Why Lisa Lampanelli is a ‘Spiritual Gangster’

Comedian's Service To Others Is A Path To Self-Esteem

Posted Jul 23, 2015

“Selfless service is a lot different.” — Lisa Lampanelli

Lisa Lampanelli, used with permission
Source: Lisa Lampanelli, used with permission

Comedian Lisa Lampanelli describes herself as an ‘insult comic,’ is referred to by many as “the Queen of Mean” and has been called an amalgam of “Archie Bunker, Don Rickles and a vial of estrogen.” So it may be surprising to some to find out that Lampanelli considers herself a “connector” and “spiritual gangster.”

On July 24, in her new Epix comedy special “Back to the Drawing Board,” she lets people see a different side of her. In speaking to her, we can learn about how she transformed her comedy and her life with a simple idea: One can build a sense of spirituality by dedicating one’s life to serving others, and it can be one of the best ways to not only help others, but also to developing a strong self-concept.

There’s a long history of research supporting the idea that spirituality is associated with improved health and well-being. For example, one 10-year longitudinal study of 114 adults found that individuals who identified spirituality or religion as important in their lives were significantly less likely to be depressed over time. This effect was particularly pronounced among adults with a depressed parent, suggesting that spirituality is a protective factor against individuals at high genetic risk for depression.

For Lampanelli, dedication to a more spiritual and service-oriented life started with her father’s sickness and eventual death. “The reason I got so into service was that when my dad was diagnosed with cancer December 14th of 2013, I switched into ‘gangster’ mode,” she said. “So after taking care of my father for six months with his hospice care and all the nursing people and everything, I was like, ‘It’s service. They come first.’ Because every trouble I had, had to disappear. When you’re dealing with a sick person, you’re not important at all. You’re just a nobody. And I was like, ‘This feels really good. He should come first.’”

“I was like, ‘He is going to have the most peaceful house ever. And I didn’t let anything get in my way. I was insane. I hired so many people. I was screaming at everybody before I decided not to yell anymore. I was gangster. My dad’s house is going to be quiet. It’s going to be peaceful. One harsh word from my mother or anybody else, and I was like, ‘You’re all fired.’ But it changed the whole tone of the house, so it was for the greater good. After he died, within three months, everyone was getting along great. It was so peaceful in the house. It was so pleasant. It was like, ‘Wow! He had a really beautiful death.’ It was really stunning.”

For Lampanelli, in addition to feeling the loss of her father, she also noticed that she missed that service-oriented life. “Once you’ve done something like that for six months, and nothing else — because I didn’t care about comedy, nothing, I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter’; I was like, ‘Oh, what am I supposed to do with my life? My life stinks!’ It’s just going onstage and being an a-hole,” she explained.

“So when he died, I felt a huge lack of service in my life.”

Research points to why Lampanelli felt this sense of loss. There is a long history of research suggesting that helping others feels good and is beneficial for health and well-being. For example, research suggests that people who are more altruistic are healthier. One study of 585 people examined the independent relation of altruistic attitudes, volunteering and informal helping behavior to well-being. All three independently related to increased life satisfaction and positive mood. Further, a meta-analysis of 17 cohort studies shows that volunteering is associated with lower depression, improved life satisfaction and well-being and that volunteers have lower mortality rates over time.

For Lampanelli, this was a shift from how she had previously viewed her life and career. “My life has become so much more amazing because I’m not looking to something else. I’m not looking for ‘outer esteem’ anymore, what they call ‘other esteem.’ I’m looking for self-esteem,” she explained. “And people think that self-esteem is built with accomplishments. And, ‘Hey, look what I did in my life. I graduated from Harvard, I’m famous, I did this, I did that.’ But that’s still coming from the other. And I think coming from within is the only way that I’ve been able to feel good about myself.”

This pattern of seeking approval from others continued as she went on in her career and was actually one of the reasons she found comedy. “My whole goal was to have ‘outer esteem’ and ‘other esteem,’ even though I never knew what it was called. So when I got out of college, I went into journalism. I thought I had to work at someplace everybody’s heard of. It was never, ‘I’m interested in such and such. I want to work in such and such magazine.’ It was like, ‘Oh, my G-d, I really need to work for somebody so people will think I’m OK.’ So I got a job at ‘Popular Mechanics’. I’m like, ‘OK, everybody’s heard of that.’ I got a job at ‘Rolling Stone.’ OK, everybody’s heard of that. And I enjoyed it. It was fine,” she said.

“But at 30, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something else.’”

