TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air, I am Terry Gross. My guest Artie Lange cracks people up, often by telling stories about the awful, embarrassing, depressing, self-sabotaging, even tragic things that have happened to him. He's one of the regulars on the "Howard Stern Show," and a stand-up comic who is so in demand, he can get more than $80,000 for a gig.
Lange has written a new memoir called "Too Fat To Fish." Howard Stern wrote the introduction. Stern writes, "Artie is a complicated subject. Most people who listen to my show will ask me to explain why a guy who has everything going for him has so many issues? You know what I am talking about - the heroine problem, the gambling, the eating, the hookers. All of it forces people to ask, how can a man with so much talent have so many problems? But here's the bottom line, Artie is the funniest, sweetest guy around, and Artie has the biggest heart on the planet."
Artie Lange, welcome back to Fresh Air.
Mr. ARTIE LANGE (Comedian; Author, "Too Fat To Fish"): Hey, how are you doing, Terry?
(Soundbite of laughter)
The name of your book and the name of your company is "Too Fat To Fish," which is how your mother once described you after you told her when you were much younger, before you were full-time comic, when you told her that your foreman had invited you to go fishing. So when she told you that you were too fat to fish, what did she mean and why did that stick with you all this years?
Mr. LANGE: Well, I - at the time I was a longshoreman. I was working at the port in Newark unloading ships, and I had never been fishing before, and the weird thing is I wasn't really fat at all. I - certainly not compared to what I am now. I mean, at some point in the last few years, I became Dom DeLuise...
(Soundbite of laughter)
But back then I was about 22 years old. I had only done stand-up a few times and I was working at the port, and I just never had showed an interest in anything. That's the best way to describe what I - I never, you know, had hobbies except, you know, I played baseball and I was sarcastic. Like that's the only interests I had.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's a great hobby.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. You know, and so fishing or anything like that was just - you know, my mother would never expect me to come close to even doing something like that. But at the time I said, hey, I might be a longshoreman forever. I didn't have a lot of real, you know, good future plans at that point. And my foreman said, hey, it was a Friday afternoon, he said, hey, I am going fishing tomorrow at five a.m. Do you want to come fishing? And I said, yeah, you know, and we went out to happy hour as we did every Friday and got blind drunk, and he left at about nine and he said, 'OK, I'll be there to pick you up tomorrow, I'll be there like six. And you know, I gave him that drunk promise, yeah, I'll be there, you know. I drank till about three, I went to White Castle's and had about 15 double cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake, and then I went home.
And sure enough at six the phone rings, and it's him. And I got up, threw some water on my face and I went downstairs. And my mother, who is a lunatic, was up vacuuming. And she, you know, would vacuum early in the morning because no one was up to bother her, a very sort of an Italian, ultra-clean woman. And she noticed me up on a Saturday at six, which was crazy. So she stopped vacuuming, and she calmly said, where are you going? And I said, I'm going fishing. And she had a look on her face like I told her I was going to the moon to, you know, get some samples for NASA.
And she said, what are you doing? I said, I'm going fishing. And she said, with who? I said, the foreman, you know, we're going out for tuna, deep-sea fishing. So I guess all of her mother instincts told her that she figured I would die on the boat, and because she didn't want that to happen, she thought of anything to tell me to keep me from going. And she just screamed, you are too fat to fish, at the top of her lungs. She must have said it about 30 straight times. She woke up the neighbors, she woke up my sister, who was sleeping upstairs, and at the time she didn't realized how funny that phrase sound, too fat to fish, but, you know, she wouldn't let me go.
So I had to call the foreman. Now I am 22 years old. I said, listen, I can't go fishing. And he's like, why? I said, my mother won't let me. And he was Italian, he sort of got it. He accepted that, and I went back to sleep, and I slept till four p.m. I woke up, my mother made me a mucinella(ph) omelet with roasted peppers and some bannel(ph) bread toasted. I had the greatest breakfast-slash-late lunch.
