It isn’t too often that I am scared of an interview – and when I am, it’s usually because the guest is a fellow professor – and especially if they are a colleague from Carthage. It’s during these interviews that I’m so nervous about splitting infinitives or dangling participles or ending sentences with a preposition. . . and these are also the interviews where every “um” I utter causes the mental dunce cap resting on my head to double in size. I’m also scared on those very rare occasions when I am talking to someone from NPR – the way a high school basketball player would be scared (if also thrilled) to shoot baskets with Michael Jordan. And I would less than honest if I didn’t admit that there isn’t something a bit scary about interviewing someone truly famous. . . former president Jimmy Carter, actor Gene Hackman, speed skater Eric Heiden, etc. . . . because it feels like a an amazing opportunity that I don’t want to mess up.
But what is scarier than anything is when I talk to guests who are rated R. . . partly because I’m not sure what they’re going to say (will they tone themselves down or will they be their raunchy selves?) . . . and partly because I don’t want to come off like Grandma Walton (although trying to act more “hip” than I really am is a recipe for disaster.)
I recorded an interview with such a guest today. . . an insult comic named Lisa Lampinelli. I had actually never heard of this person, and when I saw her book (titled “Chocolate, Please” – featuring a photo of the author fondling a scantily-clad, muscular black guy on the cover) it looked like the last book on earth that I would want to feature on the Morning Show. But Chuck Monroe, the publicist with whom I book most of my author interviews, actually went ahead and scheduled me for an interview with Ms. Lampinelli because he knew that demand for interviews would be intense and this was an opportunity he didn’t want me to miss – and when he emailed me with the news, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him “who the heck is she?” I just took his word for it that this was someone notable and that something worthwhile would come of this – and that it might be a good stretch for someone who more typically interviews the biographer of James Monroe.
Then I looked up her biography and found out that she was a very frequent guest (in fact, almost a regular) on The Howard Stern Show. . . which as far as I’m concerned is roughly akin to having 666 branded on your forehead. And then I watched a couple of clips of her on YouTube and found myself 20% amused and 80% appalled. But worst of all was when I finally took her book in hand and found myself reading a foul-mouthed litany of all the African- American men she had “been with” over the years. What in the world was I going to ask this woman?!?! I honestly couldn’t imagine.
Well, the phone never rang at 9:00- and it wasn’t until 7 minutes after the hour that I realized that I had misread my calendar, and in fact she would be calling in at 9:30. With a few unexpected minutes to kill, I took out the book once again and decided to skim the latter chapters in the hopes of finding something halfway respectable which might generate a question or two. And wonder of wonders, I discovered that the last 2/3’s of the book were actually quite compelling… because she talked about her family, her professional life as a comedian, recounted some highlights from some of the celebrity roasts for which she is most famous, and – most interesting of all, described her experience of going through rehab on three different occasions (the latter two times for an eating disorder.) Suddenly I realized that this woman who many call The Queen Of Mean was a much more complicated and thoughtful person than I ever could have imagined. . . with a fascinating story well worth telling.
And then, just like that, it was 9:30 and the phone was ringing and the interview was underway . . . and what had seemed like a certain catastrophe less than a half hour before turned out to be a surprisingly successful interview. If I have any regrets, it’s that I steered us away from the topics where she could have been at her funniest (I went for Safe & Tepid instead of Dangerous and Daring.) But she was great all the same, and I ended up regretting that I asked for only 20 minutes, because we certainly could have talked longer. And although there is no way that I will ever be a fan of Lisa Lampinelli . . . EVER . . . trust me on this . . . I am actually pleased that I interviewed her. She survived – I survived – and we probably both benefited from working outside our respective comfort zones. But I must say that it will be a great relief when I’m back to interviewing the biographer of James Monroe.
pictured above: This is Lisa Lampinelli as seen in a clip on YouTube. This is from a celebrity roast of Gene Simmons, and L.L. went last. . . (“batting clean up,” as someone said) and brought the house down. For those of you who have never seen her in action, she could be described as Joan Rivers on steroids. . . or Joan Rivers with the mouth of a sailor.