While Lampanelli made a change to comedy as a career, she maintained her same interest in pleasing others. But not all of her instincts were necessarily harmful. A long history of research suggests that people who are “other”-oriented can be unhealthy if they have a “dependency” or persistent need of approval for others. But those same individuals can be healthy and fulfilled if they are invested in “relatedness” or connecting to others.

“And this comedy thing had always gnawed at me. And I’m like, ‘I’m going to try that,’” she said. “It was a more authentic fit for my life because it brought me to what I authentically need to do, which is connect people, because, I think, ultimately I’m a connector of people, not just a comedian.

“Every time that I did it, the people laughed and the people felt good; meaning, the people I made fun of. You can just feel a sense in the room of all people being the same. I made them laugh, and I was happy. I always loved uniting a crowd. Because when you’re an insult comic and make fun of every race, creed, color, sexual orientation — everyone by the end of a show feels equal. So that was the main goal of the insult comedy,” she said.

“So, with comedy, I just thought, ‘This feels right. I’m onto something.’”

But Lampanelli still felt that a major aspect of her career was the need to get approval from others. “But it still then led to needing ‘other approval.’ I always knew I was making them laugh. And I always knew I was making them forget their troubles for a minute. But I wasn’t feeling like that came first,” she said. “What comes first was the money or the fame. Then it was, ‘Why aren’t I more famous? Why don’t I have a TV show? Why don’t I have everything everyone says I should have?’ I was getting in the way of feeling good about that, because I was like, ‘How can I be so great and getting standing [ovations] every night — but not be more famous? Why don’t I have more of this? Why don’t I have more of that?’”

Lampanelli discovered that one of the reasons why she was so focused on needing approval from others was that she had low self-esteem. She says that her low self-esteem first developed during a horrible college experience. “I discovered a lot of things about my college experience that I didn’t remember. I was very sheltered, went to Catholic school, and I think I felt naked and ripped away from my family when I had to go away to college. Because I went to a Catholic high school, and there wasn’t a question, if you were smart, you were going to go to college,” she said.

“I was not ready to go away from my family. And I think it was a bad idea, but I would have never known because that’s what you do. You don’t have a 4.0 average or a 3.8 or something and not go to college. So I probably should have taken a year at home just to become more independent. But I went from having no control over my life because I had parents who were very strict to having total freedom and I went insane.”

“It felt like more than anxiety. It felt literally like the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was just this overwhelming horror associated with college. My living situation was heinous,” she recalled. “They put me as a freshman with three senior girls in an apartment instead of in a dorm with freshmen. So no one wanted me around. It was reinforcing that nobody wants you around. That ‘You’re less than us; You don’t exist,’ being ignored. Everything you tell a parent not to do, expose their kid to — I was exposed to my first year in college, which made me go after the food and the men.”

“So I think that came from a really deep place. It was more than anxiety. Truly the worst year of my life. I would rather live through my father’s hospice for six months 80 times than go back to that year. It was a perfect storm. It was going away and reinforcing every horrible thing I could have thought about myself.”

Lampanelli began to turn to food for comfort. “I started emotional eating. Food is my only friend. I had a near-date rape, which, thank G-d, didn’t happen. I was strong enough to say ‘no’ and kick the guy out. But all this stuff in college really started me on the path of emotional eating, co-dependence on men, just to have someone to protect me,” she said. “You look in the mirror, and you hate how you look and beat yourself up. Negative self-talk leads to eating. Depression leads to eating.”

Lampanelli’s experience is unfortunately common for many people who turn to emotional eating or binge eating. Research suggests that oftentimes people attempt to use eating as a way to soothe negative feelings. But while food can feel good for a moment, people who engage in emotional eating or binge eating often feel worse afterwards. And for some people, a cycle of binge eating results in obesity. Obese binge eaters often report high levels of psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression.

For Lampanelli, breaking the cycle of self-loathing started when she had gastric-sleeve surgery, a form of bariatric surgery that has been demonstrated to be effective in helping people reduce weight. She decided that she needed to engage in the surgery first before she could address her other issues.

“And I tried every diet on the planet for 32 years, so I had a pretty clean conscience about having tried everything. Once the weight’s off, or at least once the surgery happens, that’s when the big work starts. And luckily for me, fatness doesn’t get in the way of a career, and it doesn’t get in the way of your health when you’re young. It didn’t for me, at least,” she said.  “So I was lucky enough to parlay it into living a decent life. But I think it was after the surgery when I started working on the deep stuff.”

