Artie Lange has disappeared. His gigs are canceled. His podcast is on hiatus. His social media is hardly being updated. The legendary comedian is apparently ‘sick’ but fans suspect that something else might be going on. You needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to be suspicious about his absence. Lange has been flitting in and out of rehab for the past 25 years.
God knows I hope that Lange is sick. The comedian has emerged out of the depths of an addiction so dramatic that his nose imploded like an overripe tomato after years of snorting cocaine and heroin. (According to Lange, the obliteration of his beak was the result of snorting drugs mixed with broken glass.) Lange was arrested, not for the first time, and forced into rehab, after which he did community work as a trash collector and gas station employee. Somehow, he walked out not just drug-free but thinner and fitter than he had been before.
Lange had not just been a prolific drug user but an enthusiastic gambler, drinker and eater. On The Howard Stern Show, where he worked alongside Stern and his gaggle of unlovely eccentrics between 2001 and 2009, a favorite topic of conversation was how much food the obese comedian had endeavored to put away in the course of the show. Such a mammoth intake of calories and chemicals should have killed a young, robust hippopotamus, but somehow Lange had walked out of it looking trim, healthy and happy. Was it all too good to be true? I dunno. I hope not. But with hard drugs, a redemption story only ends with a relapse or a sober death.
In truth, Lange is a better raconteur than comedian. Having said that, he is a great raconteur. Radio was the ideal medium for him, providing an unstructured environment in which to shoot the shit and allow gold to be formed amid the daily babble.
Lange grew up in a working class home in which his hero, his father, fell off a ladder and became quadriplegic. Lange’s father died of complications from the accident some years later, and the young man never recovered. As he wrote in his brilliant memoir Too Fat to Fish:
‘…there was my hero, the toughest motherfucker I would ever know, lying there, lifeless. He had died sometime in the middle of the night while I was at my friend’s house doing shot after shot to deal with the fact that I had lost a bet on a fucking college basketball game.’
After working as a longshoreman, Lange turned his comedic and storytelling gifts into a career. He became part of the cast for the first series of Mad TV, and, having been fired after being arrested while in the middle of an enormous coke binge, was befriended by the great comedian Norm MacDonald, who got him a role in his film Dirty Work and his series The Norm Show. From there, he was hired by Stern, whose controversial, irreverent radio show he had listened to with his dad many years before.
By anyone’s standards, Lange had extraordinary luck. On one episode of Stern he speculated that an unsuccessful 1995 suicide attempt had in fact been successful and that he was in Heaven. But, somehow, he couldn’t handle it. Life was too burdensome, and the drugs were too sweet. (You suspect, as well, that he was surrounded by enablers.) Every time he was on top, he leapt back to the bottom. His Stern run ended after a violent outburst but its true nadir came before, when Stern employee Sal Governale, who most listeners knew as someone the radio host had employed mostly so he could have a target for daily scorn, roasted him so caustically and so intensely that the veteran comedian was left speechless.
But most of the things Governale criticized Lange for were things that didn’t matter. His film, Beer League, was a flop and he was never a convincing character actor. Who cares? These things might have mattered to Lange but they barely to his audience. He was great as himself, and not when he was speaking off a script but speaking off the cuff.
At the risk of presenting a pizza as a soufflé, the magic of Lange’s comedy is how it demystifies addiction and unromantically explores the hedonist impulse. All the faux-poetic clichés that have wafted round the lives of other famous addicts like Kurt Cobain and Pete Doherty can never match the tragicomic power of Lange explaining how he changed his boxer shorts before he attempted suicide because he thought he should at least be found in clean underwear. All the songs and poems that have rhapsodized about the seductive allure of alcohol and drugs can never match the dark comedy of Lange hymning the virtues of chocolate milk and insisting to his assistant — with ironic bombast — that if he cannot do cocaine off a stripper’s backside he can at least have real chocolate syrup and not healthier stuff. Addiction turned Lange into a chronic liar, as it does, but his storytelling was honest and unpretentious. Without ever waving an anti-drug banner, I suspect — and I have no proof of this but I do suspect it — that he steered many Americans away from the stuff.
How Lange held down a job which required him to start work at 6 a.m. every day for so long is a mystery. After he left Stern his life became more chaotic. Again, he described this comically but honestly. His podcast was recorded in his lounge, he admitted, but he was late every time. Projects started and were stopped. He went in and out of rehab. His long-suffering mother tried an intervention, which, he claimed, he assumed was a surprise party. Death seemed to have been tightening such a vice-like grip around his neck that it astonished and delighted everyone when he appeared to have gone straight. And yet, and yet…
Perhaps there is no ‘yet’. I certainly hope so. Perhaps Lange has a stomach bug. Perhaps he is playing a prank. Perhaps the poor guy’s body has been through so much that it has taken on a fresh new challenge in the form of coronavirus. But whatever happens, nobody except his loved ones can claim to be shocked and disappointed by him. We knew exactly the kind of man we were laughing with, and all of his debts are to himself and his family.
Good luck, Artie. We’re rooting for you.