names in entertainment on Comedy Central’s roast of Flava Flav.

Bankrate spoke with Lampanelli about her comedic ascent and the pleasures of fame.

Bankrate: How long have you been doing stand-up?

Lisa Lampanelli: Sixteen years. I think I hit 30 and snapped. I was a journalist and I was totally bored because I didn’t want to continue interviewing hair bands in the 1980s. I worked for Rolling Stone and Hit Parader and met everyone I wanted to meet. So I said “Screw it, I’ll try comedy,” ’cause I thought I could do it. Thank goodness it worked, or I’d be Xeroxing my ass at Kinkos.

Bankrate: What kind of material were you doing when you started?

Lisa Lampanelli: You have to talk about things you’re passionate about, or it comes out really boring. At the time I was on Weight Watchers and was losing weight, and I was under fire from people at my day job who would make comments about my weight and how I looked. So I ranted and raved about that for five minutes, and thankfully I was pissed off enough about it for it to come out funny. Then I tilted the other way, and within nine months I was doing 100 percent crowd work. Then it went back to the other way, and now it’s more insults and angry material, a combination of both.

Bankrate: Were you ever uncomfortable lobbing these sorts of insults at people?

Lisa Lampanelli: No. If I didn’t curse it felt stilted because I curse in real life, and the audience senses you’re not real if you’re holding back on stage.

Bankrate: Have you ever said anything to an audience member you later felt was over the line?

Lisa Lampanelli: There’s no line. There just isn’t. There were good comics doing 9/11 jokes on Sept. 12. I wasn’t one of them because I couldn’t make it funny, but there were good guys doing good jokes about that. So there really isn’t any line, and I don’t remember ever cringing. I remember other comics criticizing me and saying, “You shouldn’t have said that.” For example, I was working in Massachusetts, and this black guy was with a white chick, so I asked his name and he said “Rod.” I said, “I didn’t ask what you did for a living.” That got a big laugh. But then this other comic said, “You know, that was way too harsh, because he was with a white girl, and that’s hard enough as it is.” I was like, “What? I don’t get it.” Here I am at 35 years old listening to some guy who’s still earning $125 a set? I’m doing what I’m doing.

Bankrate: There’s an interesting comparison that can be made between you and Sarah Silverman, in that you both cross a line in ways that are more similar than most people would admit. Yet she’s seen as the intelligent comic, and you’re seen as more …

Lisa Lampanelli: Everyman.

Bankrate: Yeah. Do you think that’s fair?

Lisa Lampanelli: I think Sarah and I are just as smart as each other, because I’m really educated and I’m sure she is as well. I’m sure we both have well above-average IQs. But the path is different. The simpler the joke, the better for me. I like hitting really hard in that Don Rickles slam style. She’s got a different delivery and she’s really sweet-looking. She’s adorable. I’m a big fan, because if I were a cute girl like that, there’s no way I’d even be doing comedy. I would have a rich husband and be sitting on my ass in a house in Greenwich, playing tennis every day. But yeah, we are definitely alike. I’m the low budget, poor man’s Sarah Silverman, the lowlife one. I’m the lowlife cousin, which is fine.

Bankrate: You do seem pretty down-to-earth. Do you have your extravagant side?

Lisa Lampanelli: Oh yeah. For 15 years I earned crummy money, but something happened last year — after the Pam Anderson roast — where I started earning percentages of theaters. So my big thing was that I bought my first two pairs of Jimmy Choo and Gucci shoes. I had four pairs, and they had these beautiful bags they came in. They were just so gorgeous that I got hooked, and I’m like, “I’m not a girl. How did that happen?” But it just took off. And I had this closet full of Manolo Blahnik’s because I was addicted to “Sex and the City,” so I felt I had to be like them. I wear them each once because they’re 5-inch heels, and who can wear those? Retarded. So I love those, and I love really expensive Gucci purses, although I priced one at $3,700, and I couldn’t do it. I have my limits. I can say, OK, $1,300, I can do it, but when you see $3,700, you go, “Oh my god, that’s too much.” So I can’t believe I turned into a girl. I also love really expensive makeup, because when you hit 45 you better make it expensive or you might as well look like Tammy Faye. I also go to Canyon Ranch, that health spa, once a month, for 10 grand a week. I love that, because you lay around the pool, you get massages, all that spiritual awakening crap that I make fun of, but actually believe in. I love spending money, dude. I don’t know what happened. I snapped. I love room service, because I don’t even look at the bill, I just sign it. You know what my most proud thing is? I’ll go into Dior or something, and they’ll think I’m a lowlife, ’cause I’m just me. And I won’t even look at prices and I’ll be like, “I’ll just take that, that and that,” and it feels just like “Pretty Woman.” I just pray that when they give me the receipt, it wasn’t too much. It always scares me a little going, “Was that awful bracelet $1,000? It better be $200.” Oh, and my other addiction: I spent $5,000 on hair extensions so I could look young without plastic surgery.