“But I knew I couldn’t work on the deep, deep stuff without getting the self-hate out of the way first. I had so much self-hate that arose from emotional eating, from looking awful, from feeling tired all the time and feeling older than I was because of the weight physically. I said, ‘Let me get this out of the way.’ I’ve always been that way. Get this thing out of the way, then work on the deep stuff. And that surgery kept me from hating my looks — even though I’m not thinking I’m some gorgeous thing — I at least don’t have self-hate about my weight.”

As Lampanelli lost weight following her surgery, she began to engage in other activities that helped improve her self-concept, including yoga. Research suggests that yoga can bring about the same health benefits as exercise. Further, mindfulness, which can be a major component of yoga practice, has been shown to be effective in managing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

“It’s a mindset every day. But what it is, is, mostly, I will use things when I need it. They say with yoga, you do it on the mat, so you do yoga off the mat. Yoga practice is about noticing how you feel, relaxing into a pose and then realigning your body. You use that in your life,” she said. “So if I notice I’m really angry, and I go, ‘Wait a minute. Let me notice it. Relax into it, breathe into it and figure out why — what’s the real thing I’m angry about — and then the realigning. That’s why you call it a practice. You practice it a lot, so when you need it, it’s going to be there for you. So when I feel something coming on, I practice this stuff. Time for meditation, time for journaling, time for yoga, time to just sit and feel. So it’s not every day I do this. But it’s what I do when I need it.”

“I just call it a miracle. I just can’t believe. It was a perfect storm to work on everything. I just hard-core started going to [the Kripalu center for yoga and health] once a month — for a week each month for a year. And I was like, ‘I’m really going to work on changing all of these things I don’t like about my life to get people closer to me. I want to work on vulnerability and not being abrasive in real life and not cursing in real life and not yelling at people. It all melded into this perfect storm of ‘Wow, so much emotional stuff is lifted.’ You know the old saying, ‘You have to feel it to heal it.’ I’m allowed to feel sad. I can cry when I want to. Because I have no choice now — no emotional eating is allowed, because you can’t fit anything in there. So after you have an operation like this, it’s more difficult to emotionally eat. I mean you can if you want to, but you feel sick.

“So I wake up with a peaceful feeling. And all I realize is that my whole life – even with wanting fame and money and all that – I didn’t want the stuff, I wanted the feeling. The feeling of joy and peace is what I always wanted. I feel like working so tirelessly on myself has helped a lot with all the emotional stuff.”

As Lampanelli began to feel better about herself, she found that service became easier for her. “So I was putting myself first. I figured out over the last year or so through doing hard-core psychological and spiritual work on myself that unless you have self-acceptance and self-love, nothing makes you feel whole. And I don’t know why that didn’t dawn on me until I was 53,” she explained. “No matter how many cars you have, houses you have, fame, you’re in great shape physically, and think you look great or whatever, the only thing that makes me feel whole is service to other people and self-love.”

For Lampanelli, service is something that flows throughout the different aspects of her life as opposed to being an occasional grand gesture. “It’s not me washing their hands. I’m not Jesus. I don’t wash people’s hands. They wash mine, too. So that’s the delicate balance between over-serving and not serving at all,” she said.

Furthermore, Lampanelli thinks that the smallest gesture can be of service. “I honestly believe that anything is of service. You couldn’t name one thing that isn’t of service to somebody somewhere. I’m driving right now to Connecticut from New York. What kind of service is that? Well, maybe I let somebody in, who’s stuck in traffic. Maybe the act of driving a car is keeping people in Detroit employed and feeding their families. Any act can be service. So in my career, I’m here for them, not for me. I am there for me to pay my bills. I’m not an idiot I can’t go bankrupt. I’m not the guy who gives it all away. But I’m the guy who goes, ‘OK, it helps both of us.’ I get to pay my bills and do charity work. And you get to laugh and feel relieved from your daily life.”

Accordingly, Lampanelli encourages people embarking on a more service-oriented life to start small. “Smile at somebody. If you think you want to help other people, don’t think, ‘Oh, my G-d, I have to volunteer 80 hours a week.’ I read this book called ‘Life as a Daymaker.’ It talked about doing one little thing everyday to make somebody’s day.”

“For instance, in New York, you walk around; nobody smiles at anybody. Force yourself to make eye contact and smile. G-d forbid that person has a terrible day, and you’re the one thing that kept them from being upset. If it really rises up in you to say, ‘Oh, my G-d, your hair looks so cute’ to a stranger. I started doing that, and it was so much fun. Because one girl I said it to, and she goes, ‘Oh, my G-d.’ I was really insecure about it. I was all upset about it. I felt terrible. I said, ‘G-d, it’s adorable.’ She was like, ‘Oh, I feel so much better.’”

