Lisa Lampanelli Defends the Lena Dunham Tweet That Upset the Twitterverse -- to Critic Pia Glenn

Lisa Lampanelli has been examined under a microscope around the Web in the past 24 hours. Now Pia Glenn asks her about the tweet that -- in her words -- came out of friendship and respect.

Feb 20, 2013 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

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(Lisa Lampanelli photo by Andrew Coppa.)

I made Lisa Lampanelli cry! OK, no, not quite. What actually happened is that I had a really wonderful conversation with her and though she did use the N-word when we spoke and she did cry, it is not because I made her cry, but because sometimes humans express emotion and also say nigga. So there I was on Monday morning, scrolling through my beloved Twitter feed, when I came across a puzzling sight:

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What. The. Fuck. Noooooooo! I know Lisa Lampanelli is known as the Queen of Mean in comedy circles. (Yes, those of us who remember Leona Helmsley are aware she was called that but so is Lisa so stand down on that one.)

I always consider context and the source and I know better than to clutch my proverbial pearls at Lisa’s brand of humor, but this was too much for even me because if there was humor there, it was lost on me. Still, it’s Lisa. Choose your battles, I thought. I went on about my business.

By Monday night, so many of the wonderful people of color that I follow on Twitter had mentioned her with pure undistilled anger, and I have always kept a place in my heart for this broad. This woman who said things that sounded like insults but are scripted jokes that maintain a healthy outrage-to-laughter ratio that will make you pee your pants with guffaw-induced incontinence.

If you’re into it, that is. I am, so even as I let it go, I almost wanted to “join the conversation” in her defense, and I would have, save for the simple fact that I found this particular act indefensible. As someone who is not easily offended, when it does happen, it is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you. But it happens.

I woke up early Tuesday morning, and when I was still getting messages, both personal and private, of disgust at her tweet, I found I was still disgusted too. Now, I definitely tweet my truths, but I have only ever gone on a few bona fide Twitter rants. This was one.

I would have been angry at any two white people smiling broadly with that caption, and the same decades-long familiarity with Lisa’s act that initially calmed my reaction is the same one that made me high-octane furious a day later. My general disdain for white people calling each other that word, as a black woman, had morphed into anger at someone I had enjoyed acting the fool, and I was upset as a fan. I ranted and though some of my fantastic followers tweeted support, a rant doesn’t solve anything. What to do? I couldn’t accept it, but I couldn’t really defend her against the village’s cries.

I threw a tweet out there to my homegirls at xoJane, with no anticipation that it would be taken seriously, that I should interview her. An hour later my cellphone rang and it was Lisa Lampanelli. We exchanged initial pleasantries and exchanged ground rules about recording the call, etc. Then we got to it:

Pia: On the record, I’m familiar—wait, “familiar” is silly. I know your comedy. I do. I am a fan from the old school, and I—with my little voice that a few people have heard—I’ve even spoken out in defense of you, of other comics because it is a skill, it is an art. I’m the first person to say ‘relax’, which is why I personally thought this was kind of a bigger deal, because when I’m the one going ‘Whoa, hey, wait a minute!’, you know, I have to check myself and my little feelings too.

Lisa: I’m shocked that you went ‘Whoa, wait a minute’ knowing what a difference there is between saying the N-word with the A on the end versus the N-word with the R on the end—versus getting offended at comics at all, because comics aren’t Senators or anybody else, y’know, it’s humor. And I’m actually surprised that anyone who knows my comedy would get offended in the least. It’s just ridiculous.

Pia: I hear you on that and I know you’ve said “comics aren’t senators” before, and I’m totally with you on that a thousand percent. I guess I question the line. You wrote this when you were out at the WGAs, right?

Lisa: Yes. It was at the Writer’s Guild Awards on Sunday night and by the way, any time I’m on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, it’s not Lisa the Person, it’s Lisa the Comic. Any time I put something out there, it’s because it’s Lisa the Comic at an event, or Lisa the Comic having fun but still being comedic about it, so that was not something that in my real life.

You probably won’t hear me going up to my dry cleaner today; and I would never go up to her in my real life, dressed down, not on stage, not for Twitter or Facebook or anything and say ‘Hey my C-word!’ Pia: Right.

Lisa: I just wouldn’t do that because that’s real life. To me, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter is The Comic, so it’s never just Lisa living her life, ‘cause me living my life never makes it onto Twitter because really, that’s not for anybody to see but myself.

Pia: Totally agree. And to be clear, I certainly wasn’t confused, like ‘Oh my God Lisa Lampanelli thinks Lena Dunham’s a nigger’ or says nigger frequently, it’s not like that. Lisa: I would hope that that’s not the thought.