Bankrate: What’s your favorite out of all these?

Lisa Lampanelli: The Canyon Ranch. It’s just so relaxing. It’s the 800 different activities that I ignore, like all these exercise classes that I totally blow off. Every day I say, “I’m gonna do stretching class, relaxation and meditation and breathing.” I end up just getting massages and sitting by the pool and going into the Jacuzzi and being lazy, to decompress. I didn’t take any vacation for 15 years. Now I take one a month. I love it.

Bankrate: It was the Pam Anderson roast that made the big difference for you, careerwise?

Lisa Lampanelli: That’s when I started selling places out. Everybody kept saying, “Oh, I saw you on the roast,” and then it started really taking off because of Howard Stern, and then the William Shatner roast, and then my specials. It all kind of accumulates. So I’m in the theaters instead of the clubs, and I’m like, “Wow, it all works.” If you just work hard and get on TV enough, you can sell out places. It’s so much fun.

Bankrate: How big are the places you’re headlining now?

Lisa Lampanelli: Between 1,200 and 2,000. It was really funny — I was playing the Peoria Civic Center, which has 2,000 seats, but the room suddenly got booked by something else. So they had to put me in the 11,000-seater. I was like, “This is gonna suck. It’s gonna make me feel bad because it’s empty, while it would have been sold out in the little place.” But the promoter blocked it off so it looked like a very intimate setting. Then he goes, “We really think you’re going to be in these 11,000-seaters one day.” That would be it. I wanna be the female “Larry the Cable Guy.” That would be so great.

Bankrate: With all the earning you’re doing now, how are you at saving and investing?

Lisa Lampanelli: My mother and father are Depression-era, so they beat it into us that we had better save for retirement. So I save tons of money for retirement, even though comics never retire. I’m going to probably end up with tons of money in a pension plan or a
401(k), whatever they call it. I save a lot of money every month. It’s that fear-based mentality of my parents saying, “Some day you’re going to want to quit and hang out.” Although I don’t know what I would do, because without attention, I’m nothing. If someone isn’t recognizing me, I’m pissed. So I save money. It scares me not to. I really want the house that’s paid off by the time I retire. Remember that old-fashioned rule that you should always have your house paid off before you retire? I have that in my head, so if I buy a $1.6 million house, that better be paid off in a few years.

Bankrate: Do you also do a lot of investing, like stocks and real estate?

Lisa Lampanelli: I tell my girl at AG Edwards, “do whatever.” And my financial guy — I have a guy who does my financial planning — I let him handle it. I owned an apartment in Manhattan, but I sold it and moved to Connecticut and bought a place there. I never rent anything any more, because you can’t really lose when buying a house. My mother always said, “Be the worst house in a good neighborhood instead of the best house in a bad neighborhood.” I’ve always viewed myself as the worst house in a good neighborhood.

Bankrate: Do you ever see a day when you may do any real estate investing outside of your own house, or buy a stock that you really like, things like that?

Lisa Lampanelli: Maybe. I’m so obsessed with my personal life and with comedy that I don’t worry about anything else, so I can’t imagine caring that much. Like, I have health insurance, but I know I could get it cheaper through the unions, but I just can’t be bothered. It’s too much to think about. I’d rather just stay in my little world and do my thing, and then have them handle it. I just care too much about what I’m doing personally.

Bankrate: So you allot a little money for savings and the rest goes to Canyon Ranch.

Lisa Lampanelli: Exactly! And don’t forget Jimmy Choo and Dior, please. I love it when you’re known by name at these places. They send you a thank you note. I got a thank you note from Dior yesterday for spending money there. That felt good. Because you know they really want to be your friend. We delude ourselves into thinking, that salesperson really liked me. They ain’t your friends. Don’t move to that town.