“So you never know who you’re gonna touch. I used to just pay for coffee to the guy behind me. Or if I see a veteran, I give the cashier 20 bucks, and I say, ‘Buy him whatever he wants, and don’t tell him it was me.’ I love not telling people it was me. I love paying for a table at a restaurant with a bunch of old people. Just little, tiny whatever you can do without needing or wanting credit at all. And then the minute you get it under control that you don’t want any credit — just look for all the areas in your life to add service in. ‘Oh, it will serve me best to let that guy into traffic or to not cut him off or to not yell at him,” he said. “Somehow, once you do it, after a while, it becomes how you live, and you don’t even question it. And then bigger things come, like donations, adopting an animal, adopting a kid, or who the hell knows? Quitting your crappy job and becoming a philanthropist; So the sky’s the limit. But every activity in your life can be a service.”

Lampanelli noticed that this new approach was different than charity work she had done previously. “I’ve done charity work. I’ve done all of it. And a good side effect was that the charity got helped. But most of it was driven from ... ‘Look, at me. I’m helping.’ But not in a nasty way; In a ‘Maybe, if I do this, I’ll be rewarded with this.’ Selfless service is a lot different. The photo-op charity stuff is not for me,” she said. “I love doing stuff on the fly now — not telling anybody. That’s way more important. I’d done physical donations and physical charity raising for people; But not with that in mind first.”

“My life shifted. My job is to take care of people — and this is the important part for me — to the extent that they ask or want to be taken care of. My agenda isn’t important. I can’t force my 85-year-old mother to go out to dinner with me. She hates it. But she loves games. So I say, ‘Hey, Mom, you want to come for game night?’ And scare up 13 friends and make her feel like a queen for a week. I have to keep my agenda in check. It’s about them.”

It was also through this process of self-change that Lampanelli discovered that she liked the “Spiritual Gangster” label.  “This ‘Queen of Mean’ thing has always been an exaggerated character part of me, sort of like an Archie Bunker. I was at Canyon Ranch ­— this was about a year and a half ago — and I go into the store there. And there’s a sweatshirt that says ‘Spiritual Gangster.’ And I go, ‘That’s me. I’m a gangster, and I’m also spiritual,” she recalled. “I’m spiritual, but I’m still a gangster; meaning, I’m going at it hard spiritually, hard psychologically. I’m working on myself. And I thought it was just a saying. So I grabbed the sweatshirt, bought everything with that logo on it, went online, and I kept buying everything of theirs that came out. And every single time, I’ve put on a sweatshirt by them. I wear it onstage all the time. It almost makes me feel like a superhero in a way. Something empowered.”

Lampanelli noticed how a more service-oriented approach to her life influenced her comedy. “For instance, I didn’t want to go onstage one night. It was a Saturday, and Saturdays are hard for me because my father died about a year ago on a Saturday. I’m in the bathroom and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to go onstage.’ And I go, ‘OK, I bet there’s at least one person in the audience who lost their job. There has to be at least one person out of 1,800 who has a dying parent or a sick kid,’” she said. “So instead of going up there with a self-serving attitude of ‘Hey, I’m getting money. I’m gonna phone it in. I’m gonna get my money and go home,’ I go, ‘OK, let’s serve that audience’ and that makes me and them feel better. So it’s almost like one hand has to wash the other.”

She also thinks that her ability to be more open and vulnerable has not only helped her perform to her potential during difficult times, but also the crowd appears to be picking up on this new aspect of her comedy. “I feel like from the moment I started embodying the hard edge plus the soft edge, had both — the former character had just the hard edge — now that I’ve merged the soft and the hard, I noticed I started getting the standing ovations again. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” she said. “I think what happened was they sensed a tiny bit of softening — not in an obvious way, but they sensed something, and they just jump to their feet. Whether the material is a little more personal or the delivery is more confident or because they sense the working-on-myself undertones --  whatever it is they jump up now. And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s the superhero that I am now,’” she said.

“My shrink told me to make a list of things I did wrong in the marriage, and I want to share them with you guys, because we’re only as big as our secrets. So I make jokes about things that no one would have known unless I told them. So I think the special reflects my new openness, because I couldn’t talk about this stuff.”

Lampanelli cautions that her journey to a more spiritual and service-oriented life was not easy and straightforward. There are many potential potholes along the way. One was mistaking being “service-oriented” for another form of selfishness. “Of course, I went to the extreme, like we all do with anything. I over-serviced. If somebody asked for help, I’d get angry if they didn’t make the changes I wanted. I did too much for other people and not enough for myself,” she said. “There is a difference between being super co-dependent and feeling that you have no worth unless you help and control other people; Because help can often be about control, which it was for me for a while. ‘Help me help you. Let me fix your life and then I’ll feel better about my life.’”

