Early in her new Epix stand-up special, the self-described Queen Of Mean makes a questionable offhand assertion: “Nobody’s brave like Lisa Lampanelli.” Back in 2002 at The NY Friar’s Club Roast Of Chevy Chase, that was likely true. At that taping and in the years since, Lampanelli helped set the new standard for brash wit in modern shock comedy.
By her own admission, Lampanelli is something of a pop culture anomaly. The white, New York-based Queen Of Mean sits among an elite circle of comedy misfits—Don Rickles, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, Trey Parker and Matt Stone—whose prodding at racial and societal taboos are protected from the usual criticisms under the license awarded to equal opportunity offenders and self-proclaimed first amendment warriors. And equally offend she does. In specials like Lisa Lampanelli: Long Live The Queen, Lampanelli scans her audience for superficial targets—weight, race, baldness, age, sexuality—and reads willing victims to filth in quick, gleefully offensive succession. The bits and one-liners delivered by someone who (in her own words) looks like a soccer mom, is almost vaudevillian, too impersonal and over-the-top to legitimately be mistaken for malicious. Much of her success, including her fantastic run on the Comedy Central Roasts, stems from her brilliance as a crowd worker and a crafter of abrasive one-two-punch jokes.
In Back To The Drawing Board, Lampanelli tries to step back from the wrought routine and gets personal, albeit in an unfittingly massive proscenium theater. Much of the act centers on her weight loss—107 pounds kept off for three years—and the societal pressures put on older woman who choose not to have children, even in a laissez-faire industry like show business. “No no no,” her doctor tells her. She cannot reverse her stomach surgery, as the excess tissue will be used to “cover the infield at Yankee Stadium.”
The personal bits are spliced with old-fashioned crowd reading, and both get short shrift. There are not one, not two, but three jokes about Asians eating dogs, which would be well and fine under the auspices of insult comedy if they were good dog-eating jokes. Instead, much of the dependable race humor is uncharacteristically clumsy: “Are you a black, or a half-spic-half black? That would make you Six Years A Slave, my friend.” Clumsier still are her ventures into observational comedy, which relies on rattling off a who’s who of yesteryear’s easy targets: Honey Boo Boo. Snooki. Dog the Bounty Hunter. (One unfortunate and recurring lapse of pop culture anachronism comes in the form of Kardashian jokes: “Bruce Jenner’s face is more expressive than I am.”) For all the supposed emphasis on vulnerability, Lampanelli sticks to surface-level disclosures that she’s either already noted elsewhere or could already be assumed. She’s annoyed by hand sanitizer and Whole Foods, she explains, and doesn’t like getting stuck next to kids on airplanes.
It’s not like there isn’t precedent for her to dig deep. In a revealing interview with Marc Maron on WTF a few years back, Lampanelli laid bare the realities and unique challenges of life as a professional provocateur, including the months of unsolicited hateful jokes “fans” send her after each roast. At one particularly intimate point, she confessed to accusing her then-husband of staying in the relationship for the money, an insult she knew to be untrue and regretted instantly. It was the sort of cringe-inducing, vulnerable and character-questioning admission that good, personal comedy can thrive on—the sort that Back To The Drawing Board so noticeably lacks.
Nearly a decade ago, late at night behind an ominous Viewer Discretion Advised warning, comedy specials like Lisa Lampanelli: Dirty Girl felt subversive, and maybe they were. Hearing slurs like “fag” and “spic” on television in safe, laughing company was a novelty in and of itself, a sort of catharsis for the unequally enforced and often baffling rules of television standards and a feigned lack of racial awareness in the media. But Lampanelli doesn’t seem to take into account how the conversation on race has changed in the last few years (for better and worse), and where it’s taking place. Media consumers no longer live in a sanitized politically correct entertainment culture; social media and an unending torrent of stories highlighting social inequities have raised expectation for what it means to comment on social differences. Merely touching the third rail of race is no longer shocking; you need to have something to say.