By TOM CHESEK
Google the name Artie Lange and you’ll get way too many references to the phrase “train wreck.” Even for a public figure who’s never shied away from candid discussion of his substance abuse issues, on-air meltdowns and multiple stints in rehab, it seems a bit harsh — as if the star of standup stage, screens and satellite is being dogged by a destiny that comes rushing up like the proverbial northbound train on a southbound track.
Still, if you’re one of the famously Too Fat to Fish funnyman’s legion of loyal fans, you cannot look away — and this Saturday night, you’ll get another local look at the Jersey-bred jokester who’s mined genuine gold from pain, substance abuse, self-loathing and suicidal depression, when the boards of the Count Basie Theatre creak for an encore stand by Lange.
A followup to a sold-out Basie gig of a few seasons back, the show finds the comic (best known for his long tenure on the Howard Stern radio show) at one of his intermittently scheduled career high points: as co-pilot of a new sports-talk vehicle (Nick & Artie with Nick Di Paolo); as a theater-filling Phoenix who keeps flapping back up from a series of personal and professional fails; and as author of a soon-to-be-released memoir entitled, wait for it, Crash and Burn.
The Lively Arts Desk at redbankgreen got the skinny on the Crash and Burn from Lange, and it’s just a flip of a page away.
redbankgreen: It seems like only yesterday that we saw you playing the dingy old Rascals comedy club out on Highway 35, but the truth is that you graduated to theater gigs several years ago and never looked back — and on Saturday you’ll be appearing at a high-class joint called the Count Basie.
ARTIE LANGE: Yeah, I played there in 2009 and sold it out… I was surprised at how great it was. Red Bank is such a nice area now.
You’ve made your share of local headlines down the Shore, and you continue to show up in people’s stories of Artie Sightings — but do you still have your big house, with the wraparound decks and the game room, in the Silverton part of Toms River? I saw it listed on a website as having been sold.
No, I still have it. I took my Toms River house off the market a while back… I was there a lot this past summer. It’s right on the bay; like livin’ on a lake. It’s great, as long as you stay away from the edge of the balcony.
I have a condo in Hoboken, and the house in Toms River. I love the water. I bought my mother a condo to get her out of the town we grew up in. It’s one of the few good things I could do for her.
Now that you’re playing places like the Basie, like the bigger casino showrooms, what are the main differences that you pick up on compared to the old standup grind? It must have been some time since you had somebody heave a comedy-club quesadilla at your head onstage.
There’s a definite difference in the crowds. It’s a psychological thing. People who are sittin’ down in a theater tend to act better than people at a comedy club. People who go out to the clubs now tend to be younger, drunker… they’re expecting a different kind of experience.
I’ve been lucky enough to make my turn into playin’ theaters, but even at a place like Carnegie Hall, which I sold out in two hours, I brought all the nuts and rowdies. That crowd acted as if they were at a bar!
You’ve got a new book coming out, which we’re assuming is not exactly an Erma Bombeck, lighter-side-of-life sort of memoir. Is this gig sort of tied into the book release? Will you be touching upon a lot of the stuff you cover in the book when you’re on stage?
The book is comin’ out late November, early December — to give them enough time to advertise it for the Christmas season. There’s a lot of dark stuff in there, but it’s entertaining, definitely fascinating, and at the end of the book I crawl back up. So there’s a positive thing goin’ on. I’m thinkin’ of doing a special sometime in January, February… telling a lot of rehab stories, a lot of stuff from the psych ward.
So the title CRASH & BURN is pretty self explanatory?
Well, you can say that I crashed into Mount Hell, during what I was goin’ through with heroin. I had a massive addiction problem, and I was maintaining a career through it all, so that phrase really hit home.
There’s another story behind the title, and it comes from an old co-worker of mine. I was working as a longshoremen, thinkin’ about tryin’ my hand at comedy — you know, maybe I’ll stay and make a living at a good job, or maybe I’ll try show business. And this guy, he’d say ’if you crash and burn, well at least you did it. You go for the good life, but crash and burn if you gotta crash and burn.’
There are comics who draw their material from personal experience, and then there are guys that mine comic gold from the darkest depths of the human condition. I’m thinking that you play through the pain, work that angle more extremely than anyone else — certainly anyone who’s still alive to tell about it.
Well, Richard Pryor was king of that — he took everything from his heart attack to shootin’ at his wife, being drunk or coked up, and turned it into comedy.
And other guys, like Lenny Bruce at the end of his run, had the pain and the personal anguish down pat, while somewhere along the way forgetting to be funny. I’ve seen you go on Conan and break everyone up with your rehab stories — but tell the same story another way, and you’ve got the stuff of epic tragedy.
Heroin addiction’s a living hell, really — and it’s also a full time job. You have to continue to do it, day in and day out. You’re always thinkin’ about what account you’re gonna get money from, how you’re gonna pay for it, how you hide it from the people in your life. You’ve gotta find a place to do it, find a place to stash it, and you’ve gotta make sure you don’t get killed.
It’s surreal. I don’t feel like a lot of it really happened — but the fact is it happened. I thought that money would bring me happiness, but it has nothing to do with it. If you’re an addict you have just a few options — you can succumb to your addiction, you can get arrested, you can die or you can get clean. That last one is the least common and the hardest to do, but I’ve been clean for nearly three years now. And really, the farther away you get from bein’ high, the better you feel.
So, not to be too maudlin about it, would you say that continuing to do comedy helped you get clean in any real way? Is doing standup therapeutic, or would you just call bullshit on anyone who suggests such a thing?
It’s therapeutic. It helps you step back from those crazy moments and realize what you’ve been doing. But the problem with standup is that it’s only therapeutic if you’re doin’ well! Me, I bombed a lot in the beginning.
But I have a dream situation now. DirecTV has been takin’ good care of me. They were fans of mine, and it’s nice to see somebody out there who’s willing to believe in you, give you another chance.
Tickets for Saturday’s 8 pm show (priced from $39 to $125) are available from the Basie box office right here.