Lampanelli describes one interaction with a friend. “I had invited she and her husband to a party at my house. And I hated her husband. Instantly, I could tell he’s a drunk, he speaks down to her, I hate him. So she says to me one day, ‘What do you think of (so and so).’ And I go, ‘I hate him. He’s a douchebag, and you know it, or you wouldn’t have asked me.’ She goes, ‘I really want what you have, to get a divorce and to be happier single.’”

“So I refer her to my divorce lawyer. She goes to the lawyer. She backs out. And I was furious. I took it super-personally. I’m like, ‘My life is meaningless unless I’m helping somebody, and look, she didn’t do it.’ And I make a joke in my act about it to show people not to do it. Obviously, I was kidding.”

“ I said: ‘If you don’t get the divorce, I’m going to call the cops and say you killed my father.’”

“I couldn’t be friends with her anymore. I learned from that I wasn’t fixing me first. If I was fixing me first, this is how it would have gone: ‘I want what you have, Lisa.’ ‘OK, well, you’ll know when you’ve had enough of your husband, and if I can do anything in the future, just let me know. And leave it. That’s where it ends. Detach with love. So now, I know better. And I’ll make the same mistakes again, but, hopefully, not to that extreme and less often.

“So I think it has to go in a certain order. It almost has to go hand in hand with working on oneself to go, ‘Well, if I’m asked advice, I’m going to give service to others and give them advice, but if they don’t take it, I’m not going to be angry at them and detach from them fully if they don’t take my advice. It’s a real slippery slope for me and a lot of people that the other people don’t become the focus of your life, but they become ultimately what you see as something that was worthwhile.”

Lampanelli also feels that the more frantic nature of people’s lives interferes with a more service-oriented, mindful approach. “There’s the disease of busyness. Our lives are so packed with crap that we can’t think of anyone but ourselves and our immediate stream of emails and texts. We have busyness to make ourselves feel better — when people avoid feelings by making our lives so packed that we don’t have to feel. So there’s the busyness culture, and then there’s the vulnerability problem,” she explained. “People are afraid to be vulnerable. They are afraid to look someone in the eye and say, ‘Hi,’ because G-d forbid that person doesn’t say ‘Hi’ back, you hate yourself more. I think the other thing is, people don’t fix themselves first. They think they can fix themselves by fixing other people, which I tried, and it doesn’t work. You can’t do it without feeling decent about yourself.”

She thinks that she is just at the beginning of this new approach to her life, and is looking forward to where things may go. “I think about service to others is what helps me fill the hole. And now, thank goodness, it’s come to the middle, where I take care of me and my family and my friends first. Then if people ask me for help I’m more than happy to help. And I view my comedy, the play, everything, as service,” she said.

“I recently took a teaching workshop called ‘Teaching for Transformation’ and it’s about giving talks and speeches and workshops. And training for that leadership. You’re leading the group with no agenda for yourself. You don’t care if they say, ‘Boy, you were great.’ You don’t care if you get money. You don’t care about anything other than ‘Did they transform?’” she said. “So putting them first, for me, as an audience is way more important than my agenda. But I think my agenda of what I thought fame and money and power should look like got in the way. And now that I don’t care about any of that — pay the mortgage, help my mom, keep her in her house forever — and go, ‘OK. I can afford some kind of lifestyle for me and my dog and anybody else who needs me.’”

“Also, I’m writing a play about eating disorders that’s really funny but very resonant and real touching. So I go, ‘I don’t even care if I make a dime off that. My entire goal for that is to move other people to get help and to move other people to know they’re not alone. So that’s very service-oriented for me.”

Lampanelli realizes that not everyone is going to come along for the ride. Some would rather she stay stuck exclusively in “The Queen of Mean” persona. But Lampanelli’s work has allowed her to disconnect from the impulse to get approval from those people.

“Those are the wrong people. Those are people you don’t want in your life. I had an initial fear that I’d lose some people. Even if I did, the work I want to do for 20 people, for 500 people, instead of 2,000. Who cares? I’ll do this work for anybody. I’ll do it one on one. As long as I get to do what I want to do, those fans can leave,” she said.

“But I have a real gut feeling — I guarantee you — for every one I lose, I’m getting 10-20 more because this stuff resonates with people.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

*Dr. Friedman uses the term ‘G-d” in this article for religious reasons, as a sign of respect. Please see an explanation of this decision here.