Interview with Artie Lange on Drugs, Stand Up and Stern

lange standup

EXPRESS: For those who haven’t read your book, can you tell us how you got hooked on heroin after kicking coke?
» LANGE: I fell into it on the road one day, as I documented in my book. A comedy club manager in a certain city, I told [him] I was taking a lot of pain killers to deal with the shitty plane rides and hotels, and somehow getting back to work on Monday morning at 6 [a.m.] — which every comic I worked with on the road told me they didn’t know how I did that. I dunno how I’ve done it either; I’ve done it for almost a decade. The guy got me in touch with a dealer for heroin because it was cheaper. And the name of the chapter of the book — the guy actually said this — “Do heroin, it’s better for your liver.” I was popping 50 Vicodin a day, so in his own way he probably had a point.

» EXPRESS: How long have you been clean now?
» LANGE: I hired two off-duty New York City cops who specialize in this to get me off heroin once and all. As of April [2009] I’ve been clean from heroin; haven’t touched it. I lost 50 pounds right away — being on Subutex, this opiate blocker [to quell heroin cravings], helps you gain a lot of weight. I’ve always been heavy, but never near 300. … Anyway, I got off the Subutex, lost the weight, got healthier, [but] I still have bouts with depression.

I always go back to one of my favorite guys in history, the saxophonist Charlie Parker — I always go back to when he tried to get clean, he said, “They can take it out of your body but they can’t take it out of your brain.” It’s out of my body now, and now I’m working on the brain part. They [therapists] said, once you get over the physical addiction, there might be six months, maybe a year, where you have bouts with depression, but that will go away, too. Sometimes it’s like a wet blanket laying on you, and you can’t get up. My last bout with missing the show had to do with that. But I’ve been clean from hard drugs for eight months.

EXPRESS: Despite the amount of personal problems you’ve had, you’ve somehow managed to stay really productive for a long time.

» LANGE: It’s funny, I’ve had a lot of fucking ups and downs, but I’ve always been like that in life. I’ve worked since I was 12 years old, and even through the ups and downs, I work. In between these last two stand-up projects, I toured a lot with the new material to develop it; I wrote a book, I wrote a movie — “Beer League” — we went over to Sirius [with Stern], I did the full talk-show circuit. Basically, I did a bunch of work: got a second book deal, then a recurring role over two seasons on “Rescue Me,” and stuff like [spots on] “Entourage” and “[The] Joe Buck [Show]” you can throw in there. I’ve done stuff for “The Best Damn Sports Show.” I’ve been very, very busy, but because [I’m on] a daily [radio] show if I don’t make a show, it becomes big thing.

» EXPRESS: Any idea why creative types, like musicians and comedians, seem so susceptible to drug abuse?
» LANGE: Look, comedians are dark people — that’s the paradox. You’re the life of the party, but when you go home, it’s like “Dead Flowers” from the [Rolling] Stones, when he sings, “I’ll be in the basement room, with a needle and spoon / And another girl to take my pain away.” You go from broad to broad, and heroin — heroin was introduced as a pain killer, and it’s the ultimate pain killer. … It’s such a different drug, heroin: blow, you go out, you want to be social; heroin, you want to be alone with your heroin and just get into your thoughts. It doesn’t make you forget your problems — it does something even better: It makes you not give a shit about them.

A guy I knew and respected, Mitch Hedberg, an awesome comic — one of the best joke writers of all time — died five years from complications with heroin. He was shooting it; I never shot it, thank God. Even in my worst drug days, I’ve always had some sort of boundaries, which is odd for me because boundaries is something I’ve never known. I did a lot of blow, but I never smoked it; I was at parties and hot chicks were handing me pipes [but] I never smoked it because I knew I’d live in the bottle. And heroin, I never shot it. I just had a close friend who they found dead on the road. He worked in the music business; they found him in a Kansas City hotel room with a needle in his arm.

That’s a thing musicians and comics talk about: dying on the road. But that’s the young person’s way to feel; I’m 42 now and there’s nothing romantic [about dying]. I went to the services and saw his mother crying — nothing romantic about that.

People say it helps the creative process — that’s bullshit. I tried to write jokes on heroin — I put an example of this in the bonus chapter of the [“Too Fat to Fish”] paperback: When I try to look back on shit I’ve written on heroin, it’s like, “Music sucks today because cocaine ….” and then there’s a line where I’d nod off. [laughs] George Carlin said he would write his act straight and then smoke weed and re-write it and it got better. Maybe weed is different, but heroin does nothing but slowly take your soul and your friends and everything with it. If I could go back to that day before I took the first hit, I’d do anything. I’d hit myself in the head with a bat before I did it again.

