“If I had abs,” said the comedian Artie Lange as he held his medicine ball-sized paunch in his hands, “I would be dead.”
The former Howard Stern sidekick was sitting inside the new Varick Street studio that is home to The Nick & Artie Show, the sports-and-comedy talk show on Sirius Radio and DirecTV that he co-hosts with fellow comedian Nick DiPaolo. He was cradling his gut, pointing at the scars where nearly three years ago, in his Hoboken home, he took a 13-inch Wolfgang Puck kitchen knife and stabbed himself repeatedly: Six times with hesitation. Three times with conviction.
He has since been treated and released from three separate psychiatric wards. His sanity and sobriety restored—“It took me a year and a half to get right in the head”—Mr. Lange has now eased himself back into the comedy world.
His jowly face, though still porcine and scruffy, no longer bears the wear and tear of all those long weekends performing in venues across the country, followed by long weekdays witnessing porn stars bringing themselves to orgasm while taping The Howard Stern Show.
“It was like [going from] a paper route to being Hugh Hefner,” he said of those days.
The 44-year-old has sworn off the cardinal vices—particularly booze, gambling, drugs and prostitutes—that fueled his initial rise to comedy fame. He now spends the lushing hours of 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the sanctuary of his new show. The studio has been outfitted with bruh-friendly toys like a basketball shootout game and a pool table. The kitchen is stocked with water and snacks and not a trace of hooch (Mr. Lange was nursing a bottle of Nestle Quik during one taping). The show consists of Mr. Lange chewing the fat with Mr. DiPaolo over anything from the futility of the Boston Red Sox to the (allegedly) indiscriminate sexual tastes of Dan, their producer.
“When somebody calls up and asks about North Carolina’s defense, we go, ‘Call Dan Patrick,’” said Mr. DiPaolo. “We want to talk about A-Rod banging this broad.”
Throw in the occasional guest like Esquire writer Scott Raab and former NBA player John Salley, and the result is a sharp, funny alternative to ESPN’s eternal onslaught of pompous programming; it’s like listening to two Jersey galoots (Mr. DiPaolo is originally from Massachusetts) rip on Eli Manning from the bleachers of the old Meadowlands stadium.
While the show is on Sirius, it is also syndicated on regular radio stations, leaving the duo at the mercy of the FCC.
“For the four years I was on Howard and Sirius, I was like going 100 miles an hour,” Mr. Lange said. “You can say whatever you want, and that was fun, that kind of freedom. Here, we don’t have that.”
Still, the fact that just two years ago Mr. Lange was sitting in an insane asylum, playing Scrabble with a 400-pound methadone addict and an 80-pound meth head, is not lost on him.
“I said, ‘Well this is it. I’m playing Scrabble in a psych ward, so it’s probably over,’” he said. He figured, if he got lucky, “maybe I would play the fat neighbor on a shitty sitcom and stay in show business and do my act at the Mandalay Bay once in a while,” he said in his nicotine-stained Jersey growl. “But this is crazy.”
There is always the possibility of another fuck-up in a career that’s had its share of them, along with those moments of redemption. In the 1990s, Mr. Lange got canned from Mad TV, the show that started his career, for doing enough cocaine to wipe out a small horse farm, at one point mixing the drug into his whiskey when his nose became too sore to snort it. He cleaned up his act in rehab, went on to star in the amusing but unsuccessful Dirty Work with Norm McDonald, then bounced around sitcoms and comedy clubs before landing in the one chair his oversized keister was born to sit in.
When longtime Howard Stern sidekick Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling left The Howard Stern Show over a salary dispute in 2001, Mr. Lange got the nod to join Stern’s morning crew.
“It’s a powerful show to be on,” said Mr. Lange. The gig did wonders for his stand-up career—he sold out a show at Carnegie Hall in three hours—and for his wallet. At his peak, Mr. Lange was making $800,000 a year from The Howard Stern Show and $2 million touring the road.
The schedule was brutal, however, requiring him to wake up at 4:45 a.m. each morning.
“That’s when I was always going home,” he said. Mr. Lange would try to ride out the day without sleeping, sometimes still buzzed on the previous night’s intake of Jack Daniels, pills or heroin.
“Howard’s got the most observant, like, keen eye for anything on the planet,” he said. “Like if I tried that a couple of nights, he would say ‘Robin, Artie seems drunk.’ And he was right.”