And while we are eating, my sister was there, and I said to my mother, I said, Ma, do you realized how funny and ridiculous you sounded this morning. She goes, what are you talking about? I said, you said I was too fat to fish like 40 straight times, and Stacie, my sister, was laughing and finally we got her to think it was funny. She saw the humor in it.
GROSS: The last time you were on our show, we talked a little bit about your father who you really looked up to, and he installed rooftop TV antennas for a living. And when you were 18, he fell off a roof and became a quadriplegic after that, and he died of complications and infections about four years later.
That had a huge impact on you and your family. Your father had no health insurance. The homeowner had no insurance. The family went broke. Your mother went on welfare. In your new memoir, you write a little bit about your father's life before the accident, and he used to work for a bookie. And in this book you talk about how he was addicted to the scam. And tell us like one of the scams that you knew about, maybe even one of the scams that had he involved you in when you were a baby or a child.
Mr. LANGE: A typical scam that my father really was proud of, because he felt justified at it, was - you know, he installed TV antennas, so in the late 70s, when I turned about 12 years old, cable television came in. And, you know, who needs an antenna? And it's cable TV. Everybody saw the writing on the wall.
But early on, it was so easy to steal cable. Like, you just had to climb a telephone pole and pull one wire out and you can get the whole block cable. And he actually taught me how to climb up a pole, and there was this special silver blocker that they would put up. If you had basic cable, and they wanted to block Showtime or HBO or one of the premium channels, they put this blocker up, so you couldn't get them. If you paid for them they'd take it down.
So my father figured out through one of the cable guys that if you took that blocker off and boiled it in water for 20 minutes it would render it useless. But if an inspector came by from the cable company, he would look up at the pole, and he would see it was there, so it would be no problem. So my father, actually asked me to climb some poles and get as many of them as I could. We then boiled like 50 of them at a time in our garage, and went back to everybody on the street and said, you have basic cable? Well, we can get you every premium channel for a price. If they agreed to that, my father and I and a couple of my buddies who we recruited, we'd run up the pole, we'd put the blocker back so the cable company could see it. And because it was boiled it was useless, and the signal for the premium channels ran right through it, and everybody got it for free.
GROSS: So you know you write about how your father loved scams, and when you were young, you did something that was really crazy. You went into a bank, inspired by the Woody Allen film "Take The Money and Run," and you wrote a note and gave it to the bank teller and the note said…
Mr. LANGE: It said, I have a gun. Put $50,000 into a bag, turn around and count to a thousand. Act natural, no, act casual. Thank you for your cooperation, Artie Lange Jr. I signed it, and of course, it was a joke, and I thought once the woman saw my signature, she'd figure it was joke. But the broad behind the counter, you know, teller was cute. And I don't know, I guess, I was hitting on her or flirting with her in some way, but of course, I didn't realized that she never got to the end of the note. All she saw first was, I have a gun. It was like one of the stupidest things a human being could do.
GROSS: So I got to ask you, what did you think the response was going to be? Like, wow, what a really funny note. Let's go out and have a drink, and then maybe make love. I mean, what did you think she was going to say?
Mr. LANGE: Terry, did you get a transcript and find out exactly what the judge said to me, because …
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGE: And my mother said to me. Yeah, yeah. I figured I would hand her the note, and she would look up to me and go, God, this is just the wittiest guy I've ever seen, and look at him, he has acne and a cheesy mustache and an uneven tan from the seaside boardwalk. Let's get married. The messed up part was I was with my girlfriend at that time, who I write about. You know, they called us Bonnie and Clyde after that. She knew nothing about it. But yeah, she turned white as a ghost and she pressed the silent alarm. And when I saw this, I grabbed the note and I threw it out behind me in the garbage can, and I apologized.
GROSS: Where it can used as evidence?
Mr. LANGE: Right, which was dumb because the cops came seconds after we left. My girlfriend was like, what's going on? I said, ah, nothing, nothing. We left in her mother's car, a 77 Ford Granada that did not move. And about two minutes later, there were a bunch of - like a SWAT team, an armed robbery call went out, and we just missed that and they found the note and gave it to the judge, and he read it back to me a million times. Yeah, that was dumb.
