All due respect to “Mad TV” and “Dirty Work” fans, but for this writer Artie Lange's greatest performance will always be his eight-year run on “The Howard Stern Show.”
From 2001 to 2009, the gravelly-voiced comedian worked as the King of All Media's brash, no-nonsense, fan-beloved sidekick, a role that brought him his greatest career success (“It was the closest I ever felt to being a rock star”) but also brought his personal demons to the fore. His stint on the show came to an abrupt and chilling end in January 2010, when Lange, at that time addicted to heroin, was hospitalized for eight months following a suicide attempt (an episode he has discussed publicly and wrote about in his 2013 memoir “Crash and Burn”).
Five years on from his terrifying downward spiral, Lange has rebounded and continues to work, performing standup gigs and making guest appearances on TV shows including “Louie” and Californication.” Now out promoting the forthcoming Kamal Ahmed-directed crime drama “Laugh Killer Laugh” starring William Forsythe and Tom Sizemore — in which he enjoys a brief role as, yes, a stand-up comedian — Lange spoke to me about his legendary run on “Stern,” his desire to get back to acting and the connection he still feels with the “Stern” family, from Howard and Robin to the show's loyal fans.
Full interview below.
How did you get involved with this film?
I've known Kamal a long time, we've been friends for like almost 20 years. And I've been in a couple other of his movies that have come out, he's a talented motherfucker. He can do so much with a small budget…it's the third one I think I've been in. So he called me up, he said I need a little of your old standup in a scene real quick. And I said, 'I'm there,' and went and filmed it and it was fun. I saw the movie, it was so interesting, and really cool, and a fascinating sort of character study. So Kamal gave me a call and I was proud to do it.
So the standup routine that's shown in the movie, that's lifted from one of your old sets then?
Yeah, that's some old standup jokes…I [told him] I could do standup but I have new material — I was just about to shoot a new special for Comedy Central — I said, 'well I can't do the new shit cause it's going on the special.' He goes 'well do some of your old stuff, I just need to fill two minutes.' I said 'alright,' you know, I trust him to plug it in, editing-wise, I did about seven, eight minutes at the shoot, he put in 3 or 4, whatever it is, 2, 3, whatever it is, and put it in and there was a crowd there, extras and shit. We shot it in New York somewhere and it was fun. You know, it was just a quick, easy gig.
Did you get to meet William Forsythe?
Yes, he's an interesting guy….everything that guy does is interesting, whether it's in a crazy, cheesy movie or a real good movie. 'Once Upon a Time in America' he's in, or even something like 'Out for Justice' with Seagal…he's the best part of [that movie]. He's a good guy, I liked meeting him.
So is getting back into acting more, is that something that you're looking to do, getting into more films and that kind of thing?
Yeah, I never abandoned acting totally. Even when I got on “Howard.” I did several films and a lot of T.V. stuff when I was on “Howard.” A guest spot on Jim Gaffigan's show, I did something on 'Louie' last year…I wanna get back into it. I don't wanna move to L.A., and if I move to L.A. I can probably do a lot more. That might end up happening someday. But you know, I've been doing radio and everything so long, and just stand-up…yeah, I miss acting, so when I do it, it gives me a bug again, you know? I like it.
I caught you on “Amy Schumer” last year too.
That's right! I forgot I did that. Amy's a friend, and she asked me to do something, so yeah. I never saw that sketch. Sketch comedy I used to fucking love doing, I did it for a living. I was in it for a long time, so that's always fun.
You've been doing standup for a long time. Do you still get nervous when you go on stage?
Yeah, no matter how long you do it, you know, I'm 47, so the first time I tried it I was 19, so technically 28 years on and off. But you know, if a human being doesn't get any bit of nervous before you go on stage in front of a thousand people and tell jokes, you're probably not alive. You need to check your pulse. It's not as bad, obviously. It's like any other job you do, you get jaded and it's easier. Not as crazy, but you know, I still get a little nervous, sure, absolutely.
I'm a huge “Howard Stern” listener. How do you look back on your years on the show?
The most fun of my life, you know, career-wise, for sure. I mean, that was a fun time. Dreams come true. I was a fan since I was 13. I love Letterman, too. I had days when I did “Howard” in the morning, “Letterman” in the afternoon, I had “Howard” in the morning, I played Carnegie Hall that night…I had to pinch myself. Playing Vegas. You know, it was the closest I ever felt to being a rock star. You know, it was an absolute blast.