Though he lasted eight years, the schedule wore him out, leading to the occasional flare-up. In 2008, he attacked his assistant Teddy on the air after an argument over money, coming at the much smaller man like a walrus in a New York Yankees T-shirt. After being restrained by three colleagues, he offered Mr. Stern his resignation. “Howard, I love you, but I can’t do it anymore. I’m an outta control person,” he said during the show.
Mr. Lange would continue to appear on the program for a year, until 2010, when his mother, Judy, found him inside his apartment unconscious and bleeding. (It was his second unsuccessful suicide attempt. In 1995, he’d tried to overdose on Resterol, a sleeping aide, and Excedrin PM.)
In 2010, Mr. Lange found himself inside the Summit Oaks Hospital in New Jersey, where a large, intimidating fellow patient recognized the portly comedian, who was wearing a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” T-shirt.
“He looked at my shirt, and because he was a lunatic, he thought I was Jimmy Kimmel,” Mr. Lange recalled. “He starts screaming ‘you’re Jimmy Kimmel! You’re Jimmy Kimmel!’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m Jimmy Kimmel.’”
One day, Mr. Lange was invited by his new friend to join him in a reading of the Koran, which he promised would save the comedian’s life. He asked Mr. Lange to place his right hand on the holy book and to close his eyes. “We pray on the Koran for 30 seconds, and then he goes, ‘Thank you, Jimmy. I’ll see you in heaven,’” he remembered. “At least I got that going for me.”
His lowest moment, he said, was sitting inside a common area in another psych ward, watching television, when his Comedy Central stand-up special Jack and Coke came on the air. He excused himself to his bedroom and locked himself inside.
“I sat in my dark room, and I listened to 20 lunatics laughing at my jokes,” he remembered. “That symbolized what I was going through.”
Mr. Lange rejoined society just about the same time Mr. DiPaolo was putting together plans to launch his own radio show. A few months later, Mr. Lange was back on the air. And for the first time in his life, the show was named for him.
Such is the luck of Artie Lange: He can flame out on drugs, burn bridges with the biggest names in entertainment, try to kill himself twice (not exactly a comedic move) and find his way back into the spotlight. Hell, he can make a guest appearance on Joe Buck’s now-defunct HBO talk show, liven up—or sabotage—the show by suggesting his host’s favorite website is “suckingdick.com,” then get Mr. Buck to write the foreword to Mr. Lange’s upcoming book, Crash and Burn.
“A lot of people don’t get that second shot,” said Mr. DiPaolo. “But he was so popular on Howard, and he is the working-class stiff, and they love him.”
Which is not to say that Mr. Lange is entirely reformed. He spent his summer break on a trip to Paris with his 28-year-old girlfriend. At one point, an argument between them got heated. Mr. Lange said he called his girlfriend a “effing c.,” took a swing at the cops who were called over to calm him down, and found himself in a Parisian prison cell.
“There was a crazy guy in my cell and he was in my face, [saying] ‘blue fromage,’” said Mr. Lange.
“I said to the French guard, ‘I think this guy belongs in a psych ward,’ and the guard goes, ‘Monsieur, you are in the psych ward.’” He and his girlfriend are no longer dating.
Back in New York City, Mr. Lange was having bladder-control problems, a sign that he may be pre-diabetic.
“I was like a coyote. I was all over New York, I was leaving my scent,” he said. He was given medication to help fix the problem, which he was slow to take at the time.
As a result, accidents happened. Not long ago, as he was conducting an interview on-air, Mr. Lange needed to use the can. He did so literally by picking up a trash can and letting fly. Then he accidentally sloshed his bucket of piss against the wall.
He jokingly asked the Canavan girls, a pair of identical blonde stunners who work as Mr. Lange’s production assistants, to mop up his urine. They refused. Eventually the mess was cleaned up, and he was asked by DirecTV to take a day off. After threatening to quit the show on his Twitter account, Artie eventually returned to the air.
“I am taking the medicine now; it stopped,” he said of his bladder troubles.
Still, whether the pattern of ups and downs for Mr. Lange has stopped remains to be seen. Clean for two years and seeming genuinely giddy to be back on the air, Mr. Lange looks rested, as fresh as a daisy.
While he has intimated in the past that he would like to return to The Howard Stern Show, he appears content to grow what he has with Mr. DiPaolo.
“My situation got so crazy that everybody was in an awkward position that I put them in, so I don’t think that’s a possibility anymore, even if both entities wanted to,” he said of returning to Stern. “A year ago, I would have said it would be amazing, but I listen to Howard all the time, and the show is still great, and I am sure he is happy with it. But this situation is a dream situation for me.”
“The Nick & Artie Show” airs nightly from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m. on DirecTV’s Audience Network