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It’s a good thing Artie Lange has a sense of humor about himself. For years, as a talking head on The Howard Stern Show, Lange was made into a punching bag for jokes about his excessive weight, piss-poor diet, drunken binges, and other not-so-flattering drug-use stories. His lifestyle affected other parts of his career as well: He was cast in the inaugural season of MADtv, but was gone by season three due to excessive cocaine use. At another low point in 2004, a Las Vegas radio station actually pronounced that he was dead. Comedy was always Lange’s saving grace—regardless of his drug use or disposition, he managed to pretty consistently write jokes and go on stand-up tours. He released a comedy DVD, It’s The Whiskey Talkin’, in 2004, following it up with a well-received humorous memoir, Too Fat To Fish, in 2008. Lange also recently released his first-ever stand-up CD, Jack And Coke, after a period of well-publicized sobriety and weight loss. Prior to his recent hospitalization for undisclosed causes, The A.V. Club chatted with Lange about apologizing for jokes, criticism of his act, what really happened during his controversial June appearance on Joe Buck Live, and performing sober vs. performing under the influence.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been performing some of the material on your CD for years. Was there a moment when you realized you were finally ready to record the jokes?
Artie Lange: Yeah, in February I did a weekend at Caroline’s [in New York] just to see how it would work in a smaller place, and really loved how much it worked. Some of the jokes, I’d wanted to put on It’s The Whiskey Talkin’, but I didn’t think it was ready to do on tape, or I just forgot. It’s stuff I can continue doing because it wasn’t time-sensitive. Some stuff on there is like 12 to 15 years old; some stuff I wrote three days before.
AVC: A few times on the album, you say things like, “Obviously I’m just kidding,” or “It’s just a joke.” Was there a reason behind these occasional apology-like phrases?
AL: I wanted to avoid a lawsuit. I think what you’re referring to is when I say, “Obviously someone’s not gay,” or something like that.
AVC: Isn’t all that implied, given that it’s a comedy album?
AL: You’d be surprised. When my lawyers looked at my last special, they were like, “No we can’t do that [joke].” So I had to figure out a way around that. There’s a bit I do with Denny’s where I go, “I go to buy drugs in an empty lot that no one owns.” I ain’t apologizing for anything, especially if it’s a joke. I don’t feel that I hate anyone, I don’t have a racist bone in my body, I don’t feel I’m homophobic, I’m honest about drug use. But if a place of business is going to get in trouble, I don’t want that.
AVC: Have you had to deal with lawsuits in the past?
AL: You know what? No. But there’s stuff I’ve said on Howard Stern over the years that he’s bleeped out that’s obviously a joke. You gotta be careful.
AVC: After so many years of shocking people, are you surprised when people get offended by your comedy?
AL: I don’t get surprised, because I realize that a lot of it is nutty. Eddie Murphy said once in an interview that nothing is offensive if it’s funny. I sort of agree with that, but if something’s funny and you’re the subject of it, sometimes it’s more offensive. If someone’s insulting you, you want them to sound like an idiot. You don’t want them to sound witty. At the same time, if there is humor in it, you can at least understand why somebody said it. You go back and look at Murphy’s stuff and see how the times have changed. [His special] Raw is on-demand now, and there’s stuff in there that in this day and age would never do. The way he uses “faggot,” he just says it casually. It’s one of those words you don’t say like that anymore. I make sure if I say that or the n-word, it’s got a point to it. There’s a lot of stupid people out there, lots of people are just not going to get it. It’s depressing if all they hear is something racial. It’s like the people who laugh at Archie Bunker because they agree with him. But I refuse to cater to those people who are too stupid to get it. Then it wouldn’t be honest. It would feel flat. The king of honesty with comedy was Richard Pryor, just an enormous fuck-up in life. He was a womanizer, a drug addict, but when he got on stage, the mic was like a part of his body, like a jazz musician. I don’t think he would apologize for anything that’s supposed to be comedy.
AVC: Still, is there any criticism of your act that bothers you?