EXPRESS: Is “Jack & Coke” like a best-of Artie Lange from the past five years of stand-up?
» LANGE: “It’s the Whiskey Talking,” the stand-up part of that, is 45 minutes, which is a standard headlining [length] in a club, and that [DVD is] from when I was playing more clubs. This is an hour and half, and I’ve purged all this new material that I thought was worth it. I have 10 hours of shit, but I had to edit stuff I didn’t feel was ready or good enough. If I didn’t have the radio job, and I didn’t do “Beer League,” a couple other acting projects and write the book in the meantime, I would have been able to get this [DVD] out about a year or two [after the first one] instead of five. But those other things are important to me, and I can’t do stand-up every night in the city like other guys can.

Some of it’s older stuff that is 15 years old that I didn’t put on “It’s the Whiskey Talking” that I reworked that I thought was better. Some of the shit I wrote three days before I taped it.

It’s an hour and a half also because I have to get off the road, too. I got a second book deal and we really start going full throttle in January. All I’m going to have in 2010 is the radio show and writing the book in Jersey, and the book will be out next fall.

» EXPRESS: “Jack & Coke” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ comedy albums chart, which isn’t surprising — but for a time it was in the Top 20 of iTunes overall, which is pretty amazing for a non-music release.

» LANGE: I thought that was unreal. The power of the Stern show — it’s so great to be there. My fans will like it; critics will not like this. I don’t think they like much I do anyway — [although] they seem to like the book. I do it to make myself laugh first and foremost, and I hope people come along for the ride. But I think it’s going to be successful. I’m very proud of “Jack & Coke.”

» EXPRESS: Some of the comedy of “Jack & Coke” is way more brutal than the stuff you do on Stern or in your book. Do you specifically go for the sledgehammer approach in your stand-up?

» LANGE: That’s what I want; that’s what I’m going for. The worst thing you can do is apologize for what you’re doing. The crowds I perform for, laugh — it kills. Most of [the jokes] kill. And if something doesn’t kill, I don’t apologize for that either. I’m not going to do an Imus and apologize to somebody; it’s something I thought was funny.

It’s very dark. “It’s the Whiskey’s Talking” is dark, but this dark anger — from the first line in the fucking thing, it’s dark, angry. My favorite artists are always that way — I’m not an artist; whatever the fuck I am. Comics, musicians, anger — I dunno, it’s just something that helps because it’s therapeutic; I got it all out of me.

» EXPRESS: The outtakes were interesting, too — witnessing how you deal with a joke bombing.
» LANGE: That’s being a comedian; that’s why I wanted them on there. I get more mad at the crowd — I’m like, “Fuck you!” I hate when people apologize for comedy. I don’t have a racist bone in my body, I don’t hate gay people, I don’t hate anyone in the world. I make jokes about it, like a lot of people do. And I may apologize for being not funny, because I love that, but I’ll never apologize for saying something racist because I’m not a racist. Apologizing for it admits that you are, and that is not what I am. I have no boundaries with my comedy. If it comes across like a sledgehammer, it’s not something I can give a shit about.

» EXPRESS: Being on Stern every day must feel like you’re in constant spring training, just honing your craft for five hours a day.
» LANGE: It helps in a huge way. It keeps you sharp. Look, I don’t know how funny I am in the grand scheme of things — and a lot of people think I’m the direct opposite of funny. Thank God there are enough people who think I’m funny to where I can make a living. But I know for a fact that I’ve gotten as funny as I can possibly get because for five hours a day, I’m on there with Howard Stern and Fred Norris, who are two geniuses, mixing it up with them. And at times we’ll have an amazing comedian in there. On the weekends I’ll do stand-up for brutal crowds, where you have to be on your game.

And doing talk shows like [David] Letterman — Letterman is good to me. Letterman, Conan [O’Brien], [Jimmy] Kimmel — I just had a Jimmy Fallon appearance that went really well. All these guys keep having me back on. So between Stern every morning, stand-up every weekend, the talk-show circuit and writing stuff like a book or other stand-up shit, I’m as funny as I can be. I’ve taken my mind to where it’s as sharp and witty as I can humanly be, and that’s a good feeling. I don’t know how funny it is to anybody else, but I know it’s as funny as I can get — and a major part of it is the Stern show. Howard’s mind moves so quick, you’ve got to get a setup and a joke and a punchline out right away, otherwise the moment’s lost. It’s like an exercise in being funny.

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