GROSS: So, your sentence was?
Mr. LANGE: I spent a couple of nights in the clink there, and then so my sentence was the - it got reduced to a disorderly conduct. They ended up believing that I was only kidding. And the headline in a local paper, bank robbery was only a joke, the headline's actually in the book, we were able to find it. And it got dropped to like a disorderly conduct, so I got time served, $500 in court fee, and I had to do 25 hours community service.
GROSS: Someone described you, and I can't remember if it somebody from the "Howard Stern Show" or someone else who knows you, described you as, you know, although you're so lively on the air and so funny on the air and on the stage, that - put you, say, in a party, you're likely to be in the corner and quiet. Is that true?
Mr. LANGE: Yeah, Howard brings that up. You know, I don't know. There's, you know what, here's the thing with me, like liquor will amplify whatever mood I'm in. If I'm in a really good mood, booze will make me even funner and crazier, and happy. If I'm in a bad or depressed mood, I will get dark, you know, and I'll look like, you know, Edgar Allan Poe after, you know, he lost his fourth wife to tuberculosis.
I just have a very dark side in me, and I'm basically depressed. I don't really enjoy my company, and I can't get away from myself. I'm bored to death with my life right, bored to tears. And I don't know what to do, I need some sort of - that's why I like getting high and gambling because, you know, it's something to look forward to. I have the greatest job in the world, but I'm just so bored.
GROSS: Why are you bored? I mean being on the "Howard Stern Show" sounds like it would be, just like constantly interesting, constantly keeping you on your toes with like incredibly good feedback. So, why do you think you're bored?
Mr. LANGE: I don't know, I mean it's for a shrink to say. I'm just bored to death. I hate working, I've always hated working. I hate having to be somewhere. I hate long-term commitments on any level. I can remember being...
GROSS: I guess your girlfriends learned that?
Mr. LANGE: Well, yeah, but I mean not even that so much, it's even work. Like I can remember being in the second grade, and literally I could remember saying to myself, God, in five years I'll only be in the seventh grade. School is going to take forever. When is this going to end? I don't want to be here. I want to quit, I hate having to be here.
And for years I struggled to get on to a television show, and then when I got on MADtv, I signed a five year contract. I was 27, and I can remember going, oh, you know, I'll be here till I'm 32, my life is over. I want this to end tomorrow. And subconsciously I think I destroyed it, those things, you know. I got thrown off MADtv after the second year because of coke, and maybe that's because I really wanted to? I don't know.
I was on a sitcom for two years. I had a job that people in this business would absolutely kill for, on the sitcom I was on. I was working with one of my best friends, Laurie Metcalf was in the cast, like really talented people on the Warner Brothers lot in L.A. I was a supporting character making 35 grand a week, some weeks I'd have two lines.
I had a job making 35 grand a week and I didn't have to take anything to work. I didn't have a briefcase or a piece of paper. I had ridiculously lame easy jokes to memorize, like the jokes on that show would be, I'd go to Norm MacDonald, Are you thinking what I'm thinking? And he'd say, No, I'm not thinking of cheeseburgers. And then I'd make a face like, oh you got me, you know, and then I'd walk out. And then I'd get 35 grand on a Friday.
So, I had a convertible Mercedes. I was living in a $4,000 a month condo on Wilshire in Beverly Hills. And I mean, I was healthy - I was thin, I had a tan. Even with that life, creatively I was empty inside, but even with that life I couldn't stand it. After two years I had to get out of there. I was pulling the hair out of my head and then...
GROSS: So, let me ask you, if you're bored now, and you've been bored at some of the most successful and well paid periods of your life, what is it that you like to do when you're not working, if you hate working, like do you want to stay at home and watch TV all day? Is that what you'd want to do?
Mr. LANGE: Well, it's a dark answer, but I'll be totally honest with you, I want to do, you know, heroine. I - when I was in my 20s, I - my life became chaos because of cocaine, and you know, I was younger, cocaine is a social drug.