AL: It does bother me when people think it’s racist or homophobic or stuff like that. I’m like, “If you really listen to the joke…” In It’s The Whiskey Talkin’, I do a bit based on real life where I accidentally say the n-word while playing basketball with a bunch of black guys who are calling each other the n-word. I did that [bit] in Columbus, Ohio, and there was a black kid who worked at the club. He would come in and out of the room, and all he heard was me saying the n-word and a bunch of white people laughing. He got mad and said something to the manager like, “I don’t want him doing that, I’m quitting.” I said, “Do me a favor: If you can let the kid take the next shift off—on me, I’ll pay for it—he can just sit in the crowd and listen to the entire thing in context. Maybe it’ll help.” The manager was a little apprehensive, but he let the kid do it. He listened to the whole thing, and he got it in the end. It was me looking like an idiot and saying [the n-word], realizing it was wrong to say, and saying it was my mistake. The white guy in the thing looks like a moron.
Another thing [that bothers me] is that I might not be angry about the subject I’m talking about, but it sounds meaner than it is. I realize I have a voice that… I come from Jersey. I used to be a longshoreman. I didn’t go to college. I have a voice that when I say something, it can sound way meaner than you think it is. The first time I played San Diego, I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, and the guy said, “You sounded mean, and people here aren’t that mean.” So I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And he was like, “See? Right there!” I come from a family where everybody calls each other a jerk-off, but most lovingly. It’s a term of affection. Naturally, that attitude is going to be in my comedy.
AVC: There was a lot of hubbub about your appearance on Joe Buck Live in June, where you occupied a huge part of the discussion with jabs at Buck. The next day, the host of Mad Dog Radio chewed you out, but later Joe Buck was on, and he said it wasn’t that big a deal. It’s interesting that behind the scenes, your caustic comedy was much more acceptable.
AL: Joe Buck was just worried that… Joe and I are friends, and he wasn’t really that mad. I think he and HBO didn’t realize I was going to be that dirty right out of the box. I think they thought I’d gradually get to it. They knew me and my act, and to me, and I think to Joe, it injected some energy in the show it might have needed, and it was something the audience loved. I kept rolling with it. And if you watch it, Joe keeps throwing it back to me. It’s weird when there’s a live crowd there. I was the only stand-up comic [on the panel]. When there’s a live crowd, I don’t care who you are, if they’re not reacting to something—especially something that’s supposed to be a comedy segment, you start to panic. And the ironic thing is that I think Joe actually felt more comfortable when I was talking.
AVC: It gave him something to react to?
AL: Exactly. Course the world of sports takes itself way too serious. Sports writers are all high and mighty. It’s like all those sports writers who said Magic Johnson would have never gotten sick if he’d abstained from sex. It’s these 300-pound writers who’ve never gotten done playing a game in Chicago and had five hot chicks waiting in their room after they win. It’s easy for the sports writers to abstain, but let’s put them in that situation and see if they abstain. Sports writers really like to get moral and ethical all of a sudden when they’re writing. [In this instance] they were like, “How dare he go on there, HBO sports is prestigious, Brett Favre was there, I’m sure his family was in the back.” One of the producers said, “We thought we were going to get the guy from Letterman.” I said, “Would someone with an IQ of above 50 tell them why I might be different on HBO?” It’s HBO. Let’s take the car out and see what it’s got under the hood, man. If I were them, I’d want me to be different than I am on those shows.
AVC: You’ve made it clear on your new album that you’re against the political correctness movement. The anti-PC fight has been going on for a while now; do you feel it’s something you still need to be pushing for?
AL: Interesting question. There’s always backlash of something. It’s cyclical. When political correctness first started coming around, it ruined Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy’s stand-up career. Sam Kinison died at just the right time, ’cause no one was going to tolerate what he was saying anymore either. Comedy got like that for a while, then there was a backlash against it. It’s people being uptight. The greatest stuff to do comedy about is what people are uptight about. Tension. You keep making fun of the kid on the playground who takes it the hardest. In the ’60s, the uptight people were the right-wing people; then, with PC, the left-wing people became the uptight ones. Now you’d think it was battered down so much in comedy and campaigns that it’d be gone. Now I think the definition is completely gray. People don’t know what it means anymore. Religion is a big part of it. This is a really religious country, especially if you travel the Midwest; religion is there to make people uptight and scared, and it’s still working for a lot of people.
AVC: After so many years of doing comedy under the influence, what is it like performing material you wrote when you were on drugs?
AL: It’s strange, but in a good way. A lot of performers think they’re better when they’re fucked-up. They’re not. It’s good to be telling jokes in a clear and concise way. The tough part is the downtime. It’s not being onstage, it’s what to do on the road. I like to get right out of there. As soon as I get offstage—if there’s a meet-and-greet, it’s gotta happen before, cause I gotta leave. It’s better.