Pia: Nooooo.

Lisa: Because even if it is how a person is—like, there was a controversy about a person yesterday, an actor saying a derogative racial slur, and I’m nobody to come down on him, but that’s way different, saying ‘Look at this racial-slur-racial-slur person’, versus ‘Hey my niggA’, meaning BFF or acquaintance or someone I’m friendly with. It doesn’t mean a person is less than me. Because certainly she’s higher than anyone I know in the business right now, so it was definitely obviously meant in a friendly non-derogative way.

Pia: That, I was never confused about. I mean I asked you directly because I wanted to be more specific about that line between the personal and professional life for you. I have no confusion that you are a personality, and entertainer, you do it well, you’ve done it for a long time, and I believe that’s what we get from your Twitter feed as well, does that make sense?

Lisa: Right, right, yes.

Pia: So there’s no confusion on that, but, in terms of being an entertainer, in terms of knowing your audience as you do, as I’ve seen you do, when you read the audience and you’re like OK, where’s this crowd willing to go, I don’t expect you to put as much skill into a tweet, quite frankly.

Lisa: Yeah but you know what’s funny? I have to put MORE thought and skill into a tweet or a Facebook posting or a Tumblr posting, because that’s where most people are gonna see it. So I almost have to put more thought into “Is this gonna get me a hard time from people, are they gonna get my voice? It’s a lot harder to convey your voice in writing than on stage and without them seeing the love that you have for everybody.

So yeah, I get what you’re saying. I was talking to my husband about this about two minutes ago and he goes ‘You almost have to look at Twitter as something like hey—not 100 percent of these people know your comedy.’ So it’s almost like going on The Tonight Show for the first time, you gotta just kinda tread a little bit more lightly.

You know, I don’t know if I’m gonna take his advice, I mean he is a pretty astute guy, but you know, my fans—I doubt that anybody who’s a real fan of mine is put off by anything that I say because frankly, I’ve been doing it the same way for all these years, how could they be shocked?

Pia: Do you think though, since Twitter didn’t exist when you started out and you have been doing it the same way for all these years, do you think that--do you pay attention to how changing mediums might alter the way you put your words out there?

Lisa: Well clearly I don’t. [Big laugh from us both.] Or else we wouldn’t be talking. Um, no because here’s what I figure. The people who like me are gonna like me, the people who don’t like me aren’t gonna like me, and it doesn’t matter because as long as I have enough fans to fill the two thousand seat theaters every weekend, I’m cool. I’m not looking to be hugely famous, I’m not looking to change who I am. I’m not looking to be thought of differently unless I really want to make an effort at that, which clearly I don’t.

I like being controversial, I like puttin’ it out there, and with me, guess what? I could tweet tomorrow ‘Happy Birthday’ to my best friend and someone would find something to say about it.

Pia: True.

Lisa: This is—oh, this is so funny—my best friend from my childhood--

Pia: LISA, PLEASE DON’T SAY YOUR BEST FRIEND IS BLACK--

Lisa: You’re obviously joking and you’re laughing, note that for the record.

Note: Yes, Dear Reader, I was and I was. But also for the record, some people in this world do still attempt the ‘My best friend is…’ argument and they need to stop that shit. Immediately. But I digress.

Lisa, continued: No, she’s not actually, my best friend is Latino, or Latina I guess because it’s a chick. What’s funny is if I tweeted ‘Happy Birthday Victoria I love you’ Somebody’s gonna go ‘Oh, sucking up to the Latinos, aren’t ya?’ You know what, somebody’ll always find something and you just gotta laugh about it. Clearly that tweet was meant as a flattering thing to Lena first and foremost ‘cause she ‘s the most talented woman I know. I would say; I know in my stage act and on Twitter that I’m making a joke with a pure heart, and I only answer to myself about that. If it’s not with a pure heart, then it’s not a joke. Then it’s evil and nasty and has no place in comedy or on Twitter at all.

Pia: OK, mad respect for that, but I might think that if you’re honing your stage show, you just can’t put that amount of energy into Twitter and Instagram.

Lisa: I have to say—I completely disagree, only because it’s part of the job. Oh my God. Unfortunately, sadly, it’s part of the job. You gotta write the damned, at least two jokes a day, that will make people laugh a little bit or at least smile, or at least make them talk, like they are now, and then you have to write your comedy, and I’m workin’ on a Broadway show, and then have your real life. But honestly, sadly, social media has become part of your job and if you’re not doin’ it, you’re pretty much gonna get left behind, I think.