GROSS: And this was after your father died? When you were…
Mr. LANGE:: Oh, yeah, much - my father was not a drug guy. Remember my father used to me another word for gambler is loser, you know. He had none of the vices I have, and he would really be upset if he knew what I've thrown my money away on. But as I've gotten older, I withdraw more and more from life, and I got into opiates on the road, and opiates are the direct opposite of cocaine. Opiates are, you know, you want to be mellow and just hang out. Be alone, and nod off, you know? My entire adult life, I have done drugs, and I've drank so that's all I know how to do. So, right now I've been clean off of heroine for about four months, but I still - I don't - Charlie Parker the legendary saxophonist who, you know, is a legendary junkie, too. I think he died when was 34, he got out of rehab once and when he relapsed he said, you know, they can get it out of your blood, but they can't get it out of your head.
You know, so right now it's out of my blood, I went through the withdrawals, but it's still in my head. I can remember how great it was to just come home and get high. And not dealing with anything, but, you know, with the schedule as regimented as I have, I, you know, get up at 4:30 and I get to work at 6:00. And I work six to eleven on a big radio show, where you've got to be sort of on. And then on the weekends, I become nocturnal. I'm up all night doing stand up. With that kind of schedule, heroine is going to really, really ruin your life, you know, and it started to.
GROSS: But, you were in rehab in August, I think you went into rehab.
Mr. LANGE: I wanted to like this outpatient rehab, I was there overnight, and then was released under the care of a therapist, which is what I'm trying to stay true to now, seeing a therapist couple of days a week. So I'm clean for the last few months, but a lot of people in my life think the outpatient rehab wasn't even scratching the surface of what I needed. You know, they're probably right.
GROSS: When you're in therapy - I mean, you are such a good talker. You can tell any story, and you can probably talk your way around anything. But when a therapist trying to get you to kind - you know, penetrate to your core and be really honest, sometimes it's probably tempting to like, just tell captivating and funny stories, and act like you're really penetrating, but just tell a great story? Do you know what I'm saying? So, does your ability to really talk help in therapy or does it sometimes stand in the way of, you know, actually doing the work?
Mr. LANGE: That's actually an excellent question. And you know what, to be honest with you, I think it hurts completely because there's times where I could just completely BS, you know, whatever, go off on a tangent that sounds interesting, but it's completely false and has nothing to do with what he's probably trying to get at. Might sound like it is, but it's not, and it's a way for me to avoid talking about it.
And then I guess everyone who knows anything about therapy, they tell you that if you're not being honest with them, you're not going to get any help, you're wasting your time. It has never been effective for me, therapy. This is the longest I've tried it. I go the first couple of times, I spill my heart out, I talk about my father, or whatever, and then by the third time it's just me and some dude in the room, and I'm talking about my feelings.
It's kind of fruity to tell you the truth. I get uncomfortable, and then I start to go off on tangents and, you know, I'm not being honest with the guy. There's - God only - because I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know. I wish I could tell them. I don't know. I get the blues. I get the blues a lot, and it was before my father fell I was like that, you know, I don't know.
GROSS: So, what's the difference between how you talk on Howard Stern and how you talk in the therapy office? I mean do you - are the stories any different or they...
Mr. LANGE: There is no difference.
GROSS: Because it's not like you're not revealing on Howard's show. I mean you're pretty out there in what you'll talk about in terms of your private life.
Mr. LANGE: Right, that's my problem. Exactly, that's my problem. I consider ....
GROSS: That your business is already out there?
Mr. LANGE: Right, I mean I consider the Stern show therapy. I always have. And there's been times in the last - you know, I've been on there close to eight years now, and, you know, there has been times I leave the show, and I'm walking down 6th Avenue in a daze going, what did I just talk about?
You realize how many people are actually listening. You're just in that room having a conversation with Howard and, you know, he can lull you to sleep and you forget you're talking to millions people. And, you know, that's another very perceptive thing on your part, Terry. I'm telling you the only difference sometimes between the Stern show, and me in therapy is when I'm talking in therapy, there's no one playing like a fart sound effect behind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGE: You know, that's about it. And if Fred Norris could come to some of the therapy sessions and do that, I think it'd be great. I'd be more comfortable.
