Lisa Lampanelli in Lincoln

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By Kandra Hahn

“Oh, come on now, you didn’t sit up here and expect not to get picked on.” Comedian Lisa Lampanelli is at the edge of the stage at the Pershing Center in Lincoln, Neb., on Sept. 24, scanning for targets.

That’s how it is at a Lampanelli show. You pay more in hope that she will single you out as “Eric the faggot” or “my blacks.” Or “the chink—what type of chink are you?” she asks, before launching into a riff on the stereotype of the academically brilliant but socially inept Asian.

Is Lisa Lampanelli “The Queen of Mean,” as her website proclaims? It had never occurred to me watching her on cable TV’s Comedy Central as she took over celebrity roasts. I was thinking more “as foul-mouthed as she was funny.”

I had seen her juggle an audience like some acts juggle switched-on chain saws, swords and concrete blocks. I had seen her press the outer bounds of comic tolerability, then draw back with a salve of, “but I love you guys…” before plunging her can-they-say-that-on-TV saber into another sacred cow.

I was worried as I took my gratis press seat at Pershing, among an audience I would put at close to 800—the size I’ve read Ms. Lampanelli favors. Some were college students, but most appeared to be younger working people with the disposable income to buy the $35 to $50 tickets and more for the beer in plastic cups that seemed to be de rigueur throughout the evening.

Ms. Lampanelli reportedly reveres Nebraska’s Dan Whitney, aka Larry the Cable Guy.

According to the Lincoln Journal-Star (Sept. 23, 2010), he sends her jokes that are too “harsh” for him to use. I was at the show with my cousin from Richland, Neb., unincorporated, population 89. He’s a big guy, upwards of 250 pounds, owns his own dirt-moving business and is a connoisseur of comedy. I think he’s the guy Larry the Cable Guy wishes he were. I was anxious to see what he would think of Ms. Lampanelli.

When the lights went down and the cheers went up, the parade of ladies in tight jeans, sparkly T-shirts and high heels, teetering out for concessions and coming back to their seats with multiple cups of beer, slowed down and the warm-up comedian came on. He was California comedian Joe Bartnick. Very funny and compatible with the show to come.

Then Ms. Lampanelli opened with self-deprecation, mocking her ample curves. She bemoaned her experiences with homemaking. “I am to interior design what I am to women’s gymnastics.” Then she turned to a gay couple sitting near the stage, one in a silvery T-shirt. Yes! She began her trademark assault on the audience, wringing stereotypes for all the laughs they could yield. I looked at my cousin and saw him rocking back and forth in convulsive laughter.

(Understand I cannot report verbatim on this show, only select moments.) Later it’s “Who’s in college?” From among the raised hands she hits pay dirt. The fellow she’s chatting up is from Southeast Community College, Milford. “My genius college student,” she croaks, but she loves him too and moves on to a Native American she’s thrilled to discover near the stage. My cousin and I never stop laughing.

She launches into a cringe-inducing description of a physical characteristic of her fiancé. She tells us the show is running long, but we are such a good audience, she wants to tell us more. A trick? Very effective. She leaves us guffawing and loving her, despite a long assault of words some of us never heard except to learn they were hurtful to others; slurs others heard but were told never to say; words others say only in closeted company and words others may say only in hate and to wound.

What happens at these shows? Why do people pay to sit near the stage, hoping they will be singled out? Why do caring people come to laugh at cruel stereotypes and rude epithets? Irony, kids. We laugh because it’s funny when this daffy blonde lady, who looks more like a school teacher than a performer, stands before us saying things no one should say in public—and in great comic form.

In an interview with the Washington Post (Jan. 24, 2009), Lampanelli said that she remembers a time as a child when her mother, in complete innocence, inquired of a Jewish guest in their home whether he was a jeweler or a furrier. It seems that her act is aimed at destroying this constrained view of others by putting it there for all to see, ridicule and reject. She is quoted as saying that she is pleased when people realize that the character she is playing in her act is “defusing language, like Lenny Bruce did.”

And for those who don’t get it? Here’s something she included the night we saw her, attributing the late Sam Kinison, comic extraordinaire: It’s better to be loved by 15 percent of the people than to be liked by 85 percent.

For my cousin and me, it was sore stomach muscles and a great night at the still great Pershing Center.

 

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