Pia: I agree with you on that level, I was saying that as sort of the way that I justified your tweet in my mind. As you know I personally didn’t find it funny. That’s me, that’s subjective, and I questioned what was going on--but hearing you speak about it in such detail, having put thought into it, can you see how that doesn’t come across in the actual tweet?

Lisa: Um, no, because I have, I think, over 800 likes of it on Instagram, I forget the number, I have to look it up. But here’s the thing, I’m not being pejorative, I’m not being dismissive, but I have to say I don’t care. And you wanna know why I don’t care? ‘Cause the minute a comic starts caring about every single person’s opinion, they become watered down, and horrible, and have no sense of relevance whatsoever.

I’m not—and I’m not saying that about this gentleman, I’m just naming a name. I’m not Seinfeld. I’m not safe.

Pia: Right.

Lisa: I’m not talking about cottonballs and having a show about nothing –- even though I have the most respect for him of almost anybody in the business—

Pia: Yes, I hear you, [you’re speaking] in terms of the genre.

Lisa: It doesn’t really matter what every single person thinks. And if I, in my heart, know something was meant as a compliment, and was meant how I’ve been talking for years, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Because guess what? If for some reason, say this tweet ruined my career and oh my God I could never sell a ticket again, then that’s me I’m answering to.

If you don’t like me, that’s OK. There’s a million comics to go see. Like, you’re allowed to not like me, and I encourage you to not like me. Because I’d rather have a hundred people get it fully every night than three million people on TV who are coming down on me going oh my God I hate you; change, change, change. I’m never gonna change for anybody. I’m 51 years old. I wouldn’t change for those Catholic School nuns, I’m not gonna change now.

I’m not saying I don’t discuss opinions, obviously we’re doing that right now, that’s fine with me, but if they’re never gonna get it they’re never gonna get it and that’s OK, you gotta settle with it. Not everyone’s gonna be your fan.

Pia: I agree. A very good friend of mine who’s a writer says ‘Go ahead and dislike my stuff, but it’ll be on my terms’.

Lisa: Yes! Look, has being controversial and saying the wrong words for the right reasons held me back in this business? You bet it has. I’m sure it has. But guess what? I have enough fans to make it OK, to make a decent living, and I’ll never be super-famous, I’ll never be super-rich, but at least I’m doing it like I want to do it, and if I start pandering, that’s when I’ll just get out of the business.

That being said, I don’t go out of my way to hurt feelings, and while I’ll never apologize for a joke, in my real life, if somebody had been like ‘Oh my God, I’m so sad from what you said,' I’d be like whoa, lemme definitely apologize. When it’s joking around and when it’s obviously someone in the business, there’s no apology ever.

Pia: And I’m not asking you for an apology—

Lisa:--I know, I know—

Pia: I don’t think any comic should apologize; I appreciate the dialogue and I just want honest interaction. I do want to ask you; last night I saw so many tweets just spewing vitriol and how dare you and this and that. Now, I’m not asking you to give them a message. I bring it up because I know and because you speak about it in your act, you, um, what word do you wanna use? You’ve been with a lot of black guys—

Lisa: Listen, I wanna stop the question and I’ll tell you exactly why. I have said--here are the following racial slurs that I use often: chink, gook, spic, wetback, fag, faggot, cornholer, every gay slur there is. Never has one racial slur been said because I’m quote-unquote allowed to because of boyfriends I’ve had. I’ve never dated a gay guy but I have legions of gay guys I call faggots. Who, by the way, don’t get pissed off. So the fact is, let’s end that conversation right now that anyone has out there.

Here’s what they don’t get: I was saying the N-word with the R on the end long before I had a black boyfriend years ago. I’ve never banged a gay guy but I say every gay term to the delight of the crowd. I never had sex with an Asian, although I probably should at some point after my husband dies, but I use Asian slurs or terminology.

So basically what I’m saying is, it has nothing to do with who you date or who your friends are. Lenny Bruce said it best; that if you treat everyone equally, and you make fun of people equally, and say those words equally, it takes the hate out of the words if you feel the love behind it. And enough of the audience feels the love from the show that they end up coming back again and again. So it has nothing to do with dating.

Pia: Gotcha. I was bringing that up to ask about if that had changed at all in your mind since you married Jimmy Big Balls.

Lisa: Jimmy’s Italian, and you know, wop, guinea, that’s been said in my act long before I had an Italian boyfriend. It’s such a small-minded way of these idiots to glob on. Tell them to look back at tapes years ago, from before I even had a boyfriend who was black, it was N-word, it’s been the C-word, it’s been this word, that word, from about year 7, and that was way before I started dating anyone specifically.