GROSS: I've got to ask you about what was probably one of the most upsetting but also memorable moments in the history of the "Howard Stern Show." This was last April when you walked out, basically quit after just like a really upsetting incident. You and your assistant, Teddy, were on the air with everybody else on the show, and then you started - he started talking with you about, you know, money and said that, you know, you said you're always loaning him money, and you're so generous to him. And then he said that he's always having to ask you for the money that you promised to loan him, and you were getting increasingly angrier with him. And this erupted into this huge fight about confidence and money. It got really ugly. And when I say fight, I mean fight. And so, we have a very brief excerpt of that that we're going to play. And in this excerpt, Teddy speaks first.
(Soundbite of clip from the "Howard Stern Show")
Mr. TEDDY (Artie Lange's Assistant): You promise me money. You promise me money.
Mr. LANGE: No, I don't promise you money.
Mr. TEDDY: Yes, you do. You always say, I'll give you money on Monday. And then you don't give me money on Monday.
Mr. LANGE: I give you money all the time...
Mr. TEDDY: $500 in front of me. I need that $500.
Mr. LANGE: You always get it. You always get that money.
Mr. TEDDY: (unintelligible) and I have to prod and poke you for it. I hate doing that.
Mr. LANGE: Because it's not your paycheck.
Ms. ROBIN QUIVERS (Co-host, "Howard Stern Show): What's going on?
Mr. LANGE: Because it's not your paycheck. He has to prod and poke me for money. Teddy doesn't...
Mr. TEDDY: The paycheck isn't in the...
Mr. HOWARD STERN (Host, "Howard Stern Show"): I got - Artie, Artie, I got to take umbrage with you for one thing.
Mr. LANGE: Howard, you're being wrong.
Mr. STERN: Can I tell you why I'm - why I'm right?
Mr. LANGE: You're being wrong. You're coddling him.
Mr. STERN: No, I'm not. I'm going to tell you something. Hear my point of view.
Mr. LANGE: Because you...
Mr. TEDDY: Whatever. It really...
Mr. LANGE: I hate you, Ted.
Mr. STERN: No, no, no, no, no. Artie, no, no. Artie, stop it.
Ms. QUIVERS: Stop it.
Mr. STERN: Artie, stop it. Stop it.
Ms. QUIVERS: Get off, Teddy. Teddy, Teddy, no, no.
Mr. STERN: Stop it. All right. Artie, no. Artie, Artie, stop it.
Ms. QUIVERS: No. No. No. Close the door. Jesus Christ! You people are crazy.
GROSS: Wow! I mean, that just like stops you dead in your tracks. Artie, what went through your mind? Like, tell us what was happening at that moment from your point of view?
Mr. LANGE: My publicist said you would not bring this up, so this interview is over. Just kidding.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You had me there.
Mr. LANGE: I don't - I haven't talked to my publicist in months. Listen. That's embarrassing. I think that tape is not defensible. Teddy screwed up, you know. What can I tell you? He forced me to throw something at him, and he's apologized, and you know, we can move on now.
GROSS: Is that how you see it, that he forced you to throw something at him?
Mr. LANGE: No, no.
GROSS: No. OK, all right.
Mr. LANGE: Listen. I am not well. I'm a disturbed person. I'm a maniac. I'm on drugs. I'm not stable, and Teddy works for me, you know. I don't know. I mean, what can I say? I got mad, and I don't see - you know, I do love the kid. I love the kid like a younger brother. We've worked together for a while now. We've been through a lot of, you know, trenches together, and he's been with me all over the country. So, I don't think I would have hit him if I got to him, but I was just really mad. The money thing was nobody's business. I wouldn't have done anything.
GROSS: You know, most of us have our darkest moments in private. You know, when we get into a real fight, there aren't microphones around. We're not live on the air, and, you know, I think, for most people who are performers or who are in front of a microphone, you kind of - you know, you behave in a certain way. Even if you're depressed, you maybe put on a good face or something.
