Hoboken resident Artie Lange is best known as a regular on the Howard Stern radio show; yet he is also an incredibly popular standup comedian. His DVD of standup material, called "It's the Whiskey Talking," was a hit with fans.
He recently performed to a packed house at Carolines on Broadway, which was filled with admirers who screamed his name as he walked to the mic. While making his way to the stage, he was stopped by several enthusiastic fans hoping to get a picture. Ever accommodating, he told them to meet him backstage after the show.
His hilarious routine often mocks his working-class roots. Lately, it has even included his recent trip to Afghanistan. For all the humor he has wrung out of the Afghanistan trip, it also included some very frightening moments - like when he and his crew came under mortar fire.
Lange was inspired to entertain the U.S. troops after viewing Jeffrey Ross' film "Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie," which was about Ross' comedy tour in Iraq. Lange told his listeners that he wanted to perform. Initially, he was denied because of the controversial nature of the Howard Stern show. But with the help of his fans, the U.S.O. was inundated with calls, and the trip was approved for June 28 to July 5. As headliner, Lange got to pick the other comics.
"I tried to choose guys that one, I thought were funny, and two, that I loved hanging out with, because there was going to be so much downtime," said Lange, who added that he didn't want to risk bringing comics who had kids.
He picked comics Jimmy Florentine, Nick Dipaolo, and David Attell. Stern show producer Gary Dell'Abate served as MC for the tour. Lange was asked by the U.S.O. the name of the tour, so he called it "Operation Mirth."
"I said that as a joke, and she took it seriously and had T-shirts made up," he said.
During the tour, Lange and his group came under attack by mortar.
"Twenty yards into it, all these sirens went off," said Lange. "We pull into this little alleyway and went into this bunker. All these Marines formed a human shield around us so it would hit them, not us. It was crazy."
The next day, they flew by helicopter to the next base in the desert, and they had to wear bulletproof vests and helmets for safety. Lange said that the soldiers there had just returned from hand-to-hand combat.
Lange said it was a bit of a challenge following Jimmy, Nick and David, who are headliners themselves.
"Thank God, new material came to us every night," said Lange. "We found out that [the soldiers] love making fun of the French soldiers, because they are really feminine looking in short shorts. A couple of the [French soldiers] walked by while I was doing the show and I said, 'Why aren't we fighting them? We'd be done in a week.' "
Lange was moved by how grateful the soldiers were.
"They said, 'No one ever comes out here,' " he said. "We were only there a week, and these kids are there for months. They are heroes, man. Every soldier I met, I liked a lot."
The U.S.O. said the tour was successful and that Lange can return anytime. "What an experience," said Lange. "I'm a different person."
While Lange says that he does feel a certain obligation to fans, he says it's never a burden. "I do standup, and the fans come out, and it's not a burden at all," said Lange. "I honestly feel like I have 50,000 friends that I've never met who would let me sleep at their house if I needed too. I try to say hi to everybody and take pictures with everybody. It's fine with me."
He says that fans respond to the honesty of the Stern show.
"You know, the key to [the Stern] show has always been honesty," Lange said. "I just try to be genuine and act like me. And that's what they hear, and that's what they seem to like."
Lange says that radio fans are different than TV fans.
"When I was on Mad TV, when I would meet a fan, they'd want me to do a sketch from the show, and that wasn't me," said Lange. "On the Stern show, I do a stupid impression and they know it's [me] doing it." He feels that he may have outgrown sketch comedy.
"The world of sketch comedy is a young man's game because it's supposed to make fun of pop culture," said Lange. "I'll tell you, I got on Mad TV at 27, and say what you want about that show, it's the second longest running sketch comedy show in the history of network TV. It's in syndication." Lange did a special appearance on Mad TV for the 100th and the 200th episodes. "I remember I was in my late 30s and it didn't feel stupid - but I felt old trying to play a character in a sketch about Puff Daddy," he said. "I was 27 when I got the gig, and by then my musical taste, my pop culture taste, was already old."