And also by the way; those are called jokes, those are highly exaggerated; if you have, like a black boyfriend, you suddenly get made fun of on the roasts for that, and then it becomes 800 black boyfriends, you know. I had one black boyfriend who was really nice, great guy, and yes, did I date other colors of men? Meaning Latino, Filipino, American Indian, other black guys, absolutely, but words were said way before that. So that’s not really relevant.

Pia: I’m glad to know that’s not in your mind at all. A lot of people really claim that proximity to a black person means you can be verbally reckless. Trust me, people have tried to use me as their pass many times.

Lisa: It makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve been doing comedy like that from day one, how can they go, ‘Oh, well it’s because if this’? Well that happened seven years later. So, it’s like really? They don’t get it. You know what the problem is? They don’t read the history of your comedy. They don’t go back and see clips from fifteen years ago or whatever. So they clearly don’t have time to do their research, so the only thing that made me mad about any of this controversy, ‘cause frankly, controversy is what I live for, so they’re doing me a favor.

Pia: You’re talking to me right now as someone who—I got pissed off about it, I was having a lot of people say to me: Are your gonna write about this, are you say something about it, are you gonna call her out? Meanwhile, I’m the girl who got in trouble in high school for saying I’ll suck a dick for a Diet Coke like you used to say, you know?

Lisa: Right, right, right. It’s funny, isn’t it? And also, I love people putting you up to doing something, like, you gonna call her out? It’s like, why don’t they? I’m on that damn Twitter, I never read anything anybody writes about me because I don’t care, because I’m not gonna learn from it, and I’m not gonna ever explain myself or complain about it, so it’s like, I was away from damn Twitter for two days, I didn’t post things for two days, because I went out and I tried to, like, get a little rest, and like, look what happens!

Pia: And then they look and they hyper-analyze. They say Lisa Lampanelli hasn’t tweeted since that picture, she’s in Twitter hiding, or whatever.

Lisa: That’s two days I shouldn’t have been off Twitter, that was so stupid. All day yesterday I was running around with my elderly parents, and I had lunch with my Latino best friend, who I call spic to her face, by the way, and she seems to like it and she’s the only one who counts, so basically I can’t even take a day off. I guess I’m that loved.

Pia: That’s, that’s one way to see it. I’m gonna ask you one more question; You were at the WGAs when you took [the picture], Lena Dunham is clearly making every wave there is to make in the industry right now, so I imagine that you were living your life and celebrating with this winner. I wondered, either before or after the tweet, if you were aware of the problem that a lot of black people have with 'Girls.'

Lisa: That’s what’s so crazy! I think during that controversy I was doing 'The Apprentice' working twenty hours a day, six days a week. So I hadn’t even turned the TV on once, except, I’m sad to say, to watch a real Housewives reunion, because sometimes you do have to decompress. I found out today that there had been a controversy over 'Girls' being an all-white cast.

Pia: Yeah. For like a year. That shit is deep.

Lisa: Oh my god, I had no idea! And by the way, I have no problem with her having an all-white cast, because guess what? She’s replicating some of her social circle, and she’s allowed to do whatever she wants to do. If we did a show about my life right now, it’d be my three gay friends, a guy with big balls, a Latino best friend, and me. Basically she’s replicating what she wants to do. So I didn’t have any idea that that was at all controversial. I’m so pissed I didn’t know that.

Pia: Yeah. That’s the other element. I think that’s a huge part of why there has been such venom and such a reaction, because we’re the same community that has largely felt slighted by 'Girls.'

Dear Reader: We had an amazingly thorough discussion about white girls and fat chicks on TV and I will share it with you very soon. Now back to that nigger tweet. Oh, excuse me. NiggA.

Pia: You know, the distinction between niggER with an R and niggA with an A, I know a lot of people just don’t buy into that at all.

Lisa: Well they don’t have to. You know, I just played the Apollo two weeks ago and BET.com gave me this awesome review but called me out for NOT saying the N-word. They’re like 'I can’t believe you punked out and didn’t say the N-word like you used to.’ I didn’t even think about it. I’ve evolved a little maybe, or it just didn’t even occur to me to put it in a joke or whatever, but I was cracking up, going you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But clearly I’ve dated enough men of color, I’ve had enough acquaintances and friends of color that we all know the distinction. Come on. Everybody knows, even Perez Hilton today said we all know that the A on the end means friend, acquaintance, or BFF, don’t even start. It’s common knowledge.

Pia: I know him personally. He doesn’t call me nigga though.