And to have that exposed live on the air, as so much gets exposed live on Howard's show, I mean, well, what's it like for you to listen back to yourself that way? Most of us don't get a chance to - not that we necessarily want to. Most of us aren't in the position where we're going to be listening back to how we sounded when we blew up at people who we really love.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. Well, when I hear it back, I say, God, I wish I would have hit him because I probably would have got a bigger advance for the book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGE: I don't - listen, Terry, I don't know what to tell you. It's depressing. I've been in a very bad way mentally since 1985. I'm trying to figure something out here. You know, it's probably everyone... ..TEXT: GROSS: I almost feel guilty laughing because, you know...
Mr. LANGE: No.
GROSS: No, no, no. Let me just say you're like - you're so depressed. You're in such bad shape, and you manage to make it funny, and I laugh, and everybody around America laughed. So, does that it make it better or worse for you?
Mr. LANGE: Well, it's - laughing is better than booing. I mean, I'm depressed - boo. That would really suck.
GROSS: Or I'm depressed, who cares? You know, that would be bad, too.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. Well, ultimately, but that's the thing. That's the depressing thing. And ultimately, they laugh. But then really, who cares? You know, it's like everybody has got to deal with their own stuff.
GROSS: Let me get back to the Howard Stern clip that we played.
Mr. LANGE: I love how most people come on shows, and they play a clip of their Academy Award-winning movie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGE: Let's hear a - we're here with Celine Dion. Let's hear a little bit of her new single off the, you know, off the sisterhood of the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" soundtrack. Celine, this is a wonderful song. Listen to this. And with me, you're playing a clip where I almost killed my assistant in a rage. So go ahead, Terry. Let's finish up on that.
GROSS: OK, here's the last question about it. I know on our show, when something goes terribly wrong, I'm thinking, well, this is terribly wrong. It might be really embarrassing, but it's kind of good radio because there's some drama here. People aren't going to be tuning out as this thing goes terribly wrong. Was there any part of your mind, or do you think was there any part of Howard or Robin's mind that was thinking, this is really horrible. This is really frightening. This is incredible radio?
Mr. LANGE: Of course. Well, I wasn't thinking it because I was so out of my mind.
Mr. LANGE: Afterwards, I thought it, but make no mistake, Howard thinks it 100 percent of the time. And they were nice, though, at Sirius and at On Demand TV. They refused to play that clip for three entire hours. And then, after the three hours were over, they, like, made it promos, special, Artie loses it. We didn't play this for three hours because we have some dignity, but we hear, you know, three hours have gone by, and Artie says he's fine, so tune in. Artie loses it and almost dies.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What a predicament to be in.
Mr. LANGE: What am I going to do? You know what? It's a business.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Artie Lange, and he's a regular on the "Howard Stern Show." He is a comic and writer, actor, and author now of a new memoir, which is called "Too Fat to Fish." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of movie)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Artie Lange. And many of our listeners I know know him from the "Howard Stern Show." He's a comic and writer and actor and now, author of a new book, which is called "Too Fat to Fish." It's a memoir. One of the things you write about in your book is that you went to Afghanistan just a few months ago, really, to do a USO tour. And why did you want to do that? I mean, you're not the most political person in the world.
Mr. LANGE: How do you know, Terry? I'm very - you know, I'm not. You're right. I'm not political at all. I am nothing if not compassionate, however, for our men and women over there in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. It just - I knew a couple of comedians who had done it, and that inspired me. I put it out there on the air. I said, I want to do this.
I had my agent, who had helped other comics get over there. I had him call for me, and there was a lot of resistance. First, they said no. And I mentioned that on the air and the power of the Stern show, they came back, and they said, you know, what? We ran it by some of the troops, and they would love to see Artie.
