“My agent put it perfectly when he said, ‘It helped to make you more famous, but the ticket sales are exactly the same.’”
And with that, I knew my conversation with comedian Lisa Lampanelli would be a frank one. Lampanelli, who performs two shows at the Carolina Theatre in Durham Saturday night, was answering a question about her appearance on NBC’s reality show “The Celebrity Apprentice,” where she filled the role of “token villain” for Season 5. Outspoken and unafraid to rub her fellow cast mates the wrong way, she found herself disliked by viewers, some of whom had never heard of her before the show. Not the best long-term career plan, perhaps, but she points out that the short-term repercussions did make her a household name.
“More people know who I am now, but it didn’t really help or hurt me,” she says. “It helped a bit in the industry, because now folks that work at NBC know you, but then I lost a little over 100 pounds, so no one really recognizes me anymore anyway, so it’s all a wash.”
The self-described “Queen of Mean” has been riling up crowds of unsuspecting comedy fans for a couple of decades now. A true insult comic, she styled her act around the Dean Martin roasts that aired when she was growing up. Despite constant comparisons to her female counterparts, it was the older male comedians she watched on television that most influenced her career.
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Now after years of packing venues with fans eager to hear her putdowns, the comic is taking her act in a new direction. Lampanelli has cut down on the rapid-fire punch lines she is known for and is taking a more nuanced approach to comedy by embracing the art of long-form storytelling.
“What happened was I had been interviewed many times over the past two years about my divorce, my weight loss, my trouble with weight over all of these years, and I found that a lot of people really wanted to hear my stories,” she says. “I figured I should tell the stories on this stuff, which are still super funny. It gives my fans an inside look at what really goes into my life as well as a chance to gain some insight into themselves, whether that’s their struggles, their divorce, their weight problems.
“It just naturally evolved, it was something that I didn’t force. It just seemed to happen, and I noticed that people loved it. The longer stories with better punch lines were getting bigger standing ovations, and it was hard to not pay attention to.”
The theaters and venues on Lampanelli’s current tour are perfect for this style of comedy, as opposed to the smaller comedy clubs where she started out. And about those smaller clubs, Lampanelli is again frank.
“I don’t miss one thing, and I’m not even kidding,” she says. “Any band or comic that says, ‘I love to go back to more intimate settings,’ is just admitting that they can’t sell tickets. I’ve only done two clubs in the past 10 years, and that was to practice my routine right before taping a special, because before filming a special you like to see what a real audience’s reaction will be to the material. Every time I step into a club, I just think to myself, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to never do this again.’
“I think it was Louis C.K. that said the comedy club crowds are the chicken finger crowd, meaning that they’re there for bachelorette parties, or to get a plate of chicken fingers and celebrate a birthday. The theater crowds are actually there for that one particular comic that they paid extra money to see. To me, that’s the key difference right there.”
Lampanelli insists that the audience coming to see her at the Carolina Theatre Saturday will hear the jokes that they like, whether it’s the frat bro looking for politically incorrect punch lines that were her bread and butter for years, or the comedy nerd interested in the newer stuff.
“The thing is that my stories are just as hardcore and honest and bawdy as my insult act,” she explains. “Fans will get what they came for, even with the new shows, because there is still a good percentage of crowd work involved, it’s just changed from being 90 percent to 30 percent of my act.
“Everybody still gets what they came for.”
Who: Lisa Lampanelli
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org