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The cast of freaks that populates the Howard Stern Show includes Crackhead Bob, Crazy Alice, Elephant Boy, Sour Shoes, Jeff the Drunk, Gary the Retard and Wendy the Retard, Bong Hit Bill and Bong Hit Eric, High Pitch Eric and Eric the Midget, and the irrepressible Beetlejuice.
But the show's most interesting character is Artie Lange. The rotund stand-up comedian's self-abuse is fodder for regular ribbings and on-air therapy sessions. His weight now exceeds 300 pounds. A former Newark longshoreman, he drinks and gambles too much. His hourly trips to the vending machine for breakfast combinations like Hawaiian Punch and Devil Dogs are the stuff of legend. Don Rickles once called him a "baby gorilla." From Stern to the fans who call in, everyone feels entitled to express concern, disapproval, and outright shock over Lange's bad habits.
"It's my own fault," Lange says of the scrutiny. "I put that information out there. I mean, I could be one of these guys who just talks in cliches and tries to do straight stand-up material, or I could be completely honest about my life, in the way Richard Pryor was. I'm not comparing myself to Richard Pryor, but he was sort of honest about the fuckin' up he did, which is interesting and funny and real.
"And look, you sacrifice endorsement deals and shit, but you're entertaining and honest," Lange continues. "From the beginning I had a lot of those stories to tell and I just figured, öFuck it, I'll tell 'em in a real way.' So after six years of that, there's a lot of shit where people can say, öAre you alright?' I mean they pay you for being honest and then they fuck with you for it, it's kind of fucked up! But look, if I hadn't said it they wouldn't have had the fodder."
It isn't just the transparency of his foibles that endears Lange to fans; he's a superlative storyteller and a gifted mimic. He can quote at length from any scene in the first two Godfather movies doing all the parts. He quickly mastered an Alec Baldwin impression and can recite the actor's infamous voice mail meltdown with malicious glee. Lange is bringing these skills along with his stand-up routine and a steady stream of Jack and Coke to the Jackie Gleason Theater this Friday.
As he did during two appearances at the South Beach Comedy Festival this past January, Lange will end his set with some anecdotes from his days as a cast member on Fox's Mad TV (he's working on a greatest-hits DVD of the show).
He'll also show some slides from his favorite sketches. One of those chestnuts is "the pig story." The comedian is clean now, but he reached the nadir of self-loathing when, as a cokehead in the early Nineties, he performed in a sketch called "Babewatch." It was a combo spoof of both Baywatchand Babe, and Lange played a disgusting grown-up version of the once-lovable pig, living in a heap of garbage on the beach. Lange was so distraught at his appearance in the porcine prosthetics that he arranged to meet his coke dealer in Malibu in full costume between rehearsal and taping. "What kind of crazy shit you into?" the dealer asked when the two met up. Stopped at a red light on the way back to the studio, Lange had to burrow through his rubber snout with a key to snort a line.
During one of Lange's sets in January, an audience member shouted, "Don't leave Howard!" He was referring to Lange's development deal with Fox; the comic has made no secret of having his eye on a lucrative television contract. "Everyone knows how much I love the show, but if a perfect situation came up, after a lot of deliberating I would consider it," he says, especially if he "could get an amazing salary for not a lot of work, maybe get points in the show, maybe become a megamillionaire at 50." Referring to the Stern show, which airs from 6:00 to 11:00 a.m. Monday through Thursday on Sirius satellite radio, he adds, "I am burned out by the hours."
Onstage he was more direct: "I may have only two years to go on this liver. You think I want to spend it getting up at 4:30 in the morning every day?" Lange's longevity or probable lack thereof, as many fans are waiting for him to assume his place in line behind John Belushi and Chris Farley is a major motif in the Stern community; cf. the Artie Lange Death Watch Website ("Monitoring the imminent demise of Arthur Lange!"). He was once reported dead in a hotel room in Las Vegas; it was a hoax, but no one found it far-fetched.
"Either God or Hollywood is gonna take me soon," he tells New Times.
But as he notes, "Anyone who's been in TV development will tell you it's a hundred to one to get something on the air. Getting successful is a million to one, and keeping it on is two trillion to one." While pilot season is nearing an end meaning no sitcom deal is likely Lange is in talks with Fox to host The Artie Lange Show every Saturday night from 12:30 to 1:00 a.m.
"I don't think I can keep doing what I'm doing right now as far as my health is concerned," he adds. "The lifestyle I'm leading is brutally bad. I'm fatter than I've ever been. I mean, I thought I was fat when I made films like Dirty Workand The Bachelor I'm 40 pounds heavier than I was then. I'm used to being a hundred pounds lighter. It's depressing. I drink. I'm nocturnal on the weekends, and a morning person during the week. It's retarded."