So, not only going to let him come over, we're going to give him his own tour. He can pick a few other comics. He'll be the headliner and bring a friend or whatever, and he'll have a week. So, I really took that very seriously, and I picked David Atell, Jimmy Florentine, Nick DiPaolo, as the other comics, and Gary Dell'Abate, Baba Booey from the Stern show came out to introduce us and helped us with stuff because he was really into going out there. And, you know, I - it was just a commitment I made to myself. I would like to feel like in some small way, I was a part of what's going on there. The only negative - the shows went amazing, and it's probably the most important thing I've ever done in my career.
Like we did some shows, since we weren't unbelievably famous people, they put us in more dangerous situations, I think. We did one show for a total of 40 guys. We had to take a Black Hawk helicopter to this remote base outside of Bagram. And these guys had just been out doing all these special ops. God knows what they were doing, fighting the Taliban. They couldn't give us specifics. But they just got back at like four in the afternoon, a scorching sun. They took their helmets off, and they put their gear down. And 40 of them sat in front of this little makeshift stage. And they were just so happy to see anybody who wasn't military. They were hugging us, taking pictures, and we did a good hour-and-a-half standup show.
And, you know, as the headliner, I always went last, and I always did about half an hour. And when these guys laughed, it was so refreshing. It was so rewarding to see these guys with cuts on them and, you know, dirt from whatever they were doing, risking their lives for - I don't know. I hope something that turns out to be a very important cause.
To see them truly get a belly laugh and maybe, for that second, forget about the hell they're in was just the most important thing I've ever done, you know, and the most rewarding thing I've ever done, and I would do it again. And the good thing is the USO sent me a fantastic letter after we got back. Every show we did, in their words, was a smashing success. After each show, we did a meet and greet and signed pictures and stuff, and they thanked us specifically for going to very remote areas that other entertainers had not gone to. And a couple of the bases we went to, it was the only USO show they're ever going to see because no one else goes out there. So, I hope to do it again, if there's time.
The negative part of it is, I got to know personally about 20 soldiers. I exchanged information with them, phone numbers and stuff, email. And couple of them, since I got back, have been to New York, and I gave them a tour of the Sirius studios. I took them to a Yankee game, bought them lunch. And a lot of them are still over there, and the problem is, I don't have friends or relatives over there. Thank God. But now, I got to know these guys, and it really puts a face on it for me, and I know their stories. A couple of them I sat next to on a military flight for, you know, 11 hours. And if one of those guys gets hurt or killed, God forbid... ..TEXT: GROSS: You were under mortar fire in one of the places on this tour.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. ..TEXT: GROSS: And this is the first time you were ever under attack like that. What surprised you about yourself and how you handled it? Anything?
Mr. LANGE: Right. What happened was, we did an outdoor show in Kandahar, and we were supposed to go to the meet and greet. And we had to get in all these big military SUVs to drive to the meet and greet. And during the drive after the show to the meet and greet, it was like out of a movie. Incoming, you know, take cover. So, the guy driving our car, the Marine, pulled into this driveway next to these bunkers, and they told us to stand still until they came around.
They opened up the door, and a bunch of Marines formed a shield, like a human shield around us with their M-16s out and walked us to the bunker. And the Marines were very calm, like it was an everyday thing, and that made us calm, and we had these, you know, heroic men and women in front of us protecting us, so we were a little more casual about it.
But it's funny. A lot of the guys over there did like these subtle fat jokes. I think that was the way of bonding with me. And I said to the one kid, I said, should we be more scared right now because it seems kind of casual? And the kid said to me, he goes, Art, listen, this is the way I look at it. If one of these things hits you, you're just going to be a pile of dust. And I said, really? And then he said, you're going to be big pile of dust, but you'll just be dust. And I'm like, you know - of course, everyone else is laughing, and I got a fake laugh. What am I going to do, say the guy's not funny? He's protecting me. And I said, OK, so you never feel a thing?
And then he said, but if something comes near you - and he was dead serious - me and my buddy, we'll take the bullet. And he was dead serious. He goes, we'll get in front of you. And the more I thought about it, I felt like saying, look, don't do that, man. Because believe me, you're way more important to the planet right now than I am. I said, don't take the bullet. Let me take the bullet. The world needs you way more than it needs me. You're a soldier. You're young, you know, and I think he had a kid, too.
