By Michelle Trauring
On the surface, Lisa Lampanelli had it all: a reputation as the Queen of Mean, a 100-pound weight loss, a house in Connecticut with her shaggy pooch, Parker, and a level of success she never fathomed at the start of her career.
And, even so, the insult comic could barely get up in the morning.
“Don’t we all change, after 30 years of doing the same thing?” she said during a telephone interview last week. “I’m always about being open to what makes you joyful, and insult comedy just was not that much fun anymore.
“If you’re doing something and it takes that much effort to go on the road and to put all this time and no sleep into making a living, if there’s not a huge payoff joy-wise, why do it?” she continued. “I’m not here to torture myself. I’m here to have a good life.”
Almost exactly a year ago, she sat down in Howard Stern’s studio — a place that has become familiar over the decades — with an announcement. She was retiring from stand-up comedy, she said, and audiences would never see her on stage again — as an insult comic, that is.
Pursuing a new path as a life coach, Lampanelli is now dedicating her purpose to running transformational food and body image workshops, and performing an issue-oriented storytelling show, “Fat Chance: An Evening of Conversation & Story,” which she will bring to Sag Harbor on Saturday night at Bay Street Theater.
“I really don’t look forward to too much in life, because I just have a normal, easy, kind of chill life, kind of whatever,” the 58-year-old said. “But I’m looking at my calendar, and I’m like, ‘Oh, goodie! We get to do this show next week,’ which I haven’t had for stand-up in forever, dude. It was five years since I was so excited. That’s what every day should be like.”
By age 30, Lampanelli had worked in journalism and publishing, and decided it was not for her. The idea of comedy, steadily percolating since her early 20s, finally forced her on stage at an open mic night in New Haven, Connecticut. When two men in the audience high-fived at one of her punch lines, she was sold.
As her career gained steam, she found her voice and landed a spot on Comedy Central’s roast of Chevy Chase at the Friars Club in Manhattan. It was 2002, and she was officially on the map. She transformed from a road comic to a theater comic, established recurring appearances on “The Howard Stern Show,” and even participated in the fifth season of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” where she advanced to the final four, raising $130,000 for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Shortly after, she underwent gastric-sleeve surgery and came out on the other side with a new lease on life, punctuated by her father falling ill a year later. It was a grim lesson in priorities and purpose, she said, and helped snap her career into perspective.
“It felt like I was shortchanging my life — the way I was doing stand-up — just in my vibe,” she said. “I wasn’t shortchanging other people in the audience, it was just me. I ended up thinking, ‘I want to do something more.’”
With that attitude, and the help of Alan Zweibel — who co-authored Billy Crystal’s hit one-man Broadway show “700 Sundays” — she wrote “Stuffed,” a play about food, fat and fearlessness that made its off-Broadway world premiere in 2016, after she work-shopped the piece at Bay Street.
“[Alan] was so f—–g great, a really sensitive male, but so hardcore about ‘Get to the truth. Tell the whole story. That’s how you do an off-Broadway show,’” Lampanelli said. “He really asked hard questions and it was horrible, but great. After every session, I felt drained, but then I also felt really happy. And then he goes, ‘Don’t worry about trying to be funny. The laughs will come anyway.’ And he was right.”
The revelation caused Lampanelli to retreat from stand-up even further, and by the time she made her announcement to retire on “The Howard Stern Show,” she was steadfast in her decision.
“I knew he wasn’t gonna make fun of me, I knew he wasn’t gonna be sarcastic about it or anything, because he has respect and he knew it was a serious thing — that I wasn’t retiring as a stunt or as a joke,” she said, adding, “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, insult comedy’s wrong,’ or ‘Oh, politically incorrect stuff’s wrong.’ No! Those are the only comics I seem to really like and watch. But now, it’s just like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do it, I can just watch it and enjoy it.’”
To be clear, this is not to say that “Fat Chance” won’t ruffle some feathers, Lampanelli said.
“I think political incorrectness is the best,” she added. “It’s just great for comedy because everybody’s so precious and earnest, and it just makes me sick. And now, what’s funny is in the storytelling shows that I do, there’s some majorly un-earnest stuff in there, and some comments that people would be like, ‘That’s not politically correct.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s my story, so suck it.’”
From her food obsession to her physical transformation to her compulsion to date the “junk food of men,” the risky and vulnerable story Lampanelli tells is stripped down and bare, without sets, costumes or elaborate lighting. It’s the truth, she said, about weight, food and body acceptance, in an effort to deeply connect with her audience.
“I used to do things only if I thought I could be great at them, but now it’s like, as a storyteller, I’m like, ‘I can be good at it and still impact people,’ so there’s no pressure to be great,” she said. “But then that’s what makes the show great. You don’t put undue pressure on yourself, and I think that’s why we’ve been getting standing ovations and these rousing Q&As that are really deep and personal.
“I think by not striving to be the best, because I think that’s a f—–g setup, it ends up being the best thing I ever did,” she continued. “I know for a fact this is the best thing I’ve ever done, hands down, guaranteed. I think, as we get older, shouldn’t we always just keep getting better and better and better?”
“Fat Chance: An Evening of Conversation & Story” with Lisa Lampanelli and Frank Liotti will be performed on Saturday, October 19, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $40 to $75. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.