Lisa Lampanelli has built a career on cruelty. She bills herself as the “Queen of Mean,” an insult comic in the tradition created by Jack E. Leonard and perfected by the great Don Rickles.
Unapologetically bawdy and loud, Lampanelli ruthlessly insults all comers with a withering array of good-natured abuse, including racially charged stereotypes and slurs.
Quite naturally, when we spoke by phone last week, she began our conversation by insulting me. “Am I talking to the man with the most pretentious name I ever heard?”
Lampanelli, who appears Saturday night at the Uptown Theater, has gone through a lot of changes in the last few years. In addition to a divorce and sassy new haircut, she had gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 100 pounds. More importantly, she has kept the weight off. She becomes uncharacteristically serious when describing the new lease on life she has gotten from a healthier body.
“There’s something mentally wrong with me because I feel like I’m 19 years old. I feel like I’m living life a second time now, with the body I should have had all along.”
The changes are more than external. When we spoke, Lampanelli was at a spiritual retreat in the Berkshires.
“I’m learning how to be in the present moment because you enjoy life more when you are. So I’m giving you the rare opportunity to talk to me when I’m calm.”
Calm, in her case, is a relative term. On the phone, she speaks even faster than she does onstage, tossing off sassy one-liners and then cackling with delight. She certainly hasn’t changed her comedy. Lampanelli remains as savagely insulting as when she got her first big break at the 2002 New York Friars’ Club roast of Chevy Chase. She went on to roast the likes of William Shatner, Pamela Anderson and Flavor Flav and soon became a favorite of Howard Stern.
Her success is all the more remarkable in an age of rising political correctness. To modern ears in a time of heightened sensitivity, a Lampanelli show can sound a bit shocking. It’s certainly jarring to hear racial epithets so casually flung from the stage.
That’s the idea. The changing culture has given her work a kind of meta-meaning. With her equal opportunity offensiveness, she not only skewers her subjects but pushes back against the constraints of political correctness itself.
There’s another key to her success, though. It’s love. Lampanelli gets away with being so cruel, she said, for two reasons. One, she never plays favorites. Everyone, including herself, is fair game. Two, she believes that audiences can sense her underlying affection for them.
She mentioned a conversation with fellow comic Doug Stanhope.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe you don’t get walk outs.’ But I think audiences are smarter and more perceptive than we give them credit for,” she said. “They know that I have a good heart. I don’t single out any one group, and so I think that’s why people go, ‘Hey, I’m on board for all of it,’ and I don’t get that reaction.”
Most performers, when asked about visiting Kansas City, claim to be excited about sampling our barbecue. Not Lampanelli. Never one to shy from confrontation, she loves coming to KC — she was last here in 2014 — because of the people who object to her presence here.
“I always get protested by Westboro Baptist Church,” she said. “And I love pushing their buttons.”
She certainly does. A few years ago, she vowed to donate $1,000 to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis for every protester that the church got to show up at a performance in Topeka. Ultimately she donated $50,000 to GMHC. The cause is a favorite of hers. She raised more than $100,000 for the group during her stint on the fifth season of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Her time on that show also gave her a wealth, pun intended, of new material. In addition to the usual barrage of insults, fans at Saturday’s show can expect a savage roasting of her former TV boss.
“I gotta tell ya,” she said, “I know the guy in person, so it’s on. With Trump, there’s just so much to make fun of. There’s the hair, the fake facial color, the horrible tiny hands. The Islamophobia and xenophobia. There’s just so much!”
Fans, in other words, should expect Lampanelli to have no mercy on the president-elect. Why should he be different from anyone else?
Lisa Lampanelli will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Tickets are $29.50-$39.50 through Ticketmaster.com.