I'm like, I'll take the bullet. I would hate for his family to get a letter from the USO like, yeah, your son died in combat guarding someone. He took a bullet. You know, the family calling and saying, was it a medic? Was it a high officer? Was it - was it someone, you know, there for peace? A priest? And the guys goes, no, no. Actually, it was the fat guy from Howard Stern. That's who he died saving. You know, that would've been a rough phone call.
GROSS: In all seriousness, you tried to kill yourself when you were in your 20s.
Mr. LANGE: Yes.
GROSS: And you've talked about how there were times that you really wished it was over because you were so unhappy, just like so miserable. And so, when you were threatened by the idea of somebody else killing you, did it make you feel any differently about life?
Mr. LANGE: Look, I mean, the time that I tried to commit suicide, that had everything to do with the crazy amount of cocaine I was doing. That, combined with the fact that I was already sort of having a nervous breakdown because I tried to quit liquor cold turkey to cure an ulcer that I had. And I was in this little apartment in L.A. I had to get up that day for a network character reading, 11 different sketches.
In that coming off cocaine logic, haze, I said, killing myself is the best move. And, you know, I wrote a note, and that note is in my book verbatim, And it's - I remember it, too, because much like the bank note, you know, I left it - yeah, I got to start discarding of depressing notes in my life. I got to - like Nixon should've done with the tapes, I should've burned them.
But the note basically - it was to my mother and sister and said, mom and Stacie, I'm so sorry for this, but I can't deal with life. And none of this is your fault. Do me a favor and keep on living. Maybe I'll see you again some day. I remember that, and I signed it, and I left it there next to my booklet of like, you know, 14 sketches. And I took - God, I took about 30 Restoril, 30 milligram sleeping tablets, about 40 Excedrin PM, and half a bottle of Jack. I figured that would do it.
And what was disturbing to the counselors in the rehab that I ended up going to was, a lot of people, once they do that, at the last minute, they change their mind, and they call for help. I didn't do that. I sat down, and this unbelievable morbid curiosity came over me. And I really started to think, God, you know, I'm going to find out what happens when you die. I'm going to find out the answer to this question that, you know, scientists and theologians, brilliant people in history have tried to figure out what happens when you die, if anything. I was about to find that out. Oh, my God, am I going to see my father or am I going to see my grandfather? Am I going to meet Babe Ruth? Am I going to hell? Am I going to meet Hitler, you know, or am I just going to rot away?
And I sat on this awful couch in the Oakwood Apartments on Barham (ph) Boulevard in North Hollywood, the most depressing corporate housing you can imagine. And all this went through my head. And then I looked at my arm, and my arm began to shake. And the drugs started to hit me, and I was like, wow, is this going to happen. And then I passed out.
And the next thing I remember, I was in my friend's car going to the emergency room. I was never late for the show. And the stage managers thought it was odd. And they came to my apartment and somehow got in and saved me. You know, the desperation that I was feeling at that point is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, you know. I had everything going for me. I worked hard. And when I think about, you know, someone else taking my life, I start to hate myself even more for trying to do it on my own. And it's a tough - it's a tough place in my head to go. You know, it just is.
GROSS: Artie, I really want to wish you the best in all ways and thank you so much for coming back to Fresh Air and talking with us. And I wish you good health and good moods and some happiness. Thank you very much.
Mr. LANGE: Thanks, Terry, and I'll see you at the NPR-slash-Sirius Christmas party, I guess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGE: We'll do some Alabama slammer shots with Martha Stewart and the crew, I don't know if you met them. They are a fun bunch.
GROSS: Yeah, and I have reputation for always partying hard, so.
Mr. LANGE: All right, Terr. You get a hair cut and stay in school, sweetie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: OK. Be well. Thank you. Artie Lange is a cast member of the "Howard Stern Show." His new memoir is called "Too Fat to Fish." You can download podcasts of our interviews on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD featuring Chrissie Hynde and a new group of Pretenders. This is Fresh Air.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.