Lisa: But it’s common knowledge, it’s arguing a moot point. Everybody knows. There’s a big difference. ‘Cause if I had said me and my niggER, Lena Dunham, that would be insulting towards her, because that’s a pejorative term. Whereas with the A on the end, it’s an urban term that means friend. So nobody can switch their definitions overnight on me. I know what these things mean.

Pia: Yes, everyone can recognize the difference, a lot of us don’t subscribe to it though, and like you’re saying, we don’t have to.

Lisa: And again, with the whole ‘not explaining what you do, if I can, at the end of the day, put my head on the pillow and go ‘I did not mean anything negative towards anyone’, then it’s OK with me. Hey, yesterday, (her voice catches in her throat and she is audibly crying) I can’t even talk about it ‘cause I’ll fucking tear up, but yesterday, by accident, I cut in line in front of a fucking special needs guy at the fucking bath store or some shit.

And for hours, I’m going: Oh my God, I’m so fucking tortured by this because that guy was just—I didn’t know he was on line, he was off to the side, so I’m torturing myself all day yesterday over that shit instead of this [Twitter] shit and it was a fucking mistake. But at the end of the day you can still put your head on the pillow and go, did I mean to cut in front of that guy? No. Do I wanna go back in time and go: Oh my God I wish I saw him in line? Yes. (sobbing) I do wish that. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a much bigger issue right now than this fucking phony semantics bullshit. That that’s the guy I wish I could apologize to.

This other thing has nothing to do with my life. I think you understand what I’m saying. There’s things that really count. At the end of both those examples—the only reason I bring it up—both examples are: nothing bad was intended, and the intention is what it’s all about. Would I ever cut in front of somebody on purpose, like this? NO! Did it happen by mistake? Yes! Would I ever call anyone a word I thought was really insulting if I like them? No! Did some people get offended? Yes. And that’s OK, ‘cause if your heart’s pure, and the intention is good, that’s what really counts.

Pia: Thank you for sharing that! I want to give you a hug! I don’t want you to cry!

Lisa: You know how it is, something happens and you go ‘FUCK!’ I can’t believe that fucking happened, it makes me so mad!

Pia: The only other thing I would even say about the nigga/nigger back and forth is that academically, I do believe—y’know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and you can’t re-frame history. You can’t dictate an outcome, a response, with your good intentions.

But that’s an academic thought. As it applies to real life, you just shared with me real emotion based on, yeah, good intentions. No, you never meant to do that, but look at the outcome. You’re thinking ‘Wow I wish I could change that.' It sounds like you’re saying you are living your life, this is something that affected you, that Twitter thing is Twitter and let that be, does that sound right?

Lisa: Well, I wish I could go back in time and change the thing with the guy in the store, I don’t wish I could go back in time and not do that tweet. Should I have tweeted ‘Me and my idol’? Meaning ‘I worship her? Should I have tweeted that? Maybe. But would it cause all this controversy? No. Is that good? Is it bad?

That depends—do you like to create controversy? Does it make you sick to your stomach? It depends on any given day what you want to do. Basically it was not even a thought. It was just ‘Me and my nigga.’ And hey, you know what? If you don’t like me, don’t come see me.

Pia: It wasn’t premeditated, to specifically stir up controversy, right?

Lisa: No! I wish I could be that calculated! But look at Don Rickles. Don Rickles has been using every racial slur for the past eighty something years, he got a lot of hardship for it, so did Howard Stern, and that’s pretty good company to be in, but at heart, you’ve never met three less racist people in your life. So rather than subscribe to white guilt of saying everything the proper way, I would much rather have the people who like me know that you can’t do this kind of comedy if you have even one racist cell in your body.

If any black person who saw my show at the Apollo the other night had even sensed there was a bit of racism, they would not have come back and I would have gotten a lot of hell for it. So the fact is, it’s not in my heart, and [the audience] sees it. And you know, if that doesn’t translate to Twitter, then that’s a shame. I wish there was a way it could, but it doesn’t.

Pia: My bottom line is no apologies. People are gonna dig you or not on your terms. You’ve built your act and made your name for longer than some of these kids have been alive. You pissed me off somethin’ fierce but I love that we had this conversation.

Lisa: I appreciate it because like you said, you get [my comedy] but you’re fair and you’ll say if something’s wrong or whatever, I love that. Because if you were just, like across the board fanatical and weird, like if I was like Oh, no matter what Rickles says, I love him. No, there are things that people can be called out on and I think that’s great, you disagreed but I love having a nice dialogue about it so I can’t thank you enough. We can’t just complain because it’s it not going to fix anything, we have to keep going and doing the work.