The only part that remotely felt like work was getting up in the morning at 4:30, it was like having a paper route, you know. But like everything else in my life — you know, I did too much standup on the weekend — I overextended myself cause of the money, and you can get addicted to it like anything else. I burnt myself out. And of course it ended crazy, like everything ends in my life. It was the most fun ever doing it, cause we just got paid to laugh. I was getting paid to fucking laugh some mornings….
But yeah, it's weird, showbusiness, usually in showbusiness when you have a career for a long time, if you're lucky enough to sustain making a living, it's all snippets of shit, you look back on it, people tweet old like “Mad TV” sketches I was in, sitcoms, movies, clips from “Howard,” it's like a thousand hours of shit, you know? It doesn't even feel like it happened. It feels like you dreamed it or something you know?
People will remember shit you said eight years…like Howard keeps playing, the weird phenomenon now in my standup, Howard plays those old shows still every morning. I had standup in Detroit this last weekend, I'm on stage at this theater and this kid yells out something he heard that morning. And he thinks I remember it. I didn't hear it. He thinks I just did it. I'm like, “Do you know how much fucking dope I've done since I last did that thing you're yelling out? It was eight years ago. I don't remember how to do the Sal's Emotional Friend voice, you fucking do it.” So uh, it feels like a dream. But it was the most fun I've ever had in my life by far.
Do you still keep in touch with all those guys?
Every once in awhile. I don't have a bad relationship with any of them. We're very friendly. Every time I've seen anybody from Howard on down, it's always very friendly. Last time I saw Howard was an unfortunate time when Robin got sick. We went to visit her together in the hospital. It was just like old times, we were laughing. I miss those times. But everybody's busy. Thank god I'm back working and busy. And when I talk to him, it's nice, but no, I haven't seen them as much as when I used to work with them.
It's interesting, because Jackie left and then you came on pretty quickly after Jackie left the show. But the “Artie Chair,” as it's now known, has not been filled since you left. Does a part of you feel good that that's stayed empty?
Well, I don't think it's because I was so great and no one can follow me, I really don't think…I think Howard was over maybe a voice there. I don't think it had anything to do with me being so good, and oh, we can't replace him. I think they could replace me…you gotta remember, when you're inviting somebody into that chair, you have to weave them into the fabric of the show. It takes a long time to break somebody in, and become part of the family. And I don't know if Howard wants at this stage of his career to go through that part.
And you know, the show's great with the geniuses he has around him anyway. So I don't…I mean listen, if somebody [would have come] in right away and became very popular, I'm a human being. Would that hurt? Sure. But I don't think it's because I was so interesting or anything. I think Howard just doesn't like having a constant voice from that chair anymore. I think he moved on a little bit from that.
A lot of people miss you, though. You were great on that show.
People are very nice. It's almost like people almost cry sometimes. It's like, radio fans are…because I've been lucky enough to do everything, movies and stuff, and TV, and the radio fans are the most intense cause they really feel like you're their friend driving to work in the morning, you know? And you talk to them….they really feel an attachment to you, it's very touching actually. And you know, people tweet that they miss me and it's very nice. And when I see them at shows they…hug you and it's like they're related to you or something. But it's not in a creepy way. I don't want to make fun of that, it's something…I'm proud of that connection that I made with them. I really am, you know.
It's definitely the most intimate medium. Like you said, you feel like you're hanging out with a group of friends.
Right. To Howard's credit, he created that more than anyone for a bigger amount of people in an audience than anyone ever.
I know you've mentioned before that you would come back if they asked you, but how do you feel now?
I would, sure. If they asked me to come back, I would go without question…they're like my family…I feel that way about the audience too, so talk to the audience and say hi after awhile like an old friend, or an old cousin come back and say hi. But it just ended so crazy, which was my fault. You know, I became a heroin addict, and it ended the only way it can end, bad. And I think that freaks Howard out a little bit, and he has a right to feel that way. He's good to me, but I think he's afraid “what if something happens, and he goes off the deep end?” blah blah blah. I think he's just looking out for me a little bit.
But one day it'd be nice to maybe say hi, and of course I would, but I understand why they're not…so I don't know if I'd hold my breath, it may never happen, but…it's funny, eight and a half years on that show, the day I left I wish I knew it was gonna be my last thing to say [on the] air, I think I would've said something maybe a little more poignant.
I have one more really quick question. Should Bobo be in the Wack Pack?
Yes! Bobo's a Wack Packer. I mean that affectionately, he shouldn't get insulted. But he's a Wack Packer.
“Laugh Killer Laugh” hits theaters and VOD this Friday.