Working with Stern
Already a fan, Lange got to sit in on the Stern show because of his friend and fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, whom Lange had worked with on the film Dirty Work and on The Norm Show. "I got to sit in what was called the Jackie [Martling] Chair," said Lange. "I was in rotation with [about] 20 other comics. Any comedian will tell you that a plug on the Stern show is worth a million. There were a lot of great funny guys - guys that were funnier than me."
He recalls that the competition for the slot was fierce.
"They tried comics and other gossip guys, but mostly comedians. I remember saying to my manager, 'I am not the most talented guy in this group, but I guarantee that I'm the biggest fan of the show.' "
Lange got the job.
Over the years, Stern and Lange have developed a great chemistry.
"I think [Howard] appreciated that I knew when to shut up as well as when to talk," said Lange about getting selected. "I knew his sense of humor. My sense of humor was completely influenced by him." Lange says he has learned a lot from Stern, who taught him to keep the conversation flowing, honest, and relevant.
"I came from network comedy and I felt like someone took handcuffs off me," said Lange. "Then we came to SIRIUS [satellite radio, where the Stern show now airs], and once again, it was like the handcuffs came off. I've never been happier at work or creatively in my life right now - uncensored on the radio and uncensored in clubs. It's the greatest."
Lange recalls first attempting standup at the Improv in Hell's Kitchen when he was 19. "It's the first type of performing I ever did as an adult," said Lange. "It was July 12, 1987, I was 19 and I remember the date. I said I was never going to forget it."
He said that he got in line at 5:30 p.m. for a chance to perform in an open mic slot.
"Sure enough, I got the number 10. They sprinkled real comics in with open mic [performers]. I had to wait until 1 a.m.," he said. "So I waited till 1 a.m. and I bombed for five minutes. Everyone thinks that they can do better. I was unprepared, I mumbled, and I forgot stuff. But I'm proud that I did it."
He continued, "It's the best feeling in the world when you are killing. It's a position of power. In standup, if you walk into a room and [a comedian] has been on for 20 minutes and there's dead silence, people think that's bad - but that means the guy's killing because everyone is still listening. Eventually, if you wait to hear the punch line, you'll hear them roar with laughter. If there's chatting and giggling, that means he lost them."
Lange says it's even better when the crowd knows you: "You get up there and the crowd laughs and gives you the respect to listen to what you have to say. It's the greatest. I'll tell you, just talking on the radio free form on SIRIUS - that's the only thing I've done in show business that beats standup. You talk to a ton of people and you can say whatever you want. It's the greatest."
A safe haven
Tucked on the bay on the Jersey shore is Lange's refuge, a summer house where he can escape the obligation of the spotlight and relax with family and friends.
And family is never far from Lange's mind. He said that both mom Judy and sister Stacey have their own bedrooms in the 7,500 square foot house. Decorated in nautical blue and white, one notices the spacious high ceilings, the curving staircase, and bay windows that look out to sea.
The house is as open and inviting as the comic's generous heart, which makes time for the many people who make demands of him. On the afternoon I was there, Artie spent time with a curious neighbor and graciously signed autographs for the phone technician.
While Artie says that he technically could retire soon, as he's doing well, he doesn't see doing that.
"When you grow up blue-collar," he said, "when you're young you play ball, you don't go skiing or play golf. You don't play a lot of tennis."
Lange said that he wishes his mother, who he got to retire early, would learn how to relax.
"I can't get her to relax, and you know, you meet rich people and they know how to relax. They're great at it. I wish my mother skied or played tennis, or liked golfing or world travel, but she doesn't. She likes cleaning tables with Pledge."
"If I retired, I don't know what I'd do either," said Lange. "If and when I have children - and I hope to someday - they would probably have a house like this, and they'd have a boat. They'd go waterskiing. By the time they got older, hopefully, they'd go to the next level and have some sort of important job. I think my kids would know how to relax more."
He added, "I grew up with more than my father had. I'm a little better at relaxing. When my father fell [during a construction job; see Part I], I was 18 and all that relaxation went out the window. I hope to have kids because I'd like to see someone in my family relax, even if it's 25 years from now."
Comments on this story can be sent to Diana Schwaeble at: firstname.lastname@example.org.