Stern und Lange: Comedian Gets Dream Job With Howard

If Howard Stern distilled his audience into a single person, that person would probably come pretty close to resembling Artie Lange. Thirty-four years old, with thinning brown hair, a barrel chest, cheeks like tennis balls and a potent New Jersey accent, Mr. Lange looks and sounds like he should be doing doughnuts in a Meadowlands parking lot, car radio cranking, howling to Mr. Stern’s harassment of celebrities and assorted nitwits–that is, if Mr. Lange wasn’t suddenly, surprisingly, sitting in a studio on West 57th Street every weekday morning a few feet from the host’s chair, howling to Mr. Stern’s harassment of celebrities and assorted nitwits.

Feel good for Artie Lange. Not long ago, he appeared to be on a one-way ride to John Belushi/ Chris Farley-ville: tortured fuck-up, showbiz cliché, snorting coke off the back of a nightclub toilet one night with some idiot he’d just met, blowing through the cash he’d accumulated as a cast member of MAD TV until he got booted off the show, and finally plunging into a bolt-the-door depression that drove his poor, widowed mother up the wall. Back then (which wasn’t that long ago), Mr. Lange was a lonely blue-collar kid who didn’t know how to be rich, tormented by the memory of his late father. He was on the verge of becoming a sad little 200-word item in the front of Entertainment Weekly about the death of another overweight comic.

But then he pulled it together. His mom and kid sister saved him, and friends helped–and, oh yeah, there were those cops who tossed him into the L.A. county jail (Mr. Lange calls that an “intervention,” too). Then one day, Norm Macdonald–a guy Mr. Lange didn’t know but sort of worshipped–called him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to be a movie star. Maybe it wasn’t such a good movie ( Dirty Work –perhaps you’ve caught it, baked in your boxers, on Showtime some night), but it was a second chance. A clean Mr. Lange, fresh from rehab, flew to Toronto to film. When the plane landed, he told himself that if he fucked this up, he deserved to die.

He didn’t fuck it up. Dirty Work tanked, but then Mr. Lange followed Mr. Macdonald to Hollywood, where he got a role on the ABC sitcom The Norm Show . It was an O.K. show–Mr. Macdonald never looked too comfortable trying to Drew Carey around for Disney dollars–but for Mr. Lange, the point was that he was back in show business. He did some other movies– Lost & Found , Mystery Men , The Bachelor –and then, this spring, word came that Howard Stern’s sidekick, Jackie (the Jokeman) Martling, had quit because of money, and that the King of All Media was going to be auditioning for Jackie’s chair. They needed comics, funny people who knew the show and would be willing to get up very, very early, take a lot of grief and eat their breakfast in front of strippers. They were looking for someone, it turned out, like Artie Lange.

The old man had introduced him to the show. Arthur Lange Sr. climbed roofs for a living, fixing television antennas, and he used to play Howard Stern in his van. One day he came home to the family’s house in Union, N.J., and told his 13-year-old son: “You gotta hear this guy.”

The old man was like that. Back then, most dads probably would’ve rather let their teenage sons drive an 18-wheeler cross-country than listen to WNBC’s new afternoon shock jock. But Artie Sr. had a comic’s heart. “He was a crazy motherfucker,” his son said. “Dropped out of high school, blue-collar guy, but really a good provider, great father to his son. Crazy, though.”

One afternoon, just after Artie Jr.’s 18th birthday, Artie Sr. couldn’t get to the peak of a 30-foot roof. So he put a ladder on a picnic table–”which he’d done about a million times,” his son said–but no one was there to hold it and he fell on his head. He was paralyzed, a quadriplegic. Like the rest of his family, his son was devastated. “It tore him up,” said Artie Jr.’s childhood friend, Dan McGrath. “It was like losing his best friend and his father.”

The old man was in the hospital for over a year. He fought on for four more, while his son tried to be the man of the house. It was tough. College and Artie Jr. didn’t take. He drank; he screwed around with other stuff. He flopped around a few jobs and wound up working as a longshoreman in the Port of Newark. At 22, he decided to have a go at comedy. People had always said he was funny, like his dad, so he figured it was worth a shot. He saved up six grand and told himself he would give it a year to make it as a stand-up. The guys on the dock wished him well but laughed. They told him he still had a job when he got back. “They were saying ‘ when it doesn’t work out,’ not if ,” Mr. Lange said, chuckling.

His first gig was at the old Improv in Hell’s Kitchen, at 44th and Ninth Avenue. He sucked. He went back, and sucked some more. He got better. By the end of the year, he had an agent and hit the road. Three and a half years later, he got the MAD TV gig. “I went from making eight grand a year to, like, 10 grand a week,” he said. Of course, you know what that does. Add that MAD TV was taped in Los Angeles (Mr. McGrath said his friend hadn’t been farther from Jersey “than Florida”), and it spelled trouble down the road.

