[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rtie Lange is a true enigma. From his tumultuous time on MADtv in the mid-’90s through the years replacing Jackie Martling on the Howard Stern Show, the New Jersey native’s observational humor and quick wit has put him at the forefront of comedy. There have been major downsides though, including a 2010 suicide attempt where he stabbed himself nine times and chugged down a bleach cocktail. Thankfully he’s been on steadier ground as of late, putting out his second book, Crash and Burn, and supporting it with a standup gig December 28 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston.
Vanyaland caught up with Lange last week to talk about the gritty nitty of his life, his favorite Springsteen songs, and why you should see him over Prince this month.
:: SIX QUESTIONS
Michael Christopher: You’ve gotten a lot more chances in the industry than most, despite all of the well-publicized issues over the years. Why do you think that is — is it because people tend to root for redemption?
Artie Lange: I think part of it is people definitely like a comeback story — I don’t know, but thank God it happens. I don’t know the exact formula, I wish I did. But you’re right, I’ve gotten about four chances where any other industry I would’ve been kicked out forever. This last time I really thought I was done. I thought, I’m gonna have to go back to driving a cab or unloading ships at the port — I was a longshoreman guy. But as soon as I came back and called my agent, the work was immediately there.
Speaking of chances, are you familiar with the singer/songwriter Elliott Smith?
Alright: 10 years ago, he died after stabbing himself twice in the chest — with a steak knife, right in the heart.
You used a 13-inch kitchen knife and downed a bunch of bleach — how do you explain why you’re still here?
Was he a skinny guy?
He was, yeah.
Yeah, that hurts. If I had abs I’d be dead. I dunno, that’s sad to hear. I gotta tell you, when the knife goes in, I don’t care how depressed you are, how much you wanna die, without an outside force, another person or whatever, your instinct as a human being will always be to pull it right out. That’s why I stabbed myself nine times; I thought I could create enough blood to die of flesh wounds. It’s hard, it’s not like you’re jumping off a building — you can’t go back. You blow your head off, you can’t go back. Pills, whatever. But stabbing yourself, you gotta commit.
Being a comedian, doing standup, that lifestyle has put so many people in the ground before their time or destroyed careers, I’m thinking specifically of Mitch Hedberg or maybe others who have been open about their drug use, what is responsible for it; is it the up and down pace? Trying to maintain the high from being onstage?
Yeah, that’s part of it. I think ultimately it’s becoming aware that you’ll never ever, ever be satisfied in your head with who you are as an artist. Never. Woody Allen famously said he’s never watched his own films because it would be heartbreaking. All the great ones; Dave Attell, Richard Pryor, they never think they are as good as they should be. That level of disappointment when it’s your life’s work is so awful and disconcerting. You try to numb it will pills or booze or whatever. Drugs come in and their right there. I just know that no matter what I do, I just know I’ll never be as good as I want to be, and that’s really disappointing.
And the fact that you have thousands of people telling you how funny you are, how brilliant you are, that doesn’t make a difference?
That makes it worse, says the cynic in me. The fans who come up to you or write you letters, every once in a while you go, “I really did touch this person.” You can tell by their writing or the way that they speak to you, something happened where a joke I wrote or a bit I did or whatever the fuck, they were moved by it in a way that really helped them. That is better than all the money in the world. But that’s rare.
You’ve admitted to still having cravings, and obviously that addictive personality type doesn’t just go away. In trying to stay away from the drugs, the gambling, have you tried to switch it up to something more positive, like, I don’t know, needlepoint sewing group or a book club?
[Laughs] My only argument is don’t do this, but if you’ve ever tried heroin you’d know why I can’t do that. That’s based on a sort of standup bit I do where a trainer suggested I start running to get off heroin and told me that runner’s high would be just as good as a heroin high and he never did heroin so I got into an argument with him that he’s not qualified to be in the conversation.
It goes without saying that being on Stern was a big part of your career. When you look back on your time with the Howard Stern Show, what sticks out the most as a highlight?
Oh God, that’s a tough one. Well first of all, it’s not just a big part of my career; I went from playing the Funny Bone to playing Carnegie Hall — that’s what Howard did for me, which is extraordinary. Without Howard people look at me on the street and go, “There’s that comedian from T.V.,” with Howard they say, “Oh there’s Artie Lange.”
The craziest thing that sums up the show for me was when we had the World’s Biggest Hemorrhoid Contest. Howard says, “If you’ve got a big hemorrhoid, come here.” And of course, only with Howard, 10,000 people with hemorrhoids show up. We got it down to the top five, and the guy who won, he spread his ass and I’m telling ya, he had Alien between his fucking legs — I don’t know how the guy lived. As soon as he spread ‘em, Howard jumped and looked back at me, and I looked at Howard and we had this real moment where I said to Howard, “What are we doing?” And he says, “I don’t know” [laughs]. That sums up the show.
[At this point Artie’s cellphone rings]
Excuse me. Yeah, Mom, I’m on the phone. I’m doing an interview on the phone! Hello? I’m doing an in-ter-view on the phone! In Boston — let me call you back! Sorry, it’s the Italian mother.
You’re playing Boston on December 28. Prince is the same night at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Give me one reason why people should come see you instead.
Because I’m not an asshole. I’ve actually seen him in concert, he’s pretty impressive. I think my show will have easier parking, I don’t think you’re going to get the pretentious, boring bullshit Prince puts people through — put it this way, you’re allowed to look me in the eye. Even if I was still drinking, I wouldn’t sing “Raspberry Beret.” :: ONE RECOMMENDATION
Lange: There’s a restaurant on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 5th Street in the East Village in Manhattan called Frank’s. No one knows about this joint. My buddy Anthony showed it to me. It’s my favorite Italian restaurant in the world. You sit at the bar, wait for them to set up a table, they got gabagool and sliced cheese out for you. Amazing service. You sit down, family style, they cook right in front of you on a big grille and cook a steak and put the salad over the steak with the dressing like my mom used to make. The best bread on the planet, good conversation… yeah, Frank’s on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street.
:: SEVEN OF SOMETHING
You’re a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Give me your seven favorite songs of his.
That’s really tough. We’ll start recent, the song from the Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler, “The Wrestler,” because it reminds me of me. Springsteen’s a winner but he writes for losers which is so great.
“Growin’ Up” — the live version.
“Out in the Street” off The River — it reminds me of working at the Port as a longshoreman.
“Thunder Road” is five.
“Born to Run” is six.
The live version of “Backstreets” from Winterland in 1978 — that might be my favorite song of all time.
Nothing off Nebraska.
I thought about “Atlantic City,” but it’s tough with just seven, it really is. If I had 10, “Atlantic City” would be in there. Maybe even “Johnny 99.”
ARTIE LANGE :: Saturday December 28 @ the Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont St., Boston :: 7 pm, $32 to $45 :: Advance tickets