“Sit down, you dirty cornholers,” the comedian commanded, marching onstage. “Shut the fuck up you dirty cunt,” she screamed at a woman in the front who’d yelled, “I love you!” Welcome to Lisa Lampanelli’s live act at the recent Just for Laughs festival.
Going further than you might have thought permissible, she treats audience members with venomous contempt. Within the first five minutes of her routine Lampanelli had mocked: gays (“faggots”), white gays, white people, privileged white people, black people, black people who act like white people, black gays, Hispanics, Mexicans, Koreans, Asians, “Chincs,” people with glasses, short people, and busty women. And by the time the dust settled at the end of her one-hour show, she’d added: lesbians (“dykes”), Serbians, Italians, Poles, Jews, Arabs (“fuckin sand niggers”), Indians, Indonesians, victims of cancer, lupus, AIDS, and the swine flu, deaf people, mothers of retarded children who’d complained about her jokes about retarded people (“fuck those cunts”), cock-blockers, “fat chicks,” women with floppy tits, men with small dicks, her boyfriend and his “huge balls” (like a “hobo’s bag on the stick over his shoulder”), fur protesters, business men, people who work for Jet Blue, the “nappy-haired women of Rutgers women’s basketball,” Oprah and her girls’ school in South Africa, Jenny Craig, Larry the Cable Guy, Jeffrey Ross, Flava Flav (“beef jerky in a track suit”), and even the victim of a bizarre assault (“Did you hear about that chimp that attacked that lady? Rihanna was too pretty for that.”)
I’d seen Lampanelli once before, a few years ago at the Vic. She might have been a touch less vicious then. Like Don Rickles she has an amazing skill at pinpointing and then deriding–often through brilliant metaphors–a person’s most identifying characteristics. But unlike Rickles, Lampanelli doesn’t stick to celebrities. Her “M.O.” she said toward the end of her Just for Laughs set, is to “make fun of every sex, race, creed, color, and sexual abomination.”
I don’t have the stamina to enjoy Lampanelli’s entire act, but she’s hilarious. And that’s noteworthy, for the question of whether women are funny is still being discussed. Christopher Hitchens said women aren’t in an essay for Vanity Fair in 2007. Alessandra Stanley said they are in a well-researched response, also in Vanity Fair, in 2008. Two major showcases during Just for Laughs each featured a female stand-up who happened to be the least funny: Kathleen Madigan in Let Freedom Hum, hosted by Martin Short, and Marina Franklin in Comedy You Can Believe In, hosted by David Alan Grier.
But Lampanelli and lots of other women, from Lucille Ball to Margaret Cho, have held their own with the funniest men. Wendy Liebman, who performed at the fest in the Very Funny Show at Zanies, is as clever and funny as any stand-up I’ve seen. So why does the idea persist that women cannot be as funny as men? One reason may simply be that there are so few women comics–if you catch one and don’t find her funny it’s easy to assume that women comics aren’t.
The more interesting question to me is this: Why don’t more women become comedians? But maybe it’s not fair to generalize about the dearth of women in comedy. Should we distinguish between women doing improv and sketch comedy (live and for TV and film) and women doing stand-up, which is where the the female/male ratio seems most imbalanced?