Trouble found Artie Lange, all right. He liked MAD TV and the major-league cash, but it was hard work, and he hated L.A. Habits got worse. “The coke was the worst thing,” he said. “I had to stop that or else it would have been over. It was pathetic. I got stuff that a lot of people would dream of having, and I finally got my foot in the fucking door, and I [was] going to fuck it all up because of this. It was horrible.”

His mother, Judy, was beside herself. Mrs. Lange said the MAD TV people told her they were worried about her son, and she recalled a time she went to L.A. to see what was happening. “He was living out of a suitcase,” she said. “He didn’t want to be there. He was very unhappy.”

Mr. Lange finally got arrested for possession of cocaine, and his career at MAD TV was finished. This is the part of the story where, according to the usual rules of show business, you’re supposed say, “Whatever happened to Artie Lange?” or perhaps read about his woozy comeback performance at Skipee’s Clam Shack in Bangor, Me. But his mother and sister got him into rehab in New Jersey. Rehab helped, but again, this is not one of those happy-type deals where Mr. Lange emerged 28 days later in a sweatsuit riding a unicycle. He was out of work and wasn’t doing too well. “I was really depressed, and I was in the basement for two months eating,” he said. “I put on 40 pounds.”

But not long afterward, Norm Macdonald rang about Dirty Work . The night of his audition, he won $2,000 off of Mr. Macdonald playing pool. Mr. Lange’s agent told him that probably wasn’t such a hot idea. He still got the part of Mr. Macdonald’s loser buddy. Other not-so-fantastic films followed, as did the Norm show. But it all appeared to be leading up to a seat on his and his dad’s favorite show of all time.

“This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me,” Mr. Lange said over lunch at the Brooklyn Diner near Seventh Avenue. He was dressed in jeans and a navy Yankees T-shirt with Thurman Munson’s name and number on the back; his beard was a couple days’ worth of scruff. “Howard is like the Johnny Carson of today.”

It’s not an easy job. In joining Mr. Stern’s show, Mr. Lange has been thrust into the strange array of characters composing Mr. Stern’s radio universe. His role isn’t perfectly defined yet; unlike Mr. Martling, for example, he’s not passing scribbled jokes to Mr. Stern every few seconds. More often, Mr. Lange weighs in as a kind of comic Everyman, the person who says what the listener at home might be thinking–but hopefully funnier.

For now, Mr. Lange said he’s simply trying not to get in the way (“I don’t try to crowbar my act into the show,” he said), but that hasn’t absolved him from being hazed by Stern Nation. Barely a month and a half into his run, he’s already been subjected to merciless poundings from on-air colleagues and especially listeners. To put it bluntly: If Mr. Lange didn’t know before that he was large-bodied and losing his hair, he certainly does now. “Artie sucks my nuts and I hope he dies!” one person recently posted on a Stern fan site, where the debate over Mr. Lange’s bona fides rages. Another was more forgiving: “Artie, I love you! Let’s make mulatto babies together, honey cheeks!”

Mr. Lange takes the abuse in stride. Even when it’s incredibly personal–like when some guy called the show and announced, correctly, that Mr. Lange’s credit card was rejected at the ESPN Sports Zone in Times Square. “This guy is sitting behind me and doesn’t say it to me in the restaurant, waits a week, and then calls up and just fucking busts my balls about it,” he said. (He claimed he reached his limit buying furniture for his new apartment in Hoboken, N.J.)

There’s also the morning thing. Rest assured that there are some sights that even the most tolerant people are not prepared to see at 7 a.m., and other people’s cold butt cracks are among them. Recently, Mr. Lange walked into the studio to find workers covering surfaces with plastic. It seems that on a dare that promised a meeting with the W.W.F. wrestler the Rock, a porno star had pledged to regurgitate on a man who had, in fact, asked to be regurgitated upon. “You’re not used to dealing with a naked stripper at 7 a.m.,” Mr. Lange said. A pregnant pause. “Unless you are trying to get her to leave .”

Most of the time, Mr. Lange can’t actually believe it–that he’s sitting next to his idol, taking home a check for what he spent a good part of his adolescence and adulthood thinking was probably the coolest job in the world. His deal with the show allows him to go on leave if a movie role comes along, but he seems in no hurry for another Hollywood sabbatical. His mother is thrilled that he’s back in town–going to bed early, even! He’s a full five years off the coke, and while he’ll still go out once in a while (Scores, cough, cough ), for the first time that anyone can really remember, “Artie Lange” and “stable” can be mentioned in the same sentence without anyone convulsing with laughter.

Of course, the someone who started the whole thing is missing out. Or maybe not.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Lange said. “I would hope he’s somewhere looking down.”

He laughed quietly. “Or up.”

Mr. Lange laughed again. “No, he’d be fucking ecstatic .”