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Backstage with Artie Lange: Sycophants and Starf***ers

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Artie Lange looked beat after his Friday night stand-up set at the Jackie Gleason Theater – unshaven, sweaty, haggard. Or maybe it was the throng of well-wishers jamming the backstage hallway and dressing room that made him seem tired. I know I would’ve been.

My wife and I said hello, took a picture, and lingered too long, just like everyone else. We went out to the loading area out back, where three guys stood, smoking. One of them had one of those faux-cigarette one-hitters. “You listen to the show?” he asked, referring to Howard Stern. I said yes. “I’m Bong Hit Eric!” he declared.

I was dumbstruck. I’d heard his voice for years. He looked like Alan Arkin.

Artie and his entourage roared through, and the plan was to meet at the lounge at the Setai. Artie had quietly mentioned that he’d splurged on a suite. We headed over, encountered the same gang of well-wishers in the lobby; some had left their backstage access stickers on, as if that was going to earn them special privileges at the boutique hotel.

Everywhere we went, we encountered tip-sniffers, ceremoniously manning velvet ropes and granting access to this nook or that cranny of the swanky joint. The courtyard was illuminated by candles, but far from mellow, with techno music insistently pounding away.

At the lounge, we ordered a Diet Coke and a Mai Tai: $24. Bong Hit Eric was at the bar, acting a tad too celebratory for such a chi-chi place. Soon he was asked to leave.

When it became apparent that Artie was not coming downstairs, I called his assistant, Teddy. “We’re upstairs,” he confirmed. “Hold on.” A moment passed. Teddy was seeking clearance. “OK. We’re in the tower, room 2408.”

The corner oceanfront suite contained more guys than babes. Three blondes sat on the couch in the sunken living room, where a big flat screen was tuned to ESPN.

I felt bad for Artie. He seemed torn between his well-mannered urge to be a good host – “You need anything?” – and his desire to flee. He flitted nervously around the room, never staying in one place for more than a few minutes. All eyes were on him. I made a couple lame attempts at chit chat with him, but each time, after a minute, he slid away. I couldn’t blame the guy.

When he heard about Bong Hit Eric, he seemed genuinely saddened.

The smokers convened on the terrace, which had a view commensurate with the gorgeous suite, and my wife (a social smoker) and I followed. As the gang made its way back inside, we said our goodbyes.

“Really?” said Artie, adding quickly, “I’ll show you out.”

No need, we said, but he followed – at least as far as the living room, where he got distracted. We let ourselves out.

Downstairs, we encountered Bong Hit Eric’s brother, who said Eric had gone missing.

“Does he have a cell phone?” I asked.

“Yeah, but when we get him on the phone, he just says he doesn’t know where he is.”

I knew exactly what he meant. --Frank Houston

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